Margaret Howe Lovatt was a young research assistant when a scientist asked if she would isolate herself and live with a dolphin to see if the creatures could learn to speak in the human language. Sure, that's pretty odd, but it actually gets stranger. The experiment led to a dolphin developing romantic feelings for Lovatt. Eventually, sexual encounters between the woman and the dolphin became the norm. While the pair never had actual intercourse, the controversy surrounding the experiment gave rise to uncomfortable questions. Can humans and dolphins have sex? Why was Lovatt giving a dolphin a handjob?
Dolphins are sexually frisky creatures in almost any setting. They've been known to be sexually aggressive, to the point where dolphins sexually assault people, and are more promiscuous than most creatures in the wild. Even then, however, dolphins having sex with humans is virtually unheard of, especially in a scientific setting. This scandalous experiment is one filled with drugs, misplaced romantic feelings, sexual deviance, and tragedy. Be warned: there are sexual interspecies topics below. Read at your own caution.
John Lilly was a neuroscientist who had been studying dolphins for some time. When he first approached NASA in 1961 for funding on an unusual project, he put forth a theory that dolphins could be taught to speak English. It introduced the possibility of dialogue between humans and another species. It may seem like a far-fetched theory, but Lilly was widely respected at the time, so he was able to secure funding from NASA.
His idea was to isolate three dolphins in different settings. He wanted to expose them to human language in various ways, so that they could possibly learn to talk and understand mankind. Lilly already knew that the animals had large brains, and believed that this meant they had a greater capacity than most creatures to develop interspecies communication skills.
Secretly, John Lilly had deeper motivations than just trying to get dolphins to speak. Lilly was, at the time, a frequent user of LSD and other drugs, and was a firm believer in extraterrestrial life. He also believed in mysticism and thought that dolphins were magical animals. He hoped that studying dolphins would help with space travel, and even teach mankind how to contact and speak with aliens!
Of course, he wasn't exactly advertising all this when he was seeking out funding. However, LSD research was underway and he was asked to also study its effects during the experiment. Often, he took the drug himself while floating in an isolation tank. This would later prove to be a major factor in the project's downfall.
Lovatt was a 23-year-old research assistant when she signed on for the project in 1964. Right away, she showed a particular flair for working with the youngest of the three dolphins and Lilly took notice. Lilly decided to isolate this young dolphin, called Peter, with Lovatt. He set up a "dolphinarium," waterproofing the floor of a house and flooding it so that Lovatt and the dolphin could live together under observation.
One would think that, as a young research assistant, the prospect of living with a dolphin would be a terrifying one. However, Lovatt was actually up for it and even volunteered to do it! She began living there in isolation with Peter the dolphin, sleeping, eating, playing, and living her daily life with the young creature. Lovatt later admitted it was a taxing experience.
The three dolphins used in Lilly's experiment were television stars. As it turns out, the person who first introduced Lilly to LSD was Ivan Tors. Tors was the producer of the movie, Flipper. Given this close relation, it was easy for Lilly to get three trained dolphins who had been co-starring in Flipper at the Marine Studios.
The dolphins were named Pamela, Sissy, and Peter, and each dolphin had their own unique personality. As Lovatt remembered it:
"There were three dolphins, Peter, Pamela, and Sissy. Sissy was the biggest. Pushy, loud, she sort of ran the show. Pamela was very shy and fearful. And Peter was a young guy."