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Dolphins and a New View of Our Kind

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 9 7


Plus Additional Stories of other Empathetic Birds and Animals

By: J. Marlando


I’ve been extremely fortunate in my life in that I have worked with animals a few times over the years. My earliest experience was when I was only 18 years old and was in charge of food and formulas for the Great Apes at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs—still a world renowned zoo. Later I would work for Ralph Helper the first person to train animals with affection as opposed to whips; the world’s first animal behaviorist! For years and year he supplied a great portion of exotic animals for feature films and TV shows. Later I would have the opportunity to study Indian elephants throughout Asia and sharks off the coast of Australia. In my personal life except for the past few years I have always owned horses and also a llama and other pets not excluding dogs and cats. (My wife is an animal lover too and so we have taken in quite a number of strays who find their way to our door with a meow, or bark or whine that says, I need some food and some love).

After the French mathematician also called The Father of Philosophy, Rene Descartes

(1596-1650) animals were treated cruelly in most instances. The reason for this is that Descartes believed and so taught that animals felt no emotions or pain, that they were far more likened to machines than human beings. As a result especially farmers began beating and working their animals to death, neglecting their pets and so forth. Thankfully this cruelly did not continue into modern times but in some circles it is still thought that animals and other living things are directed by instincts alone and have no real thoughts or feelings; that their lives are on some sort of automation not too much different than living, breathing robots. All animal lovers know this is far from being true because they see their pets do mindful things every day and witness their emotional responses. Nevertheless, there remains some scientific minds that disregard animal sensitivity and intelligence and treat them by and large no better than…well, laboratory rats. Indeed, most all of us would grimace if we actually knew what goes on in laboratories, slaughter houses, chicken ranches and so forth. It is all such a disgrace to human action that we dare not think about it for very long.

The intent of this article is to show how other species think and feel and to suggest a hypothesis that brings all living things into a relationship.  


Empathy is generally thought to be a human attribute. There have been a few studies but mostly it has been assumed that only our kind has the capacity to “feel” another’s “feelings.” In fact, in many institutions of higher education—emotions in animals remain a taboo subject. For the reductionist, emotions in general are far too subjective to study much less the feelings of empathy. As far as the scientific community, it is typically thought that when we people sense emotion and empathetic responses in animals we are simply projecting our own feeling onto them—scientists and other scholars can be extremely closed-minded! But then again, even some animal behaviorists are still denying that animals actually have feelings and intentions.

And so, with the above in mind, let’s take the lowly chicken. We humans even have a pompous name for less intelligent people—Bird Brains! Well, it is true that a chicken’s brain is slightly smaller than most men’s thumb nails. Yet, the newest scientific studies are changing this view. A PhD student at the School of Veterinary Sciences at the University of Bristol tell us that it has been found that female birds possess at least one attribute of “empathy,” the ability to be affected by, and share the emotional state of another. This is a gigantic step toward our having a greater understanding of all birds. And, indeed, it has been shown through studies that mother hens experience empathy for her hatchlingsdemonstrating psychological responses and changes when their chicks are distressed.


In other studies mother bears have been observed to have empathy. Biologist Thomas Bledsoe tells us about a mother, grizzly brown bear whose cubs disappeared while she was fishing in a stream. When her cubs came to mind she first looked up and down the stream.  Not seeing her cubs she ran to the top of a bluff looking this way and that way, finally standing on her hind legs to see further. Then suddenly, she relaxes and returns to her fishing. At first it is like she simply loses interest but this is not the case, she has sensed or seen signs that her cups went off with another mother bear and are just fine. In fact, three days later the big, old mother bear found her way to the other mother bear and reclaimed her cubs. This is just one story among many that demonstrate empathy and compassion in animals.

In Chicago there was a fire and a mother cat was seen entering and exiting the burning building five times to save her kittens At great danger to herself, she carried each of her babies out one at a time, setting them down in safety and then going back in the burning building for her next kitten until all five had been saved.

I certainly observed emotions in elephants during my stay in Asia; I saw what I could only deem as feeling of remorse and concern for other elephants. In an article by Marc Bekoff for Psychology Today, with title: Animal Emotions tell us how elephants have been observed cooperating with each other to complete tasks like pulling both ends of a rope—as in tug-of-war—to obtain rewards. And speaking of empathy, it is thought now that elephants actually remember their deadThis speculation is a phenomenal signal of how advanced the intellectual and emotional life of animals can be.


Now then, what about love and loving between other living creatures…we’ll tackle that topic next.

What’s Love Got to do With It


I remember a long time ago when I was working for Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, there were two lovely, big orangutans by the name of Maggie and Jiggs. They shared the same cage and were obviously a loving couple. Maggie, however, took a fancy to me and would cross over to the front of the cage and reach her hand out whenever I came around. When Maggie did this, Jiggs fell into a slump and, becoming jealous, would pout at the rear of the cage. His heartbreak was obvious and I felt sorry for the old boy as I’d lost a few girlfriends to other guys too.

