Sunday, September 3, 2017

What IS A Dolphin? The Idealist vs Pragmatist

I just started my second (and final) year of my master’s program in forensic science.  One of the classes I’m taking is called Foundations of Criminal Justice, which is deliciously philosophical.  And believe it or not friends, I have found some interesting parallels in the marine mammal world with some of the stuff I have been reading in my textbook.

This is my life right now

In the second chapter, the author writes about idealists versus pragmatists, and how they would develop and implement aspects of the criminal justice system.  But the thing is guys, the author used an animal to illustrate the difference between the two perspectives.  And I realized HOLY CRAP THIS IS IT.  THIS EXPLAINS THE MAIN DISSONANCE BETWEEN THE GENERAL PUBLIC AND THE REST OF US.
So let's just not pay attention

To put it bluntly, idealists tend to develop an idea about something without much (or any) legitimate facts/evidence to support it.  Their goals are led by what they believe is the right or wrong ways to view/do things.  Pragmatists take a scholarly approach, letting the evidence and systematic observation of events or data develop and flesh out the goal.  So I'm reading this and then boom, suddenly I read how an idealist sees a dog (heroic, loyal, Rin Tin Tin) versus a pragmatist (something that pees in the house and eats all of your cupcakes).  And it is basically exactly like how most people see dolphins.
Dog-shaming is definitely an exercise in pragmatism

I could focus all my energy on school and really hone my understanding of this concept through the lens of my next chosen field, but I decided it would be better off in a blog. 

Here are some major idealist (read: most of the general public, including myself before I became a dolphin trainer) concepts of dolphins, and the pragmatist (zookeeper) response.  Bold is idealist, normal font is pragmatist.

Dolphins live in tropical waters that are also 78,000 feet deep
This is especially directed at obnoxious ARAs
Wrong.  Raise your hand if you have told someone about dolphins living in cold water and they look at you like you just ate someone else’s toenails.  I’ve encountered this when talking to guests about where they can go whale-watching in New England and geek out on the chance that they will see either Atlantic white-sided or white-beaked dolphins and they are like, “Uh, you moron, dolphins don’t live in cold water.”
Or these guys, who can ONLY live in cold water

The other bizarre part of this is that some idealists (myself included!) are shocked to learn that in many cases, warm water dolphins live in pretty shallow water, because that is where the fish are.  Until I moved to Florida, I thought all fish lived in deep water because like…you know, the bigger the fish tank the better or something.  

Dolphins will save drowning or distressed swimmers
Don't count on dolphins helping you

Okay, this may have happened once or twice.  Maybe.  But most of the time, if you get into trouble, dolphins will just sit underwater and laugh at you.  Or think, “Wow, that sucks.  Not my problem.”  Sounds a little familiar. 

Dolphins are gentle creatures who live in peaceful societies


Plants don’t even live in peaceful societies.  Next question.

Dolphins are extremely intelligent and are friendly towards people

Yeah, those of us who know dolphins know that they are individuals whose intelligence and friendliness exist on a pretty broad spectrum.  

But the fact is, there are Jerk Dolphins out there.  Usually, they are the insanely smart ones.  They WILL steal your iPad.  They WILL bite your toes.  They WILL zoom into one of your guest’s um, male nether region.  They will dismantle hardware in the habitat and hide all the pieces so you freak out for hours trying to locate them while the guilty dolphins look at your and laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh

Dolphins are the only animals other than humans who have sex for pleasure

I admit, I bought into it when I thought that dolphins were somehow “higher” than other animals (and when I thought that there was such a linear ladder of intellectual and behavioral complexity in animals, silly me).   However, sex should feel good for at least one party in sexually-reproducing animals, otherwise it wouldn’t happen.

It’s not like a horse suddenly gets this idea in her head, “Oh, I can just magically tell I am ovulating.  Better find a genetically-fit stallion so we can copulate and contribute another data point to the Selfish Gene Hypothesis.”  No.  Like the rest of us (dolphins included), the chick horse is like, “I NEED A MAN.  THAT GORGEOUS ONE OVER THERE.  GET OVER HERE AND DO GOOD WORK, SIR.”

...and zookeepers are over here like....

Dolphins do use sex as a social tool more than some other animals, but they are not the only ones to do so (bonobos and gold diggers are classic examples).  

All dolphins want to do is play
World domination is serious

No.  Sometimes they want to eat.  Sometimes, they want to sleep.  Other times, they sit around and plot the demise of humans (spoiler: they are well on their way).  

I've worked with a couple of dolphins who were just business-oriented, both in and out of sessions.  They would play once in a while, but for the most part they were basically like Dwight Schrute.

Most of us have idealist viewpoints on many subjects, and that is not a bad thing.  I don’t really think it’s a good idea to be firmly in one camp or the other.  And it is easy to move from one to the other, especially when it comes to an understanding of animals and what they are like as a species AND as individuals. I definitely learned a lot more about dolphins after actually working with them, despite all that I had read and studied. 

And while I am poking fun at the generalized, incorrect myths of dolphins people believe, I also realize that you know what?  That's how our brains work, until we get new information to assimilate into our understanding.   In the case of understanding animals,  the job of a zookeeper is to provide accurate information to our guests who may think that all dolphins are nice, or that rattlesnakes are evil, or whatever misconceptions they have about their generalized idea of whatever species.  Having an “idealist” concept of an animal doesn’t mean you are dumb.  It just means you get to learn some more cool facts, and have an even BETTER appreciation for that critter!

1 comment:

  1. Hi, i am part of the veterinary staff in a dolphinarium in Venezuela and have been a fan of your blog for a long a time. May I ask you for your information source that you used for your post? we are dealing with animal activist that are spreading missleading information about aquariums and we need every information source needed to debunk their false accusations. Thank you.