Aug 21, 2014

Home Is Where Your Dolphin Is

In the 1960's, Margaret Howe had a very unusual roommate: a bottlenose dolphin named Peter. They lived and worked in a small, damp apartment on the island of St. Thomas. In her first-ever radio interview, Margaret tells the story of their time together. Historian D. Graham Burnett helps us understand what it all means (and why so many of our friends have dolphin tattoos).

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LYNN LEVY: Hello, this is Lynn. Someone on the other side of this?

MARGARET LOVETT: Hey, Lynn. [laughter]

JAD ABUMRAD: So, a couple months ago, our producer Lynn Levy did an interview with this woman... 

LYNN: Yeah, her name is Margaret Lovett. 


LYNN: And this was Margaret's first time doing a radio interview.

MARGARET LOVETT: That magic voice. This is so fun.

LYNN: But this was definitely not her first time talking into a microphone.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: One, two, three, four, this is the yellow mark. One, two, three, four, this is the orange mark.]

LYNN: Almost exactly 50 years ago,

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: The following recording was made on November 19, 1964.]

[ARCHIVAL TAPE: [dolphin sound]]


LYNN: Margaret was at the center of this amazing, weird experiment. 


LYNN: What were you at that time? Like what were you like?

MARGARET LOVETT: Well, I've always had a bit of if everybody's going left, I'll go right.

LYNN: She tried college for a while.

MARGARET LOVETT: Tulane University for a year. 

LYNN: But she dropped out.

MARGARET LOVETT: And I was what? 20 or 19 or something at that point. 

LYNN: And moved to St. Thomas in the Caribbean 

MARGARET LOVETT: I had never been to an island.

LYNN: Got a job at this hotel.

MARGARET LOVETT: Did menus, checked people in and out. 

LYNN: And one day she hears about this strange research facility on the other side of the island.

MARGARET LOVETT: And I thought, “I wonder what that is about?” And I asked a few people and they said, "Oh no, no. They don't like people there." Or "can't go there." And I was told not to go there. So, I went there. 


LYNN: Hmm.

MARGARET LOVETT: And that's how it all started.

JAD: And that's how we're gonna start this show. I'm Jad Abumrad. 

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich. 

JAD: Today on Radiolab, Producer Lynn Levy brings us a couple of close encounters, although not with aliens.

ROBERT: No not — it's not, it's not in outer space because...

JAD: Right…

ROBERT: It's much closer to home in this case.

JAD: Although they are kind of alien like but...

ROBERT: Yes, alien-like.

JAD: Not out there...

ROBERT: Lynn, could you help? 

LYNN: It's a dolphin… 

ROBERT: Yeah, that's—yes!

LYNN: Show's about dolphins. 


LYNN: Yay!

JAD: We're calling this hour:

LYNN: Hello. So, when Margaret got to this mysterious place there were dolphins there. And the—what happened was she ended up becoming roommates with a dolphin.

JAD: Do you mean in the like Bed-Stuy one bedroom apartment sense?

LYNN: Sort of. Yeah, she did end up living with a dolphin for many months in this apartment. 


JAD: Like an apartment-apartment?

LYNN: Mm-hmm. Had a little desk, had a little kitchen area with a stove.

MARGARET LOVETT: I think it was a little two burner stove or something and a pot and a tea kettle.

LYNN: But the thing that's a little bit weird about the apartment is that the whole apartment was filled with water.


LYNN: Completely filled with water?

MARGARET LOVETT: Well, I wasn't submerged but I was in water up mid-thigh, sort of…

LYNN: It's just flooded with water.

MARGARET LOVETT: Just about there.

LYNN: So, she could share it with this dolphin.

MARGARET LOVETT: A young male, Peter.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: Here's your royal highness, Peter.]

LYNN: Peter was a 10-foot-long bottlenose dolphin, young adolescent male. And he lived there with Margaret and like, he would—you know he could like swim under the desk. And there was a balcony, he could like swim out onto the balcony. And…

JAD: The balcony was flooded too?

LYNN: The balcony was also flooded. Yeah, it's really cool.

JAD: And what was the idea? I mean to try and study a dolphin?

LYNN: To study the dolphin, first of all, and take a lot of notes.

MARGARET LOVETT: Extensive notes. 

LYNN: Did you have waterproof paper?

MARGARET LOVETT: No. I had a typewriter on this board hanging from the ceiling.

LYNN: They also had...

MARGARET LOVETT: Microphones everywhere

LYNN: And specifically, the task she was given...


