In the view of the National Audubon Society, dolphins and elephants have a lot in common: Both their populations have been ravaged by man in recent years. And both are intelligent mammals, worthy of greater care and appreciation.
So this summer's National Audubon Society productions begin with "If Dolphins Could Talk" (Sunday at 9 on PBS), hosted and narrated by Michael Douglas, and include Audubon's first-ever feature film, "The Last Elephant" (Aug. 20 on TNT), starring John Lithgow, Isabella Rossellini and James Earl Jones.
Dolphins, trapped in commercial tuna fishing nets, were dying of injuries or drowning; being killed for fish bait in South America, and in Japan, being clubbed and stabbed by fishermen who didn't want dolphins to compete for their fish catch. Estimates of their killings were as high as 400,000 a year, as many as 6 million since 1960. Others succumbed to pollution and contaminants, as they did on the United States' East Coast in 1987-88.
"If Dolphins Could Talk," a coproduction of Audubon, Turner Broadcasting and WETA, and underwritten by GE, spends much of its hour documenting the intelligence of the mammals and man's cruelty to them. But cable viewers who caught the program in February on TBS will find that Michael Douglas' narration has been updated.
In making "Dolphins," producer Hardy Jones came down hard on tuna processors StarKist and Chicken of the Sea, blaming them for the deaths of some 100,000 dolphins a year that swim in the eastern Pacific with yellowfin tuna. Both tuna and dolphins are caught in nets called purse seins that are dropped into the water, encircle the fish, and then are drawn tight.
After the show aired on TBS, thousands of concerned viewers called an 800 phone number or telegrammed the H.J. Heinz Co., which owns StarKist, packer of more than a third of the tuna sold in this country and of Nine Lives cat food containing tuna.
In April, StarKist, Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee, which account for about 75 percent of the U.S. tuna market, agreed not to buy yellowfin tuna from fishermen who use purse sein nets. American-flagged vessels are now responsible for 15 percent -- about 20,000 -- of dolphin deaths annually. In contrast, Mexico may be killing some 80,000 a year, says narrator Douglas.
The canners' announcement came as a result of growing concern from members of Congress and environmentalists who saw footage taken by California biologist Sam LaBudde. The tape, played in April 1988 for a Senate committee and included in the program, is widely credited with stirring congressional and public outrage.
LaBudde, who worked as a deckhand and cook on a tuna boat three years ago, recorded scenes of crew members racing toward the dolphins in speedboats and dropping small explosives into the water to disorient them while the vessel drops its net. Terrorized dolphins are dragged down, shrieking, where they drown or die slow, excruciating deaths from injuries sustained in their struggle. Dead and injured dolphins, unwanted, are tossed back into the sea.
The carnage appears after producer Hardy Jones has laid the groundwork for viewers to become fond of dolphins. Jones, who also wrote and shot some of the film, has spent much time over the past decade with free-swimming spotted dolphins in the Bahamas. He said some of the animals are so accustomed to him that "if I were to jump in the water with six people, they would tend to come to me."
Part of his success, he believes, is due to the fact that he has learned some of the dolphins' "secrets of protocol."
"If you swim along parallel with the dolphins and you swim as fast as you can, they then close their eyes, which is a signal that 'I trust you,'" Jones said.
Over the years, there have been many reports of dolphins' human-like behavior: In 1979, the Soviet news agency Tass reported that a dolphin bleeding profusely after injury by a shark approached a Russian trawler for help and was hauled aboard so that a Soviet physician could stitch its wound. In 1980, two lonely dolphins in Montreal starved themselves to death when their trainers joined a city workers strike and their daily shows were stopped. In 1982, three dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore developed ulcers and psychological symptoms because they were upset by underwater noise and lack of private areas in their holding tank.
In working on a similar series for Arts & Entertainment, Jones said he has learned that "there are large kills of dolphins that have never been reported, not related to the tuna industry. In Chile, they kill dolphins for crab bait. In Peru, it is for food; in Venezuela, for fish bait. I think that people don't realize the tremendous number of dolphins that are killed in the oceans, many for very frivolous reasons."