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Let the combat dolphins go

 |  Eco Catholic

The epic battle between Russian and U.S. combat dolphins is about to take place in the Black Sea.

These highly trained dolphins can attack enemy divers, locate mines and plant bombs. Some dolphins will even have knives and pistols attached to their heads -- creating a whole new image of “marine” mammals.

But this is not the plot of an upcoming action-adventure movie. Last week, news outlets across the globe reported this bizarre story as largely fact.

The rumor originated with the Russian paper Izvestia, and was subsequently picked up by the Huffington Post, Business Insider, the Turkish Weekly, Romania Insider, and the U.K.’s The Telegraph and the Daily Mirror, to name a few.

The story became so rampant that Tom Malinowski of the U.S. State Department addressed it in an April 25 speech at the United Nations in New York, saying Russian propaganda has told the Russian people that the U.S. has deployed combat dolphins in the Black Sea to undermine Russian interests in Ukraine.

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“Now all of this seems preposterous to us," Malinowski said. “But when media loyal to the Russian state relentlessly broadcasts such propaganda and Russian authorities shut down alternative sources of information, more and more people are lulled into thinking that black is white, up is down, and two plus two may equal five.”

And, yes, the idea of combat dolphins does seem preposterous, except for the fact that both Russia and the U.S. have trained combat dolphins, and at times, even sea lions and beluga whales.

The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program began in 1960, but wasn’t declassified until 1992. By the 1980s, the Navy had 100-plus combat dolphins and an $8 million operating budget. The program downsized at the Cold War’s end but remains in operation.

The Russian combat dolphin program began in the mid-1960s in Crimea, but abandoned it after the USSR’s dissolving in 1991. Initially, Ukraine retrained the animals to work therapeutically with disabled children, but its navy revived the combat program in 2011. The Ukrainians planned to discontinue it this month, but ironically, the Russians retook control of the program when they annexed Crimea in March.

Due to their high intelligence, dolphins can learn more than jumping through hoops at SeaWorld. Their echolocation allows them to locate sea mines, lost weapons or soldiers. They can even deliver tools and messages to military scuba divers or attach explosives or spying devices onto enemy ships. Cameras, as well, can be attached to dolphins’ heads or flippers, making it at least conceivable that weapons could be attached in a similar way.

Combat dolphins have actually served in recent wars: during the Vietnam War, providing underwater surveillance and ship protection, and in the Second Gulf War, detecting mines and safely navigating ships carrying humanitarian aid.

Currently, dolphins and sea lions act as “security guards” at naval bases in Washington state and Georgia that house nuclear-powered submarines carrying Trident Ballistic Missiles. According to the Kitsap Sun, dolphins work with handlers to detect intruders in the water, while sea lions can attach special cuffs to suspicious swimmers, who are then reeled in by their trainers.

All of this information begs the question: Is it humane to use dolphins and other sea creatures for combat purposes?

We’ve used horses in the military and police dogs to sniff out bombs. Even God loosed a plague of locusts on Egypt. But in the 21st century, we need to focus on developing technology that would replace the use of animals, against their will, for dangerous, strenuous and stressful work. That in worst-case scenarios becomes abusive.

Alternatives exist. Boston Dynamics, a leader in military robots, has already created machines that can detect bombs, carry heavy objects over uneven terrain and even “swim,” amongst other incredible feats. The funds given to the Naval Marine Mammal Program could divert to robotic research and development.

In the 2010 “Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins” the Helsinki Group stated, “No cetacean should be held in captivity or servitude; be subject to cruel treatment; or be removed from their natural environment.” Last May, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests advised state governments to reject proposals that use dolphins for public entertainment, calling it “morally unacceptable,” since their high intelligence means they should be viewed as “non-human persons.”

Dolphins are creatures with a rich language that even have unique names. They are the second-most intelligent animals on earth (after humans), and brain scans of dolphins show that they are capable of self-awareness and complex emotions.

Does this mean that dolphins are also capable of imagining a Creator? Does their language contain a word for God?

I can’t help but think of lines 8 and 9 from Psalm 42: “Watery deep calls out to watery deep to the roar of Your water channels; all Your breakers and Your waves have swept over me. In the day Hashem will command His loving-kindness, even by night His resting place is with me …”

God symbolized as the ocean is a realm of loving-kindness, a restful place, even though the ocean may roar and its waves crash. God protects all his swimming creatures in his watery deep.

But if God is symbolized as “the watery deep,” then who is the other “watery deep” to which he calls? Who is God calling out to, searching for, deep in the ocean?

Most scholars would say God is calling out to the depths of our soul. But if non-human persons like dolphins have souls, then God-the-watery-deep also calls out to them, clicking and squeaking each of their names.   

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