Life Among Dolphins

November 25, 2015 Interview with Toni Frohoff

Life Among Dolphins originally appeared in Moon Magazine.


The MOON: How did you come to work with dolphins?

Frohoff: I had several experiences that precipitated my love for dolphins, which led me to make a career of studying them. As a teenager, I was learning to surf in southern California and found myself—along with the other nearby surfers—surrounded by a group of bottlenose dolphins. They were surfing the waves with us. I could hear their sounds underwater. Their presence made the ocean come alive in a way I’d never experienced it before. It was phenomenal.

Later I saw a PBS program on interspecies communication, which featured the work of John Lilly and Lou Herman, and I realized I could work with dolphins as a career. This struck me with the force of one of those “light bulb” moments. Dr. Lilly’s organization, the Human/Dolphin Foundation, was still active in Malibu at that time, so I began to volunteer there – and then with dolphins in the Florida Keys. I’d been working as a sound engineer in music recording studios, but I went back to school to study psychology, and eventually to get my Ph.D. in behavioral biology, with a background in ethology—which is, essentially, the quantitative study of animal behavior. I wanted to know what dolphins were thinking and feeling, which, thirty years ago, was considered “soft science,” just as human psychology was once considered a “soft science.” So I wanted to ensure I had credentials that would be respected in the scientific community.

Over the last thirty years we have experienced a paradigm shift in science, so that we don’t have to refer to “the internal state” of other animals, we can use words like “emotions” and “feelings.” There are well-founded studies in neuroscience and animal psychology and behavior that support this terminology. When I started out, “feelings” was kind of a dirty word with regard to animals, but now many key scientists are on the bandwagon that other species have “consciousness” and even “personhood,” which is fabulous.

The MOON: That’s great. I’m always surprised when I read a headline that research reveals some additional species “might” be self-aware, and I think, “Wow. That’s news? How long did it take you to figure that out?”

Frohoff: [Laughs] Exactly. I call that the “duh” factor. I mean, how many species do we have to study to conclude that other species are self-aware, and that they have great capacity to experience emotions such as pain and pleasure? For how many species do we have to demonstrate sophisticated cognition and emotional capacity before we acknowledge them for who they are, not merely what they are, and treat them accordingly? To be really scientific, the onus should be on disproving these states in animals, rather than the other way around.

The MOON: Yes. But of course, half the time we don’t treat other humans all that well, either.

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