LYNN: Was to teach Peter to speak English. 


JAD: She was supposed to teach the dolphin English?

LYNN: Yep. 

JAD: Really?

MARGARET LOVETT: Well, I mean, this was John Lilly's project.


LYNN: Just for some context, you know how people get all like a little bit crazy these days about dolphins?

JAD: Yeah.

LYNN: They have like, you know, shirts with dolphins and necklaces with dolphins and everybody has like dolphin hairbands, dolphin blacklight posters, right? So, this all kind of sort of comes from this guy, John Lilly, who was a scientist, a researcher starting in the 40s.

GRAHAM BURNETT: A total right stuff, physics major kind of guy out of Caltech.

LYNN: Man's man, according to Graham Burnett.

GRAHAM BURNETT: I'm a historian of science.

LYNN: But then, According to Graham, John Lilly has this epiphany.

GRAHAM BURNETT: During the Second World War...

LYNN: At the time, people just weren't thinking that much about dolphins in general. like there was not this idea that they were sort of extraordinary beings. They were just like big dumb fish. You know, they were shot for sport. So, John Lilly is doing this research about brain mapping. And he ends up working with dolphins. And when—the story that that he's told goes that he was experimenting on these dolphins and as he's working with them, you know, kind of like shoving things into their brains, they make noises. as with anyone. And when he listens back to the noises, which he's recorded, it sounds to him like the dolphins are trying to speak to him.

JAD: Hmm.

LYNN: To say something to him in, not in a—not in a dolphin-y way, but in a human way. Like trying to speak English to him.

JAD: Really? 

LYNN: Yeah. 

JAD: What did he say the dolphin was trying to say to him?

LYNN: I don't think that we know that. But it sounded to him enough like human speech that he he thought like, something's going on here. This is important. According to Graham, he's said later that it made him realize like we're... 


GRAHAM BURNETT: We're not the only intelligent organisms out there. 

LYNN: Like we have company.

GRAHAM BURNETT: That maybe humans are what happens when high intelligence evolves in an animal that also has hands. And dolphins are what happens when comparably, if not still more extravagant intelligence, evolves in an animal without hands.

LYNN: What do hands get you?

GRAHAM BURNETT: Well, hands basically get you an appetite for punching people in the head. I—you know, it makes us tool-users, but the distance between, you know, the hammer that you use to knock open your coconut and the hammer that used to knock open the head of that other Cro-Magnon you were never that keen on is, in fact, zilch. There's no difference at all.

LYNN: And by the time we get to the 60s with, you know, like peace and love.

GRAHAM BURNETT: It was exciting to think that the dolphins and the whales have these huge brains, but they don't like—they're not after anything. They're not doing anything with it. They're not trying to hurt anybody. They're not building cities. They're just like being, man.

LYNN: Keep in mind, this is on the verge of the Vietnam War, where you have all this anxiety about...

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: What have they done to the Earth?]

LYNN: Overpopulation, environmental destruction.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: What have they done to our fair sister?]

LYNN: So very quickly, the dolphins become like this vision…

GRAHAM BURNETT: Of how we might ourselves be so different than we'd come to feel we were tragically. Does that make sense?

LYNN: So, John Lilly was one of the first people to get swept up in all this. He quits his government job, moves to the Caribbean and sets up this lab.

MARGARET LOVETT: John Lilly's Communication Research Institute.

LYNN: To try to talk to dolphins, which is where Margaret ended up.

MARGARET LOVETT: And my feeling was this, that everybody was talking about how bright they were and how smart they were. And it was dolphins, dolphins, dolphins. And then it was, it was the hot topic. And yet every day, everybody at that building would get in their car and go home.

LYNN: Yeah.

MARGARET LOVETT: And I thought, “What is that?”

LYNN: So, she volunteered to stay.


LYNN: Her bed was on this kind of wooden platform in the middle of the apartment.

MARGARET LOVETT: I was maybe two and a half three inches above the water and Peter was right there and Peter could flip me a little water and wake me up at any point. And that was the whole point of it. I mean, this wasn't just sleep all night and then—excuse me—work in the day and then sleep again all night and then do some work in the day. I might as well go home.

LYNN: Yeah.

MARGARET LOVETT: So, I eventually, I didn't really shave my head, but I buzzed it...

LYNN: Huh.

MARGARET LOVETT: Whatever it's called now, really close. Because any—you know the hair getting wet thing in the middle of the night was very annoying. 

LYNN: Yeah, of course.

