KATHY the dolphin delighted children around the world when she played TV’s “Flipper” during the 1960s – but her brush with fame quite quickly turned to tragedy when she took her own life.
The marine mammal ended up in a tiny tank after she retired from the show, becoming so depressed and sick that she forced herself to stop breathing and drowned, according to her longterm trainer Ric O’Barry.
O’Barry claims he was there when Kathy committed suicide by swimming into his arms and purposefully holding her breath until she died at the Miami Seaquarium in 1968.
He says when he eventually let go she simply sank to the bottom of her tank dead.
Dolphins are believed by some to have the capacity to commit suicide as there have been numerous alleged cases.
And according to O’Barry, her death was definitely an intentional act to take her own life.
It was what inspired the former trainer to turn from teaching dolphins how to perform tricks and instead focus on animal welfare, later setting up The Dolphin Project to campaign against keeping the animals captive.
“The suicide was what turned me around,” O’Barry, a former US Navy diver, told Time in 2010.
“The [animal entertainment] industry doesn’t want people to think dolphins are capable of suicide, but these are self-aware creatures with a brain larger than a human brain.
“If life becomes so unbearable, they just don’t take the next breath. It’s suicide.”
Kathy was one of five bottlenose dolphins to star in the 1960s show Flipper, which spun off from the movie of the same name released in 1963.
The show tells the story of the titular dolphin who lives in Florida with the Ricks family as they get into all kinds of aquatic adventures.
Following the same style as “Lassie”, the show was a hit and Kathy, along with her co-stars Susie, Patty, Scotty and Squirt, all became famous faces on NBC – even being broadcast behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union.
She looked me right in the eye, took a breath and held it. She just sank to the bottom of the water
However, there was a dark side to the show – as all the dolphins who portrayed Flipper had been captured from the wild, including Kathy.
Female dolphins were chosen as they were less aggressive – and were more likely to have unblemished flesh which would look better on TV.
Flipper was only played by a male dolphin, called Clown, when they needed to do the famous “tail walking” trick – as the female stars could not master the stunt.
And after the whirlwind of glitz and glamour had ended and show was cancelled in 1967, the dolphins were retired to a life in full captivity, with O’Barry kept on hand in case they were needed for other shows.
“I knew she was tired of suffering,” O’Barry told the Huffpost in 2010.
“She was living a miserable life and she was tired of being miserable.”
And he added he feels responsible for her death as, “I am the guy who captured her”.
O’Barry would live in a house just down the beach most commonly used for filming Flipper and the Seaquarium – it was his job to work out how to get the dolphins to follow the script.
“They’d give me the script and it said Flipper does this, and I’d have to figure out a way to get her to do it,” he said in 2017.
And for him the turning point was Kathy’s death and the obvious unhappiness and sickness he saw in her leading up to the profound moment she died in his arms.
O’Barry explained: “She looked me right in the eye, took a breath and held it. She just sank to the bottom of the water.
“That had a profound effect on me. So the next day I started a campaign to stop the capture of dolphins.
“It was Flipper’s death that made me realise that dolphins shouldn’t be in captivity.”
Scientists are split over whether dolphins have the mental capacity to participate in “suicide” in the human sense of the word.
However, distressed animals are well known to engage in self destructive behaviour that may prove fatal – such as the case of Hugo the whale, who rammed his head into his tank so often that he suffered a brain aneurysm.
And there was also the case of Peter the dolphin who is claimed to have taken his own life also by holding his breath after being separated from his trainer.
Morgan the whale is also alleged to have engaged in self destructive behaviour as she was seen trying to beaching herself on the edge of her tank.
Lori Marino, a behavioral neuroscientist, dolphin expert and founder of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, published a paper which argues the dolphins can take their own lives.
She writes that their brains have “sophisticated capacity for emotion and the kinds of thinking processes that would be involved in complex motivational states, such as those that accompany thoughts of suicide”.
Dr. Ann Weaver however previously said she does not buy the concept of animals being able to destroy themselves.
She argues the idea of “suicide” is a uniquely human quality, arguing that in other animals “everything they are designed to be is to keep on keeping on”.
“I think suicide is the curse of the human consciousness, but not other consciousnesses. I don’t believe they give up and that’s what suicide requires,” she said.
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