The 1960s TV show Flipper was a smash hit, with its lovable bottlenose dolphin star playing the eponymous lead. But few could have imagined the fate which awaited Kathy, the mammal which played the character, when the cameras stopped rolling.
NBC first aired Flipper in September 1964, and its debut saw the mammal become a household name. Even today, it’s a famous pop culture reference. And thanks to the dolphin’s incredible performance, it became a resounding commercial success.
In fact, for its first two series, Flipper competed with big names at the time such as The Jackie Gleason Show. Its main attraction, the famous dolphin, lived with the Ricks family at the fictional Coral Key Park and Marine Preserve.
Flipper the dolphin’s exploits were fun for all ages, but the show’s resulting merchandise particularly appealed to younger viewers. The popular mammal also starred in movies, recorded at its filming site in the Miami Seaquarium. In total, Flipper enjoyed a three-year run.
Of course, showbusiness has its fair share of smoke and mirrors, and Flipper was no different. There were actually five different dolphins playing the titular character throughout the lifetime of the show. However, they all had one thing in common: they were born wild.
Flipper’s producers favored female dolphins on the show. This is because males tend to be more aggressive to each other, and collect more scars on their bodies. Subsequently, that same aggression can make them harder to train.
Ric O’Barry, who helped capture the five dolphins which performed on the show, was a Navy diver. He then helped teach them to perform for the camera. Their names were Scotty, Kathy, Squirt, Patty and Suzy. Kathy played Flipper most frequently, though, and she is often most associated with the role.
O’Barry caught and trained dolphins for ten years. During that time, he experienced a lot with the mammals and learned from their behavior. But it was one of them in particular which would have a lasting effect on him.
Instead, NBC cancelled the show, which resulted in Kathy’s decline. The dolphin was kept in an enclosure all by herself at the Miami Seaquarium where she had no contact with other mammals. This had a huge impact on her. After all, she was a social creature that had been born free.
When Kathy’s condition worsened, O’Barry came in to assess her. On his arrival, though, he was shocked. She was further gone than anyone had realized. “I knew she was tired of suffering,” O’Barry told the Huffington Post. “She was living a miserable life and she was tired of being miserable.”
Bottlenose dolphins are incredibly intelligent. They can use tools, recognize their reflection and even have their own form of communication. Furthermore, it’s no secret that animals are capable of depression, and dolphins are no exception. Even so, what happened next is hotly contested.
O’Barry spoke about Kathy’s behavior in his 2009 film The Cove. “She was really depressed,” the trainer said in the movie. “I could feel it. I could see it. And she committed suicide in my arms.” However, he also concedes that some people might find the concept unlikely.
The former trainer believes believes Kathy stopped breathing on purpose. In The Cove, O’Barry said, “That’s a very strong word, suicide. But you have to understand dolphins and other whales are not automatic air breathers, like we are. Every breath they take is a conscious effort.”
O’Barry continued, “[Dolphins] can end their life whenever [it] becomes too unbearable by not taking the next breath. And it’s in that context I use the word suicide,” he said. “She did that. She swam into my arms, looked me right in the eye, and took a breath… and didn’t take another one.”
This isn’t the first time a dolphin has seemingly acted in such a way. Naturalist Margaret Howe Lovatt worked with a dolphin called Peter on a research project funded by NASA in the 1960s. While she tried to teach Peter to replicate human speech, he became physically infatuated with her.
Peter’s keepers later moved him to a dark and isolated building due to financial issues. He also stopped breathing, the assumption being that he consciously decided to do so. However, not everyone agrees with this assessment, such as Tampa Bay dolphin researcher, Dr Ann Weaver.
Indeed, Weaver believes the notion of suicide is a phenomenon unique to humans. “I think everything [dolphins] are designed to be is to keep on keeping on,” she told the Huffington Post in 2011. “I think suicide is the curse of the human consciousness, but not other consciousnesses.”
“I lived with [Kathy] for seven years,” O’Barry argued in the same publication. “She committed suicide. She died in my arms, and I experienced that.” Moreover, he’s burdened by guilt for bringing her into captivity in the first place. “I’m the guy who captured her,” the former trainer added. “She’d have been better off if we [had] left her alone.”
Regardless, experiencing Kathy’s death changed the course of O’Barry’s life. In 1970, he formed a non-profit organization called the Dolphin Project. This charity is dedicated to freeing captive aquatic mammals. And to this day, O’Barry continues to fight to prevent what happened to Kathy ever happening again.