I didn’t know how to act when I first met her. It was an uncharacteristically calm, clear day. The surface of the water was like liquid velvet. I sat on the concrete steps of the pier that jutted out from the ragged Scottish coastline, gazing downwards as she floated just below the surface. She came up for a breath, exhaling loudly with a hint of what seemed to be playful exasperation. Then she rolled onto her side and looked directly into my eyes. Hers were deep black with a circle of thin brown iris, and filled with meaning that I still, to this day, cannot put into words.
The thing about meeting a dolphin – and I mean really meeting one, not at SeaWorld, but in the wild, on their terms – is that it can change you. When she looked me in the eye that day, it was as though she saw beyond all the conceptual trappings of modernity that I identify and armor myself with: Activist. Female. Human. When those things become meaningless, it can be unnerving. An unbridled honesty, and a questioning of one’s own prejudices, is something that this dolphin seemed to silently demand.
Upon my return home, I began to look at the world differently. I felt a bit like Dr. Barbara Smuts after she returned from months in the field studying baboons. In her article “Encounters with Animal Minds,” she wrote about the animals she began viewing in a new light: A squirrel became not simply a member of the species squirrel, but a “small, fuzzy-tailed, person-like creature.” I could relate. I began to see the sparrows sitting on branches outside my window as little feathered person-like beings, casually chatting as though over almond lattes in a sidewalk café. I remember laughing as I watched a fruit fly whirl about in circles of apparent anticipation before alighting upon a mango rind in my kitchen. Everywhere I looked, the world was suddenly filled with vibrant individuals who were anything but the unthinking, unfeeling inferiors we are taught to view them as.
I also began noticing painful things: dogs being pulled around by their “owners” on leashes; people kicking aside pigeons on the sidewalk; horses with halters on their faces and metal in their mouths. The awareness of our everyday domination of other species, whether for convenience, companionship, or outright exploitation, became unavoidable. I realized that we Western-acculturated people have been told a story about our relationship with other species that is simply untrue. Yet this narrative – which touts the idea that the only way we can relate to other species is by dominating them – is so deeply ingrained in us that we have come to believe it is the “natural order” of things.
I began to understand this is, in the end, only a story, and one that we can choose not to believe in any longer. I was learning that it is, in fact, possible to foster relationships with other species that aren’t based on dominating them. This might sound like fiction, but enough people, including bona fide scientists, have proven that it is possible.
These realizations are what led me to co-found Sonar, along with a group of scientists, advocates, and artists. We saw the need for a space in which we could critically examine and explore our cultural precepts in ways that are not beholden to, and at times are a radical rejection of, the status quo.
We recognize that dolphins and whales can, as Sonar’s Research Director Toni Frohoff says, act as “gateway drugs” towards de-conditioning our conventional, anthropocentric relations with other species. We work to promote radical and compassionate behavior, and render visible our domination of others that so often masquerades as love, connection, or harmless utility. Through sharing stories, advocating for legal and policy reforms, and conducting research wherein humans learn from willing and equally curious wild participants, we aim to heal the divide that has isolated our species for so long, and caused untold suffering to the other species of this world.
Meeting the dolphin that day showed me that when we approach individuals of other species with respect, not only can that respect be reciprocated, but our perception of what it is to be human, too, will change. Then, at long last, the journey towards bridging the human-nature divide will have begun.
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