Actually it is all but a given that romantic love prevails among other species.




Do animals love?  Anyone who has ever own a dog, cat or horse will almost certainly answer, “Yes.” 

In order to gain insight into the romance of animals we need to explore our own. It was, for example, thought for millenniums that are attraction for the other gender and all our feelings of falling “in” love were actually all about breeding or, in other words, making babies. An extremely interesting article in Time Magazine by Jeffery Kluger with title, “The Science of Romance: Why we Love” gives us far greater insight into our own sexuality and capacity to love our mates. Questions he asks are, “What makes us go loony over love? Why would we bother with the elaborate exercise in fan dances and flirtations, winking and signaling, joy and sorrow?”

Well, obviously love is about more than tempting one another into the sack. However, according to Kluger, John Bancroft of the Kinsey Institute tells us that scienceis now studying romantic appeal in terms of visual, auditory, olfactory, tactical, neurochemical processes. Smell, he says, is a major when it comes to romance. The scent of our mates

attract us what if we are aware of it or not. He says, “The best-known illustration of the invisible influences of scent is the way the menstrual cycles of women who live communally tend to synchronize. In a state of nature, this is a very good idea. It’s not in a tribe’s or community’s interests for one ovulating female to monopolize the reproductive attention of too many mates. Better have all the females become fertile at once and all the fittest mates to compete with one another for them.

As a quick aside, the Kluger article gives us a thought-provoking statistic. In the journal Evolution and Human Behavior we are shown how strippers “who are ovulating average $70 in tips per hour; those who are menstruating make $35; those who are not ovulating or menstruating make $50.” Scent, he says, “not only tells males which females are primed to conceive, but it also lets both sexes narrow their choices of potential partners.

Our choices to mate are not that distant from what attracts animals to mate although looks probably mean more to our kind than say two Rhinoceros


But what about this thing called love?

As we have seen in the above our sexual responses to the other gender are grounded in much the same physical attractions as other species respond to—sight, sound, scent and so on. Human females, however, are best equipped to enjoying their sexuality as frequently as males. Most female animals desire sex only during estrus. Nevertheless, a few animals mate for life.

They include gibbons  (a near relative of ours) swans, wolves, turtle doves and bald eagles.



The question however is, do animals experience a romantic love?

The most modern research indicates that they can…and do. How is romantic love described regardless of species? At root level it means that there is an internal reward from the loving and being loved. In our species sexual communication serves as a bonus especially in younger years but if the romantic love is real, the sexuality between the bonded couple is not what makes the relationship cohesive and lasting. There is something else, something deeper and, if you will, spiritual. And speaking of lasting relationships, the Golden jackalwill utter a particular howl during courtship and this is interpreted as signals of falling in love.


As the reader can see, we are not at such a far distance from our animal cousins as once thought. We have many similarities in our emotions and as we will soon see in our thinking. As we human beings seem to be above all the other land creatures, dolphins seem to be the highest level in the sea. We have a taken a long road to reach our major interest but we wanted to establish our likenesses with other animals before joining the unexpected world of dolphins.       



With all the scientific attention that Dolphins have been given for a great many years now there is still little known about dolphins and their lives. The difficulty of course is that they are an entirely different species, with a different language, different values and live in the alien world of water. There has been tales for centuries about dolphins saving sailor’s lives and guiding boats safely to shore but, to my knowledge, none have been authenticated. Yet, those tales had to be connected to some kind of human experience not only to be told but to be appreciated.

The major interest these days dwells on the psyche life of dolphins and is asking question such as: why have they evolved so much not only intellectually but…emotionally.

On an intellectual level we now know that Dolphins have the ability to use tools. For example, bottlenose dolphins of the western coast of Australia have been observed placing sponges over their snoutsto protect themselves from the spines of stonefish and stingrays. Such an ingenious use of other sea life is a signal of subjective thought. That is, of taking experience from the past and applying it to the future is a signal of mental achievement but then, adding the “defensive tool” to the process you have creativity, the historic hallmark of our kind’s superiority over other living creatures.       

Tests in learning new behaviors have also been given to dolphins with similar tests set up for human beings—both took approximately the same amount of time to learn the new behaviors.

There are some species of dolphins that are born into extremely complex societies; societies that have conventions, rules and demands for teamwork. As it is with other species, even humans, play is used as a part of one’s socialization. As kids, we learn to play fair for example and to let everyone have their turn. These basics are essential to know in our lives as social creatures. Dolphins are, by and large, social creatures as well and knowing how to conduct the self in social relationships is important to the future role they will play in their society.

