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A Healing Art
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By Richard O'Barry,Marine Mammal Specialist, One Voice.

A lot of people have a misconception about how we prepare captive dolphins to return to the wild. They think we train them for that. We taught them to jump through hoops, and now we teach them to survive in the wild.

And how do they think we do that?
They think we do it scientifically.

But they're wrong.

Even many of the people working to readapt and release captive dolphins think that is what we're doing. But how could we do that? How could we teach dolphins what they need to know to survive in the wild when the main thing they need to know is not to listen to me or anyone else?

What I actually do is so simple that most people don't get it. There is no mystery to it. In my Protocol for the Rehabilitation and Release of Captive Dolphins, I have three basic rules:

• Assume you know nothing
• Maintain sustained observation
Consider the obvious

That means that if the dolphins' problems began with what we taught them, the last thing we want to do is teach them something more.

We need to un-teach them. That means letting them forget what we have already taught them. When I prepare captive dolphins to resume their life in the wild again, I don't teach them anything, much less how to live in the wild. I don't think it's possible to teach them that. What we can do, though, is try to understand them on their level in the crippled world we put them in. And then let nature take its course. What we do is a healing art, not science.

I keep notes, yes. I always have. But not for scientific reasons. Notes taken on one dolphin don't apply to any other dolphin, because each captive dolphin has an individual character and background and, with that, individual needs. I keep track of everything that happens in order to justify expenses, and, in case I must suddenly turn the job over to my assistants, they'll be able to carry on.

I call what I do 'un-training.' Now, some trainers don't like that term because it's negative. Trainers themselves are very positive people. They have to be very positive because they need to be in control. If they lose control, they've lost everything. When I describe what I do as un-training, to them it means I'm not doing anything. Some of them have accused me of simply living with the dolphins for a few months and then turning them loose. There's more to it than that, of course, but not much, so I plead guilty.

What I do in preparing dolphins for life in the wild is to simply allow their previous training to go un-reinforced. In other words, I ignore it. And this, too, is an art, because as I watch the dolphins very closely, day by day, I can see each bit of their previous training fall away. And one day when it's all gone--when it's 'extinguished,' as the behaviorists would say -- they're ready.

When all else is ready, when we've give the dolphins their last health check and know they have no disease they might transmit to the wild population, when the population study of the dolphins in the vicinity is complete, water quality and so forth is double-checked, only then are they ready to be released and tracked.

Yes, I live with the dolphins. But when I live with them, I really live with them. With each jump, I am there. With each live fish they chase around the pen, I am there too. Every time they dive, every time they surface, with every breath, I am with them - and yet they never know me. To them I am like a gnarled mangrove tree growing at the edge of the sanctuary, a bush on the bank, or a heron on one leg gazing at the water.

Toward the very end of the rehabilitation process I keep out of sight as much as possible. I don't talk to the dolphins. I wear dark glasses when I feed them so that there is no possibility of eye contact. I do my stealthy business and then steal back to my tent where I watch them or listen to them breathe and follow them in my mind's eye, and calculate when the umbilical cord can be cut forever, when they will be thinking not of me nor of any other human being, but only of getting on with their lives as dolphins.

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