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The dolphin house was flooded with water and redesigned for a specific purpose: to allow the 23-year-old Howe and the dolphin to live, sleep, eat, wash and play intimately together.
The objective of the experiment was to see whether a dolphin could be taught human speech – a hypothesis that Lilly, in 1960, predicted could be a reality “within a decade or two”.
That should have made him think: ‘I really shouldn’t be doing this kind of thing.’ ” Lilly, who had gained the scientific establishment’s respect with his work on the human brain, became interested in dolphins in the Fifties, after performing a series of “inner-consciousness” investigations on himself in which he floated around for hours in salt water in an effort to block outside stimuli and increase his sensitivity.
His 1961 book Man and Dolphin was an international bestseller.
From outside it looked like another spacious Virgin Islands villa with a spiral staircase twisting up to a sunny balcony overlooking the Caribbean Sea.
Various films and documentaries have dissected some of the baffling, entertaining and ultimately tragic animal-human language experiments offered up by the Sixties and Seventies, most recently James Marsh’s 2011 feature Project Nim, about a chimp raised in a New York family.But what makes the dolphin house story unique is the intensity of the period of interspecies cohabitation. Prof Thomas White, a philosopher and international leader in the field of dolphin ethics, believes the experiment was “cruel” and flawed from the outset. “Not just in the study of the dolphin brain; he was an open-minded scientist who speculated very early on that dolphins are self-aware creatures with emotional vulnerabilities that need an array of relationships to flourish.