Audrey Schulman’s The Dolphin House, inspired by a true story about dolphin research in St. Thomas in the 1960s, is a beautiful, thought-provoking read, at times as heartbreaking as it is fascinating. The novel reveals much about the vast intelligence of dolphins—and, at times, the lack thereof in humans—and offers a look at animals in science that is both sobering and complex.
When twenty-one-year-old Cora leaves her job at a Tampa nightclub after being sexually harassed for the last time (not without getting a small revenge, which is very satisfying), she travels to St. Thomas to get a new start. She takes a waitressing job and spends as much time as she can in the ocean. Cora, who is hard of hearing despite brand-new hearing aids masquerading as cat’s-eye glasses, can hear very well underwater, and this is where she prefers to be.
One day Cora discovers a man-made sluice leading into a lagoon that holds four wild dolphins—a space that immediately strikes her as far too small. “For a swimming pool, this lagoon was huge, but as a sea, it was miniscule.” She ends up getting into the water with them so she can hear them better. What she hears brings the dolphins’ voices to life: “Stars sizzling in space … The clacking of a typewriter … Marbles bouncing down wood stairs.”
The lead scientist at this project, Dr. Blum, discovers Cora and questions her, and when he sees that she is unafraid, curious, and observant, he hires her on the spot, for far more than her waitressing salary. “Keep them alive,” he tells her. “So long as you do that, you have a job.” This is the first, but not last, clue as to how Blum and the other researchers view the dolphins.
Cora begins spending much of her time in the water with the dolphins. Unable to wear her “hearing glasses” with consistently wet hair, she often has trouble communicating with the three male scientists. (She likely would anyway, given their sexism and their odd disinterest in the dolphins they’re holding captive.) Yet she immediately connects with the dolphins simply by letting them be, and by watching and listening.
Right away, Cora learns much more than the men, in a fraction of the time—the dolphins’ genders, how much they eat and how to feed them (when she showed up, they had not eaten in nearly a week), their sexual activity, what type of fish each likes best, and their individual personalities. She also gives them names: Bernie, Mother, Kat, and Junior.
Blum, who like the others is interested only in results, is slightly better to Cora than the other two men, who are alternately leering and dismissive, and nearly always condescending. “Since she’d told Blum about being partially deaf, he aways turned his face to her when talking so she could read his lips. He put his cigarette down and used fewer words. Most people would forget to do this at times. He didn’t.” Still, it’s a rather grim existence for Cora when the only kindness she receives comes in the form of being granted the most basic communication.
Yet despite the many challenges, Cora thrives among the dolphins. We learn more about her through glimpses of her childhood—the illness that took most of her hearing, her loneliness in a world that largely ignored her due to this loss, and her lifelong connection with animals. The silence in Cora’s world has given her a sensitivity, intelligence, and empathy that comes into play when she interacts with the dolphins. Having never been to college, she has finally found herself in a place where she matters, where she can make a difference. “She saw, for the first time, she was good at something.”
Eventually, Cora learns that Blum’s notion is to teach the dolphins to speak human language. While she recognizes the arrogance of this—finding it akin to “teaching a horse to sing”—she is too attached to the dolphins to leave them. In fact, the only way they are spared some of the torture they’ve already endured is because she agrees to undertake this nearly impossible task and, in doing so, buys them time and certain freedoms. And she proves that the dolphins are capable of far more than humans have imagined.
The novel is challenging in its unsparing depiction of animal experimentation, perhaps most of all in the dolphins’ reactions when they are separated from one another: They panic and cry. They try to protect one another from the net when the men try to ensnare one of them. Mother, when she is taken away from the group for an experiment, begins planning her escape, revealing her cleverness as well as her desperation. Bernie grows more depressed each time one of the dolphins is taken from the group, and he ultimately meets a tragic outcome.
Cara is not spared from exploiting them; by necessity, she has to keep them “hungry and motivated.” Yet the incredible bonds Cora forms with the dolphins offers a bit of an antidote to the exploitation; we see the myriad ways the dolphins respond to her, seek her out, and trust her—all the while keeping their distance from the men. Cora manages to take away some of the stress of the dolphins’ captivity, and they reveal to her their playfulness, their intelligence and wit, and their fierce protectiveness toward one another.
At the same time Cora tries to protect the dolphins, they in turn protect Cora from the men; she is constantly vulnerable and knows she would have little to no recourse should any of them take advantage of her. As the men become bolder and she feels more threatened, she eventually spends nearly all of her time in the water, the one place she knows she is safe. She is all too aware that she is as powerless as the animals; when she is working on teaching words to Junior, in a pool too small for him to ever swim as far or fast as he’d like, she realizes that she is not only his teacher but “his fellow prisoner, his prison guard.”
The Dolphin House is a beautifully written tribute to the magnificence of dolphins, as well as a powerful statement on the arrogance of humans. Though this is historical fiction, it’s clear that we have not quite yet figured out that we don’t need to keep experimenting on animals to know how smart they are; Cora wonders, upon reading of other animal experiments, “who could possibly need the obvious spelled out this way.” The author’s note at the end of the novel is well worth reading, as it not only provides an extensive reading list but also clarifies what is real in dolphin behavior and what is fictional—revealing that the most surprising and lovely moments in the novel are based on documented behaviors.