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Teaching an Old Dolphin New Tricks

Former members of an elite Soviet naval squad now pay their way via circus shows and child therapy.


SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — Mack, Vakh and Diana were once among the elite of the Soviet navy. They were trained to locate underwater mines, detect enemy frogmen and, according to some, kill without warning.

That was a decade ago, and the country they served no longer exists. Today they still live at the Kazachya Bay Naval Base on the Black Sea, but they have a new job: helping cure children of their nightmares, phobias and bed-wetting.

Call it military conversion, Ukrainian-style.

The three former cold warriors--or should we say cold water warriors--were members of a select corps of 70 bottlenose dolphins lavished with unlimited funds by the Soviet Union in its quest to create the ultimate aquatic weapon.

With the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the end of the Cold War in 1991, the demand for combat dolphins evaporated. The poverty-stricken Ukrainian navy, which inherited the former Soviet naval base and more than two dozen dolphins stationed there, was hard-pressed to find ways to maintain its highly trained assets. And so it went into business.

Kazachya Bay used to be a top-secret base closed to all outsiders. Now, for $10 a session, children can swim with Mack, Vakh or Diana in a treatment program the navy says can cure a wide range of ailments.

In a nearby indoor pool once used for dolphin training, navy researchers run circus shows for paying tourists. At the end of each show, the trainers auction off pictures painted by the dolphins, for the equivalent of a few dollars. The money, they say, buys fish to feed the animals.

Other dolphins and their former military trainers are dispatched under contract to perform in aquatic shows in such places as Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and other parts of Ukraine.

"At Kazachya Bay, the people are the same. The dolphins are the same. The facility is the same. Only the bookkeeping is different," says Igor Borovichenko, a dolphin trainer who has worked in the naval program for 20 years, most recently in circus shows.

Many of the activities at the base are shrouded in secrecy, and the distinction between military and civilian is fuzzy. All the administrators at the base are naval officers, and the navy maintains control over the animals.

Some harbor hope that the military program will someday be revived.

The tricks the dolphins perform in aquatic shows are simpler than the military maneuvers they were taught, but many of the moves are rooted in the same behavior. For a dolphin, touching a paintbrush to paper is not much different from attaching an explosive device to the hull of a ship. Naval researchers say it would take only six months to bring the dolphins back to top form.

Program Was a Source of National Pride

The navy's success in training dolphins for military purposes once symbolized Soviet might and helped boost national pride, much like the Mir space station and the Soviet fleet of nuclear submarines.

But in practical terms, the dolphins were an expensive specialty squad used primarily for retrieving objects from the sea floor and guarding the bay outside their own base. Today, with Ukraine in desperate straits, the dolphins must pay their way.

"We are trying to live in accordance with our means and tailor our demands to what we actually make here," says Commodore Valery Vakar, deputy director of the sea mammal training center. "Everything revolves around money."

For now, the big moneymaker is treating children and adults for all manner of ailments.

Lyudmila Lukina, who heads the treatment program, says she believes that "hundreds of illnesses" can be successfully treated by the psychotherapeutic effects of exposure to the dolphins and their sonar clicks.

"Dolphins have ideal natural ultrasound devices," she says. "They are unique biological ultrasound machines."

Over the years, the base has treated more than 2,000 patients, she says, many of them young children with neuroses ranging from stuttering to obsessive behavior. Lukina says the treatment provides "some measure of improvement" for 96% of patients and "cures 70% of child neuroses" in patients younger than 7.

Similar dolphin therapy is conducted at a center in Florida, but many Western scientists are dubious about the effectiveness of swimming with the animals. They attribute the successes of dolphin treatment to the increased attention the patient receives--and the benefit of a vacation at the seashore.

Dolphins, considered among the most intelligent of mammals, can live as long as 50 years in the wild. At 22, the gentle and patient Diana is one of the oldest at Kazachya Bay.

Trainers say dolphins of all ages are like human children in their constant desire to play. They're quick to learn and just as quick to take advantage of a trainer's weakness.

"They try to emulate sounds and behavior. This proves they are very observant animals," says Vladimir Petrushin, a former Soviet navy dolphin trainer who now runs an aquatic show in Moscow.

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