Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Conversation with Diana Reiss

Photo: Elizabeth Nolan
Diana Reiss is an expert on dolphin intelligence. As a professor of psychology at Hunter College in New York and the Director of Dolphin Research at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Dr. Reiss is well known for her work as a scientist. However, she is also one of the world's leading dolphin advocates, and has worked tirelessly to educate the public about dolphin welfare. Her work helped to inspire The Cove, an Oscar-winning film that she also served as an adviser on.

In her new book, The Dolphin in the Mirror, Dr. Reiss shares her stories and knowledge from a long career of working with dolphins, and introduces us to their fascinating personalities and impressive intelligence.

Diana Reiss will be visiting Kepler's on Wednesday, September 21st, at 7:00 PM. For more information, please visit our event page.

 Get the book HERE.

Megan Kurashige: What inspired you to write The Dolphin in the Mirror? Was there a particular reason that you wrote this book now, or a particular event that made you want to give a broader audience a look into your work with these amazing animals?

Diana Reiss: I wanted to write this book for some time, but I felt it had to be written now. We are at a critical point now in gaining more global protection for dolphins and whales. As a scientist, I have been working as an advocate to stop the dolphin drive hunts in Japan--as featured in the Oscar winning film The Cove. I want to share my personal and scientific experiences and discoveries about dolphins with a broad audience in the hope that we can raise global awareness and  gain global protection for these highly social and sentient species.

MK: I read that you studied theater and worked as a set designer. What made you want to switch to the study of psychology? Has your previous work as an artist had any influence on your work as a scientist and researcher?

DR: When I was younger I was torn between wanting to be a veterinarian and being an artist. As a young child and teenager, I took modern dance and art classes and I was also involved in rescuing and caring for animals. While in an MA program in theatre at Temple University, I began working as a set designer for a regional experimental theatre company, The Manning Street Theatre, in Philadelphia. The director (my husband) and I were invited to participate in an experimental theatre workshop in Poland with the well-known and highly revered director, Jerzy Growtowski. The actors attending the workshop all spoke different languages and one night, we were asked to find non-verbal ways of communicating. It was during this workshop that I had an epiphany that I should go back to college and study animal communication and cognition. It may seem odd but it all became quite clear to me that night. When I returned home I enrolled at the university, made up some needed classes and applied for graduate school in Speech and Communication Sciences. The tools and skills I have as a set designer have been invaluable to me as a scientist. My history in the theatre has made me a bit of a "bricoleur"--a "jack-of-all-trades"--one who uses non-specialized tools for a wide variety of purposes. I am often able to envision, draw and often fabricate my own apparatus and equipment as needed, but, of course, I have help from many others as well. 

MK: Why did you choose to work with dolphins in particular?

DR: As I mention in my book, at the time I began my studies, I was struck by how little was known about the communication and cognitive abilities of dolphins and whales. Bottlenose dolphins seemed to be an important species to study because they had large and complex brains, like us and our closest relatives, the great apes, yet their brains are different--they don't have an area we would consider to be frontal lobes (the area associated with higher cognitive functioning). I was also struck by the fact that they were still being slaughtered in the annual practice of whaling. I felt there was an urgency to learn more about them.

MK: Dolphins have such complex brains and impressive intelligence. They are also immensely appealing to many people, yet there are still some exploitative and brutal instances of dolphin abuse and slaughter. How does your work as an activist tie into your work as a scientist?

DR: Knowing what I know about dolphins, as a species and as individuals, compels me to work as an advocate for their protection. The dolphin drives in Japan are unjustifiable on any grounds. The slaughter is a brutal and arcane practice, done with no concern to the pain and suffering that is inflicted on the dolphins. The practices have gotten even worse since the filming of The Cove. What was shown in the film is what I call "the Disney version" of what really goes on. The filmmakers could not show anything more graphic to a public audience. As a scientist with expertise in dolphin cognition, I am working to apply our science to global policy, to bring an immediate end to the dolphin drives wherever they occur. Currently, they primarily take place in Taiji, Japan. They just began this month and will continue through April.

MK: What do you most hope for readers to take away from your book?

DR: I hope that my readers will feel a compassion and empathy for dolphins and whales and join in in fighting for their protection.  I think we are at a tipping point now, and with more global awareness and concern we can bring an end to this practice.

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