"I wish people would start thinking of dolphins as superbly adapted marine mammals," the dolphin man said, "instead of sweet little fairies in wet suits."
When I met Richard Ellis, author of the impressive "Dolphins and Porpoises," which will have a vast museum sale, I did not know you can rattle his chain with marvelous results merely by alluding to dolphin music, dolphin brains, dolphin affection for mankind, and therefore missed some rare opportunities.
By the time he disclosed his utter contempt for what may be called the humanization of dolphins or, perhaps better, the Disney-fication of them, as if they were aquatic Bambis, there was not enough time left to jolt him, and I didn't have enough warning to think up innocent comments sure to bring on fits.
I did of course, however inadequately prepared, immediately change tack (I had been asking him about taxonomic matters) to say, "Well, they are magical little toads, aren't they?" but it was too late to get him really started.
Ellis, who loves dolphins with something approaching awe, grew up in Long Island with no more than average interest in things washed up on the shore. They do not have many horseshoe crabs up there, evidently, and of course it is horseshoe crabs that first enchant toddlers along our own beaches here.
All the same, he did like to draw and, since they were handy, started drawing stuff around him, including (eventually) shells. He turned against shells at the last, because he objected to the numbers of sea creatures killed for their beautiful dwellings.
He made a detour into museum planning (he has always been fascinated by dioramas) including a Campbell Soup museum of soup tureens at Camden, N.J.
However magnificent those objects may be, it did occur to him he was getting off the beam of his lifelong interest in drawing and nature. He executed some marine mammal art here and there and in due time was asked to illustrate a little paper-back handbook of marine mammals, so he got busy, but then the writer was unable to find time for the book or some such luck, and Ellis sat there with a lot of drawings and no text.
"Why not," it apparently dawned on the publishers, "let Ellis do the text, since through his investigations for the drawings he knows far more about dolphins than most people want to know anyway?"
It was all too true. Ellis' text and drawings, now in two volumes of coffee-table size, the first one on whales and a third one to come on minor assorted creatures, clearly was unsuited for a pocket guidebook. The small-handbook publishers probably thought they had a madman on their hands, but they graciously relinquished him to Alfred A. Knopf, which did not bat an eye.
Ellis, formerly married, now lives in a Manhattan apartment, and his subjects live in his head. Since he hates to see a dolphin jumping through a hoop, he would not have a dolphin even if he had space for one.
People forever ask him the difference between a dolphin and a porpoise, a singularly uninteresting and unimportant question if you ask me, but apparently of the 43 delphinic creatures generally called dolphins or porpoises, some are called one and some are called the other. No particular sense to it, just as there is no particular sense to turtles, terrapins and tortoises, or, for that matter, just as there is no particular sense to common language generally. How wise the queen was in "Alice," and how observant, when she said (as all humans do, except pedants) a word is what I say it means, no more and no less.
He's right, of course, in insisting that dolphins are, hold your breath, dolphins. But I think he may have misunderstood the change in public perception of animals, and noted only the more ecstatic fringe, who wish to just cuddle those cute things.
This change is simple, though not adequately reported, surely, and it is this:
Biologists are by no means as stupid as formerly. There was a time in which it was thought scandalous to say an animal had feelings. This went so far that many people, of the more cretinous sort, actually supposed animals did not feel pain. Animals did not have eyes, they had photoreceptors. Animals did not play, they displayed seemingly parabolic movements with their skeletal parts.
Much of the force behind the erection of the wall between human and all other animal life sprang, as I see it, from the medieval church, which had its hands full with humans and was not keen to widen the field.
The general course of science, however, has been to show complexities undreamed of by the superficial observer. No words in English are more dangerous, or more likely to be incorrect, than "nothing but," as in "Your Welsh terrier is nothing but a dog, after all."
The terrier is a dog, all right, but there's no "nothing but" about it. He is a dog in the full splendor of the word, and the farther biology progresses, the more amazing we will see him to be.
If energy equals mass and is identical to it, it makes us see even a gravel pebble differently. Let alone animals.
People generally now realize, as they did not in 1900, that the barriers between human and animal life are rapidly falling; not that animals are the same as we, but that they are far more complicated and subtle than was once thought. Before the present age is out, it will be determined they have souls of consequence, which will give the church something intellectually useful to do for a change to explain it a bit less condescendingly than formerly.
The god Dionysus commonly sailed the sea in a dolphin boat surrounded by an escort of swimming dolphins, and of course a dolphin carried the poet Arion to safety when some sailors pitched him overboard.
Best little old toads afloat.