Margaret Lovatt, Love and LSD
*Disclaimer – This true story does not have a happy ending.*
In the 1960s, Margaret Lovatt was part of a Nasa-funded project to communicate with dolphins. She joined the experiment, stationed on the U.S. Virgin Islands, to teach the intelligent marine animals how to speak English, Lovatt said during a BBC documentary, which caused this story to resurface. Now 97 years old, this is the first time she has publicly spoken about those times.
“There were three dolphins,” remembers Lovatt. “Peter, Pamela, and Sissy. Sissy was the biggest. Pushy, loud, she sort of ran the show. Pamela was very shy and fearful. And Peter was a young guy. He was sexually coming of age and a bit naughty.”
While the facility was state-of-the-art, something bothered Margaret Lovatt. “Every night we would all get in our cars and pull the garage door down and drive away,” remembers Lovatt. “and I thought: ‘Well there’s this big brain floating around all night.’ It amazed me that everybody kept leaving and I just thought it was wrong.”
Margaret decided she wanted to plaster the facility and fill it with water so that she could live 24/7 with one of the dolphins. The director of the project went for the idea and they quickly began waterproofing the lab, so that she could actually flood the indoor rooms and an outdoor balcony with a couple of feet of water. This would allow a dolphin to live comfortably in the building with her for three months.
Now, here is where it gets interesting. Margaret reasoned that if she could live with a dolphin around the clock, nurturing its interest in making human-like sounds, like a mother teaching a child to speak, they’d have more success. Yet, she selected the young “naughty” male dolphin called Peter for her live-in experiment. “I chose to work with Peter because he had not had any human-like sound training and the other two had,” she explained.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to use one of the dolphins already trained in human sounds? 😉
Margaret lived with Peter in her underwater dolphinarium six days a week. She slept on an elevated bed and worked on a desk suspended from the ceiling.
“That relationship of having to be together sort of turned into really enjoying being together, and wanting to be together, and missing him when he wasn’t there,” she reflects. “I did have a very close encounter with – I can’t even say a dolphin again – with Peter.”
“Peter liked to be with me,” explains Lovatt. “He would rub himself on my knee, or my foot, or my hand. And at first I would put him downstairs with the girls,” she says. But transporting Peter downstairs proved so disruptive to the lessons that, faced with his frequent arousals, it just seemed easier for Lovatt to relieve his urges herself manually.
“I allowed that,” she says. “I wasn’t uncomfortable with it, as long as it wasn’t rough. It would just become part of what was going on, like an itch – just get rid of it, scratch it and move on. And that’s how it seemed to work out. It wasn’t private. People could observe it.”
While Lovatt claims it wasn’t sexual on her part, she does admit it was sensual. “Peter was right there and he knew that I was right there,” she continues. “It wasn’t sexual on my part. Sensuous perhaps. It seemed to me that it made the bond closer.”
Innocent as they supposedly were, Lovatt’s sexual encounters with Peter would ultimately overshadow the whole experiment when a story about them appeared in Hustler magazine in the late 1970s. “I’d never even heard of Hustler,” says Lovatt. “I think there were two magazine stores on the island at the time. And I went to one and looked and I found this story with my name and Peter, and a drawing.”
Something else began to interrupt the study. Dr. John Lilly, the brainchild of the experiment, had been researching the mind-altering powers of LSD on dolphins.
In the 1960s a small selection of neuroscientists like John Lilly were licensed to research LSD by the American government, convinced that the drug had medicinal qualities that could be used to treat mental health patients. As part of this research, the drug was sometimes injected into animals and Lilly had been using it on his dolphins since 1964, curious about the effect it would have on them.
Injecting the dolphins with LSD was not something Lovatt was in favour of and she insisted that the drug was not given to Peter, which Lilly agreed to. But it was his lab, and they were his animals, she recalls. And as a young woman in her 20s she felt powerless to stop him giving LSD to the other two dolphins.
Lilly’s cavalier attitude to the dolphins’ welfare would eventually be his downfall, driving away the lab’s director, Gregory Bateson, and eventually causing the funding to be cut. Just as Lovatt and Peter’s six-month live-in experiment was concluding, it was announced that the lab would be closed.
Without funding, the fate of the dolphins was in question. “I couldn’t keep Peter,” says Lovatt, wistfully. “If he’d been a cat or a dog, then maybe. But not a dolphin.” Lovatt’s new job soon became the decommissioning of the lab and she prepared to ship the dolphins away to Lilly’s other lab, in a disused bank building in Miami. It was a far cry from the relative freedom and comfortable surroundings of Dolphin House.
At the Miami lab, held captive in smaller tanks with little or no sunlight, Peter quickly deteriorated, and after a few weeks Lovatt received news.
“I got that phone call from John Lilly,” she recalls. “John called me himself to tell me. He said Peter had committed suicide.”
Ric O’Barry corroborates the use of this word. “Dolphins are not automatic air-breathers like we are,” he explains. “Every breath is a conscious effort. If life becomes too unbearable, the dolphins just take a breath and they sink to the bottom. They don’t take the next breath.” Andy Williamson puts Peter’s death down to a broken heart, brought on by a separation from Lovatt that he didn’t understand. “Margaret could rationalise it, but when she left, could Peter? Here’s the love of his life gone.”
While Margaret never went on to further her work with dolphins, she did remain on the island, marrying the photographer who took most of these pictures. They even bought the Dolphin Home and converted it into a home for themselves and their three daughters.
“The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins,” the documentary featuring Lovatt’s interview, premiered at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival.
(Originally posted by Cupcake).