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Love Story of a dolphin and a woman: A NASA Experiment that went wrong

by Aadarsh Jain

Love Story of a dolphin and a woman: A NASA Experiment that went wrong

May 2, 2021

We've heard of many love stories like Romeo and Juliet, Jack and Rose etc. but have you ever heard of a love story of a dolphin and a woman? This is a love story of a dolphin named Peter and naturalist Margaret Howe Lovatt.

Margaret Howe Lovatt was assigned to a Nasa-funded effort to interact with dolphins in the 1960s. She was to spend 24 hours a day in a converted house with “Peter” the dolphin. This was the start of the experiment that went horribly wrong. Peter was transported from John Lily’s (who was a neuroscientist)  lab to an isolated “Dolphinarium” where the experiments were going on.

Margaret Howe Lovatt

The NASA Funded Experiment

Margaret’s brother-in-law told her of an underground laboratory that was testing dolphins around Christmas 1963. She went there for the first time and met “Peter the dolphin.” Peter fell in love with the human when he was just six years old. Peter was expected to spend ten weeks learning English words from Howe, but he was more interested in learning about his teacher in a different manner. Lovatt explains, “Peter liked to be with me.” “He’d rub his hands or knees on my leg, foot, or hand.”

margaret howe lovatt the girl who fell in love with dolphin11

As part of a NASA experiment to teach Peter to talk through his blowhole, Howe and Peter did everything together — feeding, sleeping, swimming, and playing. Howe’s lessons began right away, but Peter soon established himself as a wild child. She tried her hardest to get Peter to say, “Hello Margaret,” when he woke up in the morning, but he struggled with the letter “M.” Peter became sexually aroused several times, about four weeks into the experiment. She says, “I approved that. “As long as it wasn’t too hard, I wasn’t bothered.”

“At first, I was going to set him down with the girls,” she says. However, transporting Peter downstairs was so distracting to the lessons that, faced with his repeated arousals, Lovatt found it better to manually satisfy his desires. That wasn’t private. It was visible to the public.” It was a priceless element for Lovatt, who treated it with respect at all times. “It wasn’t a sexual encounter on my part. Perhaps sensual. It seems to me that it strengthened the bond. Not because of the sexual activity, but because you won’t have to split as much. And that was the end of it. I went to see Peter and learn more about him. That was a part of Peter’s personality.” explained Lovatt.

Lovatt’s intimate experiences with Peter, as innocent as they were, would eventually cloud the whole experiment when an article “Interspecies sex” about them appeared in Hustler magazine in the late 1970s. Peter was sent back to Lilly’s lab in Miami after the experiment concluded and the lab reopened, and his health soon worsened.

Also, the American government granted a small group of neuroscientists, including John Lilly, permission to study LSD in the 1960s, believing that the medication had therapeutic properties that could be used to treat mental-health patients. The drug was sometimes administered into animals as part of this trial, and Lilly had been testing it on his dolphins since 1964, eager to see if it would affect them.

According to Peter’s veterinarian, Andy Williamson, Peter died of a broken heart. By the time it was shut down, what had begun as a harmless experiment had been entangled in a scandal.

“I got that phone call from John Lilly,” she recalls. “John called me himself to tell me. He said Peter had committed suicide.”

There were rumours that the dolphins had been abused when they were given LSD, in addition to Margaret’s relationship with Peter.

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