MARGARET LOVETT: So, I just got rid of the hair. And, and that was helpful. And then when Peter would come and squirt some water or want to play or throw something at me, then I could just roll off this elevator into the water and be with him and do whatever.

LYNN: She says he was fascinated by the things she brought with her. 

MARGARET LOVETT: A piece of cloth. A teabag. Teabag was a fascinating thing. And I drink, I drink tea. And the tea bag would fall into the water and he would come and get it and sonar it. This creaking noise they make on their sonar, you he'd to look at it and take the string over his beak and sort of whim around very proudly with this tea bag. And then he'd throw it up against the wall and it would stick. [laughter] And then he'd squirt water on it and it would come back down into the water and he would play with this tea bag. Eventually of course he would, would bite it, he has very sharp teeth.

LYNN: Yeah.

MARGARET LOVETT: And it would break and that was a very exciting thing when the teabag finally broke open. It had babies as it were. [laughter] Zillions of tea leaves floating around and he would sonar them all and wanting to count every single one of them. 


LYNN: And what did you think you would find out? 

MARGARET LOVETT: I didn't know. You know I was not coming at it—at this from a science point of view. That, that's not what I was bringing to the table.


MARGARET LOVETT: I just— I had no idea. I, I was programmed by John to work on the speech.


MARGARET LOVETT: He had sort of declared that that they could probably speak. 


MARGARET LOVETT: But when you're trying to have a conversation with someone...

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: Peter. [dolphin sound]]

MARGARET LOVETT: One person speaks.


MARGARET LOVETT: And the other one listens. And then you speak and I listen. And people sort of normally do that back and forth. But when you start with a dolphin making airborne sounds once they get the idea, there's a lot of screaming that goes on.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE: [dolphin sound]]

MARGARET LOVETT: They're very show off-y and they want to override you.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: No, Peter. I am not—[dolphin sound] no Peter! No, no.]

MARGARET LOVETT: And so, you have to spend a lot of time getting it down to, I'm talking now.


MARGARET LOVETT: And now it's your turn. 

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: Come on. I can speak now.]

MARGARET LOVETT: And yet if he's upset about something, he'll override you.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: [dolphin sound] Oooh! Peter.]

MARGARET LOVETT: And it's annoying. 

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: Now, listen again. [dolphin sound] Come on, Peter. One, two, three! One, two, three! [dolphin sound] Three! Now start again. One, two, three. [dolphin sound] Yes. One, two...]

MARGARET LOVETT: But he learned very quickly to listen to me.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: 1, 2, 3, 4. [dolphin sound] Yes, baby. Good!]

MARGARET LOVETT: And not to pick up my instructions. If I would say, "No, no, no, Peter, I don't want you to do that. I want you to do this, this, this."

LYNN: Huh.

MARGARET LOVETT: He would give me back this, this, this. A parrot will often say, "No, no, no. Polly want a cracker." They will repeat the whole thing of whatever you said. 

LYNN: Huh.

MARGARET LOVETT: But Peter would, would pick up what I wanted when he was being a good student. 

LYNN: And he was a good student. 


MARGARET LOVETT: There seemed to be—with this one dolphin, anyway, can't speak for all of them—an interest in what we were doing. 

LYNN: Mm-hmm.

MARGARET LOVETT: He wanted to practice, he wanted to get it right. He—there was a mirror and he would spend long periods of time by himself, didn't want me to be part of it. And he would practice whatever it was we had been doing in the lesson that day over and over and over and over. He wanted to get it right. [imitating dolphin] No. [imitating dolphin] No, that's not right. [imitating dolphin] And he would work at that for no reason. He's not getting fish/ I'm not interacting with him and nothing—he just wants it right.

LYNN: Like doing homework.

MARGARET LOVETT: Like homework. Exactly.

LYNN: And after a few months of this...

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: One... [dolphin sound]]

LYNN: Peter did start to sound really different.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: One, two. [dolphin sound] One, two, three. [dolphin sound] Better. Call. [dolphin sound] Good!]

MARGARET LOVETT: He kept getting better. It's extremely difficult for them.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: Hello. [dolphin sound]]

MARGARET LOVETT: They just have a blowhole. They do not have the apparatus to really—S's are almost impossible.

LYNN: Huh.

MARGARET LOVETT: I would feed him my name. 


MARGARET LOVETT: And M is very hard. He would eventually roll over almost into the water with the blowhole to muffle… [imitating dolphin]



LYNN: Really? You're saying he would, he would use the water as a way to help him make the sound? 



MARGARET LOVETT: With that word. 