There inventiveness and cultural expertise is amazing, however. Tucuxi dolphinsliving off the coast of Brazil fish with their tails. That is, they whack their prey—sometimes around 10 feet high—and grab them because they are typically stunned by the experience. Smaller dolphins, Peale’s dolphinsthat live around the Straights of Magellan in kelp beds actually use seaweed to disguise themselves while on the hunt. And more, these smart, little wizards will often use seaweed to seal off a fish’s escape route so they can, if you will, nab their dinners.

Dolphins have revealed amazing fishing strategies, however. This includes stirring up mud to trap mullet to feast on. A mullet is seen here:


Most of what we’ve covered so far is fairly common among all animals in terms of overview. That is, all kinds of animals use tools of one kind or another; learn social and hunting skills from their parents through game playing and so forth. The difference being, in my own view, is the incredible subjectivity that the dolphin displays; the essential for creative thought.

Speaking of creative thought: at Kewalo Basin Marine Laboratory in Hawaii, a devoted study of the dolphin’s ability to comprehend our language. What is most amazing is that the dolphins have shown that they not only grasp the meaning of words but comprehend word order in sentences. One outstanding dolphin, by the name of Aleakamai (meaning philosophy) seen here with Louis Herman(Herman is founder of Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory).

Aleakamai has a vocabulary of 60 words and understands more than 2,000 sentences.

What is also amazing is the dolphins recognize themselves in the mirror—not even the highly intelligent chimpanzee

does this with cognizance. And so, as simple as it sounds for a dolphin to recognize itself in a reflective image
the process is extremely complex and, by and large, far progressed beyond the capacity of other animals.

We now know, however, that dolphins are individualized as we humans are. That is, they are given names at birth, probably by their mothers. The “signature” whistles that some species use to identify one another most strongly suggest a strong sense of self among the dolphin groups. This certainly defeats the old argument that animal species have a single consciousness, a notion that science has toyed with for many decades. After all, a name symbolizes self-ness; an aloneness in a world of others; of being an “I” among “them.” This alone is an advancement for any species—not the feeling of self-ness but the cognizance of having a self.

There is no scientific evidence that dolphins actually have a language although it is widely suspected that they do. Certainly, if they can grasp some of our language they have the capacity to communicate their own. Remember during World War Two the Navaho language was used to send coded messages and the Japanese never broke that code.

  My point is, that just because we can’t break the “code” of the Dolphin language doesn’t mean that they do not have a language. Indeed, it is no mystery that all animals communicate with each other at least through body language and through an array of sounds. It is also suspected that telepathy comes into play but that’s a subject for a future article. As for the Dolphin’s capacity to understand words, At Kewalo, mentioned in the above, dolphins have been taught to respond correctly to signals meaning “repeat” and meaning “different.” These are quite complex comprehensions and yet  dolphins follow such directions with ease. (I will add here that for dolphins to learn our language or for us to learn theirs we are both confronted with a whole new set of difficult principles and so it is quite amazing that there are dolphins who not only comprehend human words but entire sentences).


In regard to the above chimpanzees who have been taught to use sign language can carry on child-like conversations with humans who sign. By child-like I mean sentences such as, where’s the candy…I sleepy…I want to go…I like…and...me feel bad. The implication of this is amazing! This photo, incidentally, is Washoe the first chimp to learn to communicate using American Sign Language. She was a Virgo, born in September of 1965 passing on in October of 2007.

We humans are may not be as superior over nature as we have been told that we are by…other human beings. After all, the term Homo sapiens means “wise man” or “rational man,” certainly a term to be debated when it comes to human action. Nevertheless, our kind has excelled above other kind on the planet for better or worse, and it appears that the dolphin species is the excelling intellectual and creative giant of the sea. Might there be a relationship between the two?


We human beings have chosen to mirror ourselves above all other living things—for one thing we are no longer the naked ape 

we are a sophisticated species that shops, that knows mathematics; that have created philosophes, built cities and formed governments. That’s pretty impressive when we compare ourselves with dolphins and chimpanzees regardless of their skills to remember some of our language. Most of the so-called civilized world also has what is called the “holy Bible” that tells human beings that they have domain over all the creatures of the earth. And it seems we sure enough do…we have bulldozers tearing down natural habitats, oil spills, shotguns and fishing nets to prove it.

In thinking about all of this, we must be reminded of Rene Descartes, mentioned on an earlier page)” whose seventeenth century philosophy took we people out of Nature altogether. His cogito, ergo sum changed the way human beings viewed themselves. Quite suddenly, after many thousands of years of our kind believing we were part of nature, we were now severed from it by the sharp words of a calloused, philosophy. According to Descartes we think and therefore we are, but, to Descartes, other species, the animals, neither think or feel; in his ego- attachéd-Cartesian view, they are machine like, responding automatically with a yelp or mournful howl not so much like a wheel needing grease happens to squeak. To Descartes animals are...machines.

