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LSD Dolphins: The Tragic Real-Life Story That Makes Cocaine Bear Look Tame

This might be a little harder to make a fun popcorn movie about.

By Cassidy Ward

Content Warning: This story contains discussions of drug use, sexual activity, and suicide.

In 1985, drug smugglers flying a small airplane dumped 75 pounds of cocaine into the woods over Georgia. Those containers of dope were discovered by an unsuspecting black bear who had the first, biggest, and last party of its life. By the time authorities discovered the scene, all of the containers had been ripped open and the bear's stomach was packed with cocaine.

The 2023 horror comedy Cocaine Bear (now streaming on Peacock!) fictionalized the incident, imagining what a coked-out black bear might have gotten up to in the hours between ingestion and death. While Hollywood took liberties with the details, it’s a scenario so strange it could only be cooked up in real life. In fact, it’s only one example in a long line of inebriated animals, and it might not even be the worst one.

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When the U.S. Government Funded Dolphin LSD Research

Cassidy Space brain GETTY

In the first half of the 20th Century, anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson met one another and fell in love. Individually, they had become interested in altered states of consciousness; together, they believed they could bring about utopia on Earth through a combination of science and psychedelic drugs.

Along with their friend Lawrence Frank, they gathered a group of scientists and philosophers under a common goal: pushing the world toward a more scientific way of thinking. Being the 1940s and with a World War going on, their research tended to focus on things like hypnosis, propaganda, and psychedelics. Bateson believed that fascism in Nazi Germany was the result, at least in part, of literal hypnotic suggestions buried in their propaganda films.

A couple decades later, in 1961, Bateson contacted neuroscientist John C. Lilly, who was studying dolphins in the Virgin Islands, and the two became friends. In the course of his prior work, Lilly had noted that dolphins sometimes seem to mimic the sounds of human voices, and he wondered if they could be taught to speak English. Lilly imagined a future in which dolphins are brought quite literally into the global conversation.

Because the question of communicating with dolphins has some overlap with the question of communicating with extraterrestrials, Lilly’s work got the attention, support, and funding from NASA. Lilly established the Communication Research Institute, informally known as the Dolphin House, where Bateson ultimately served as director.

At the time, there was some interest in the use of LSD as a means of psychological warfare, and Lilly was one of a few scientists with approval from the U.S. Government to experiment with the substance. He took that ball and ran with it, experimenting with LSD both personally and in the lab. Allegedly, he thought it might have some application in his dolphin communication research, so he started dosing the animals in 1964, spending hours tripping with them and trying to talk.

While the research did not result in a group of hyper-intelligent talking cetaceans, Lilly claimed that dolphins were 70% more vocal when on LSD. This was especially true if the dolphins were in the presence of another dolphin or a person. Lilly said that if a dolphin was high and there was someone around to talk to, they would chat almost nonstop. That’s roughly about when Margaret Howe Lovatt entered the picture.

Margaret and Peter, the Human and Dolphin Who Were Best Friends

Cassidy Dolphin GETTY

In her 20’s, Lovatt was living on the island of St. Thomas when she heard about the Dolphin House and went to see it for herself. She was met by Bateson, who seemingly liked the cut of her jib and despite her lack of scientific training, put her to work watching the dolphins and writing down what she saw. Lovatt was enamored with Lilly’s efforts to communicate with non-human animals, and she threw herself into the work, giving the dolphins daily lessons, trying to get them to speak.

Soon, she realized that only working part of the day wasn’t enough, and if she really wanted to make progress, she needed to live at the Dolphin House, alongside a dolphin, full time. They waterproofed the building, flooded it with a few feet of water, and let a dolphin named Peter inside. For the next six months, Peter and Margaret lived together at Dolphin House for 24 hours a day, six days a week. On the seventh day, Peter hung out with Pamela and Sissy, two older female dolphins who lived outside and participated in Lilly’s LSD experiments.

The idea was that time and proximity would create a deeper bond between Peter and Margaret, eventually resulting in real communication. Peter and Margaret did learn a lot, but it wasn’t always what was on the lesson plan. Peter was a dolphin, but he was also a growing boy with sexual urges and few outlets for those feelings. In the beginning, Lovatt would move him down to be with Pamela and Sissy, but moving him in and out of their shared living space was a logistical headache, so eventually Lovatt opted for taking care of Peter’s sexual needs manually.

“It would just become part of what was going on, like an itch – just get rid of it, scratch it and move on. And that’s how it seemed to work out. It wasn’t private. People could observe it,” Lovatt told The Guardian in 2014. “It wasn’t sexual on my part. Sensuous perhaps. It seemed to me that it made the bond closer. Not because of the sexual activity, but because of the lack of having to keep breaking. And that’s really all it was. I was there to get to know Peter. That was part of Peter.”

After six months, the language experiment with Peter ended and interest in Lilly’s work started drying up, along with funding. Lovatt’s focus shifted from living with Peter to shutting down the lab. While the live-in experiment didn’t succeed in its stated goals, it did succeed in building a deep and enduring bond between Peter and Lovatt, and that bond was now broken. That was something Lovatt could understand, but they never did figure out how to communicate with Peter; he couldn’t have understood what was going on.

When the dolphins all moved from the Dolphin House to a new lab inside an old Miami bank building, Peter was heartbroken. Lilly called Lovatt after only a few weeks to tell her that Peter had died of an apparent suicide. When you and I breathe, it can be an intentional act or it can be automatic, it allows us to keep breathing even if we’re unconscious. For dolphins, living in their watery environment, every breath is a choice. Peter simply chose not to take the next breath and he died.

In retrospect, it’s one of the weirdest and most tragic chapters in the history of animal science, but the work Lilly, Bateman, and Lovatt did at Dolphin House is partly responsible for the cultural understanding of dolphins as intelligent beings. Today, there is growing evidence that dolphins are capable of complex communication, vindicating Lilly’s ideas, if not his methods. They didn’t succeed at talking with dolphins but, in a way, they did succeed at getting the conversation started.

Watch Cocaine Bear, streaming now on Peacock!

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