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: [dolphin sound] Good!]



LYNN: Do you think he knew that was your name?


MARGARET LOVETT: I don't know. But nevertheless, we were a pretty good match. He—I knew his mood, his temperament. And he and he knew mine. He knew when I was sick. And I would get sick. And you're in the water all the time, you're bound to get a cold or something. He, he just loved my anatomy. He wanted to know what my knees were doing. 

LYNN: Hmm.

MARGARET LOVETT: He would go behind my knee and sonar and look at it and feel it and push it and find out which way it would and wouldn't go. He just—and I gave him the time—because I wasn't going home—to look at my knee, to look at my feet. He was enormously interested, oddly enough, in the spirit between my fingers. 

LYNN: Really? 

MARGARET LOVETT: Not the fingers so much. But he would— I mean, you know, his beak could just barely fit there but he wanted to put in between each finger and see what that was all about. The same with the toes. He didn't have any spaces anywhere. 

LYNN: Yeah.

MARGARET LOVETT: He—you know, he had solid flippers, but no space in between them. 

LYNN: Do you he was so interested in your fingers and toes because he didn't have any?


LYNN: Margaret and Peter ended up spending about nine months living together. But towards the end, things kind of started to unravel. First of all, they weren't really results from this experiment. They never were able to publish any scientific papers. And there were other problems. Lilly got very involved in drugs.

MARGARET LOVETT: Especially LSD. He did bring it down. He did give LSD—he says he did, I believe him—to, to, to the dolphins. I would not let him give LSD to Peter. I wouldn't allow that. 

JAD: Why would he give them LSD?

LYNN: Well, it's not 100% clear. But it seems like he was trying to find a way to get the dolphins to open up, to connect. Maybe to talk. In any case, by 1965-66, his funding had started to dry up. And when people heard about Margaret's work, they tended to focus on like one particular part of the story. 

LYNN: You don't have to answer, but a lot has been made of your sort of sexually engaging with Peter. And I just want to ask—because you don't seem like a shrinking violet—I just want to ask, is there anything you want to say about that?

MARGARET LOVETT: Um, what would I like to say about that? I think the sensational side of it is...

LYNN: Here's what Margaret told me. Peter was a young dolphin, he was horny and he would hump her leg a lot, kind of like a dog might do, which was getting in the way of their work. 

MARGARET LOVETT: So eventually, I just said, “The heck with it.”

LYNN: And she used her hand to, you know...

MARGARET LOVETT: And, and it would quickly satisfy him. And then we could go back to doing what we were doing. And I never really gave it another thought. I never thought, "Ooh, don't let anybody know." I never thought, "Ooh, this shouldn't be." I never...


LYNN: But because of details like this and the drugs, this experiment became extremely controversial. Almost untouchable. People didn't want to be associated with Lilly. Nobody wanted to fund anything that sounded like Lilly. It's just got this like aura of... 

JAD: Don't go there. 

LYNN: Don't go there. Even people who wanted to do really rigorous work with human dolphin communication had a tough time getting any funding. And that lasted for a long time. The thing is, even though there are so many reasons to disapprove of this experiment, when you talk to Margaret, you can't help but want to be in that apartment with them.

MARGARET LOVETT: He would come over and when he was in what I call his sweet mood—and Peter had a lot of very, very sweet mood to him. He would sink to the bottom and take my foot in his mouth. And he wasn't sonaring and he wasn't looking at anything. It was almost like a little kid comes and just wants to hold your hand and he would just sink to the bottom and close his eyes and just hang on to my foot. And then he'd have to come up and...

[ARCHIVAL TAPE: [dolphin sound]]

MARGARET LOVETT: Breathe and then he'd go back down. And he just grabbed my foot. And he would do this for a good while. 

[ARCHIVAL TAPE: [dolphin sound]]

ROBERT: We'll be back in a moment with another encounter.

VOICEMAIL: You have two new messages. 

GRAHAM BURNETT: Hi, this is Dr. Graham Burnett. 

MARGARET LOVETT: Hi, this is Margaret Lovett.

GRAHAM BURNETT: Here we go. 

[MARGARET LOVETT: Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation. 

GRAHAM BURNETT: And the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing from understanding of science and technology in the modern world.

MARGARET LOVETT: More information about Sloane at]

GRAHAM BURNETT: Radiolab is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. 

MARGARET LOVETT: I think that's it. I will hang up now. Thanks again. 

GRAHAM BURNETT: Take it easy.


VOICEMAIL: End of message.