Then in the very early 1600s great apes began arriving in Europe for the first time and the chimp’s resemblance to peoplewas so uncanny that a new view was forming. What if these strange, human-like creatures could learn to speak or sign? Controversy swept across Europe’s intelligentsia about our kind’s distant kin which no doubt influenced a lot of Charles Darwin’s theories in the 1800s. Darwinism not only returned us to Nature but challenged Western religion altogether in terms of denying Creationism and suggesting a natural evolution of all living things. (He never tackled the question how life begun, however, only how it evolved from the most ancient times).

Then came the 1980s when the scientists, Charles Sibley and Jon Ablquist confirmed through DNA studies just how similar we are to chimpanzees. Indeed, 98.4 percent of human NDA is precisely the same as chimpanzee DNA.      

As studies by Roger and Deborah Fouts directors of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute point out, Chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than to Gorillasor Orangutans.

We are of course talking about an absolutely different species when we speak of Dolphins and yet, like the Chimp have shown communication skills in our language. And, as in all other species of mammals, science is discovering more and more communication skills between one’s own kind and this no doubt extends to all animals, fish and to some extent insects.

One of the problems I see in grasping the mind (call it consciousness) is throughout the body and not merely a product of the brain is scientists’ love affair with the brain. There are some scientists who still argue that size of brain suggests size of intellect. Look at this chart showing different brain sizes

Then note the EQ (encephalization quotients) below:

SPECIES       EQ     

Man                7.44

Dolphin          5.31

Chimp             2.49

Elephant         1.87

Whale             1.76

Dog                1.17

Cat                 1.00

Horse              0.86

Sheep              0.81

Mouse             0.50

Encephalization quotient is the amount of brain mass exceeding that related to an animal’s body mass. In the above chart you see our kind tops the list with the Dolphin coming in behind us and the chimp taking third place. In some arenas intelligence is judged by charts like these. This does not account for the fact that an individual mouse might well be the community’s intellectual of mice. Certainly the wonder horse Seabiscuit

showed, if you will, a more mindful mind than most other horses. There has been at least one dog that took commands from written messages and who can ignore the intelligence of dogs who lead the blind.  We simply can’t grasp the rabbit’s or sparrow’s intelligence because we do not live in their worlds. I am not saying here that the rabbit and dolphin have similar capacities to think, feel and problem solve, only that some rabbits, in the world of rabbits, may excel intellectually. Mind after all, is the house of potential!

What I believe is that mind (call it consciousness) permeates all phenomena and how we tap into it, depends on the species we are. Certainly, the human species has, if you will, “dipped” deeper into the mind’s potential than, say, the chimp whose life is far less complex. The dolphin seems to have developed in its world more than any other sea mammal and fish are clearly subordinated as individual thinkers and yet, it is just as clear that they do, indeed, think. Where there is thinking, there needs to be communication. Think of the bee who, it seems, tells his story through dance.


There are a few scientists today who are not indoctrinated by their peers who clearly say that mind is not a mere epiphenomenon (process) of the brain but is both inside and outside of us. And, as the renowned physicist, Paul Davis, tells us, “…the universe is a mind. Our own minds could then be viewed as localized ‘islands’ of consciousness in a sea of mind.”

This I believe applies to all living things and it is through Universal mind that places everything that lives in a web of relationships that we have yet to fully grasp.

If you enjoyed this article you will probably enjoy the minds, hearts and souls of animals. Click below:




Feb 26, 2013 4:33am
Thank you for a fantastic article! I will bookmark this and read it again. Thumbs way up!
Feb 26, 2013 5:43pm
Another very interesting and thought provoking article. My cousin who knows about such things. says that around 2.5million years ago, 30 different genes were duplicated, enabling greater connections and a brain of greater complexity in humans. This led to a much larger brain and
longer dendrites. The genetic difference between chimps and humans is mostly related to the brain, hair and the immune system. Keep 'em coming!
Feb 26, 2013 6:06pm
Thank you for your kind words and information. As you know I do not agree with brain size analysis for aware-intelligence but I was completely unaware of the immune system analysis which I find fascinating. In any case, again thank you for an interesting response.
Mar 1, 2013 6:11pm
Great article, and the pictures were fantastic too. They show that love is everywhere in animals and humans alike. Yes too much cruelty in this world, and worse still it is still happening, even though many people are exposing this more it still happens like you say. rated
Mar 5, 2013 3:32am
Wonderful article. My cat is sitting on my lap as I type. She communicates beautifully. Thumbs up from me and congratulations on a featured article.
Mar 6, 2013 12:46am
Great article. I hope everyone will like it, especially those people who are fond of animals.
Pictures are really cute too.
Mar 8, 2013 9:16pm
Beautiful, simply beautiful!!
Such a comprehensive write-up for an article.
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