Flipper The Dolphin Died More Upsettingly Than We Ever Knew, According To Her Trainer

Dolphins are fun and spunky creatures, so when Flipper the dolphin made its television debut in the eponymous show in 1964, the adorable ocean-friend's sassy tail-slaps and quirky mishaps quickly won over the hearts of NBC daytime television viewers across America. As the show progressed, Flipper's brand found success in movies, merchandise, and exotic aquatic mammal shows that continue today in Florida's Seaquarium which valiantly celebrates Flipper's creation and capital gains with attraction-goers.

But what many of these show attendees don't know, or morbidly ignore, is the true story behind one of the real-life dolphins who played Flipper himself. Her name was Kathy, and she suffered acute depression and ultimate self-harm that led her to suicide soon after the show ended. Research has since proven that the stress and depression experienced by captured beings continues to lead whales and dolphins like Kathy/Flipper to become so depressed and hollow that they just decide to end it all of their own free will. 

Since Flipper's death in 1968, the dolphin's former trainer and captor has made activist strives towards the worldwide release of captive dolphins and whales, attempting to keep them from self harm and harm from others. It was too late for poor Flipper, but it's not too late for generations of baby Flippers to come.

  • The Dolphin's Name Was Kathy And She Was Taken From The Wild To Be Trained For Film

    The Dolphin's Name Was Kathy And She Was Taken From The Wild To Be Trained For Film
    Photo: NBC Television / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Kathy was a bottlenose dolphin trained for use in the '60s television show, Flipper. She was captured from the wild and taken into captivity to live the rest of her life as an entertainer for the series. She spent countless hours on set, but when her acting career was over, so to speak, she retired to a small chamber in the Miami Seaquarium.

    It was here that she became miserable and depressed. When her trainer, Ric O'Barry, was called in to check in on the dolphin, she ended her life by swimming into his arms and holding her breath. 

  • A Total Of Five Different Dolphins Were Captured And Used In The Flipper Television Series

    While Flipper himself might have appeared to be one dolphin throughout the '60s television run of Flipper, the show cycled through multiple dolphins. Kathy, the dolphin that ultimately took her own life, was the primary dolphin of the show, yet only one of five dolphins who starred in the series. All five dolphins were taken directly out of the wild and trained to act for entertainment purposes.

    The dolphins used were mostly female, as they are less aggressive and tend to be free of bodily disfiguration from skirmishes with other dolphins. The show was produced in cooperation with the Miami Seaquarium, and the Seaquarium hosted a variety of accommodations for the multiple dolphins who played the part, such as their set locations and pens.

  • Flipper Died By Refusing To Breathe While In Her Trainer's Arms

    Kathy the dolphin AKA Flipper ended her life with a definite statement. After the show's completion, Kathy was kept in an isolated pen at the Miami Seaquarium. Kathy had been showing signs of sickness when her captor and trainer, Ric O'Barry, was called in to examine her. When he arrived, he realized Kathy was much sicker than anyone had expected her to be.

    She swam into his arms and stopped breathing completely - she took her last breath and held even after her trainer grabbed her to hold her. When he let her go, she sank to the bottom of the tank, and when he pulled her to the surface, she was dead.

  • Behind Their Smiles, Dolphins Aren't Always Happy

    The smile of a dolphin is nothing but a complete illusion - a human trait associated with the animal in an attempt to project our own emotions onto the creature. Dolphins can become severely depressed which causes lethargy, lack of appetite, and, according to some scientists and activists, suicide.

    In the case of Flipper's Kathy, her trainer insists that she killed herself due to a broken heart. She isn't the only dolphin known to become depressed to the point of taking its own life. In a slightly more scandalous case of dolphin suicide, a dolphin named Peter, who was used in a scientific experiment, killed itself after being separated from its human experimenter with whom it had become sexually infatuated.

  • The Circumstances Attached To Dolphin Suicides Strongly Suggest That They Are Intentional

    Kathy's captor and trainer, Ric O'Barry, insists that Flipper's death was no accident. By taking her out of the wild and eventually bringing her into an isolated tank, her quality of life had become absolutely miserable. Even though he attempted to console the dolphin once she had stopped breathing, there was nothing he could do to make her willingly take a breath of fresh air. Since dolphins have to consciously decide to breathe, unlike humans who will breathe instinctively, he concluded that her actions were completely intentional and came as a result from moving her to captivity.

    Peter, the dolphin who became emotionally attached to his human trainer while his experiments were being conducted, was also eventually moved to isolated captivity - and completely separated from his assumed mate. He committed suicide in the same manner as Kathy, refusing to breathe until he sank to the bottom of his tank.

  • Flipper's Captor And Former Trainer Is Now An Avid Anti-Captivity Activist

    Flipper's Captor And Former Trainer Is Now An Avid Anti-Captivity Activist
    Photo: Donald knapps / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    Ric O'Barry, Kathy the dolphin's captor and trainer, was devastated and shocked by his beloved dolphin's suicide. Even though Ric is a very experienced dolphin trainer, and claims to have possibly been the highest paid animal trainer in the world in the '60s, he admits that he was complacently ignorant towards her treatment and the resulting emotional repercussions of her captivity. After Kathy died in his arms, the very next day he found himself in jail for attempting to free the remaining dolphins from captivity. 

    On Earth Day of 1970, he began focusing his efforts towards ending the captivity of dolphins. Eventually founding the Dolphin Project, Ric continues his efforts towards ending the slaughtering, capturing, and captivity of dolphins.