Photograph by Elizabeth Nolan
Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Current City: New York, New York
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I was torn being wanting to be a veterinarian and an artist.
How did you get started in your field of work?
Upon graduation from college, I was first working as a set designer in the theater but I was intrigued with animal communication and animal intelligence. I left the theater and eventually began a Ph.D. program that allowed me to create an interdisciplinary course of study at Temple University that included bioacoustics, language development, symbolic behavior, cybernetics and systems analysis, animal behavior and cognition. I felt I needed a rich interdisciplinary tool bag to study animal communication and cognition. I soon became fascinated with dolphins because they had such large and complex brains and were highly gregarious, yet so little was known about the nature of their communication and type of intelligence.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to dolphins?
As I study dolphins, they reveal more about the nature of their intelligence. These remarkable mammals share with us many abilities we once thought were uniquely human or that we shared only with our closest relatives, the great apes. For example, dolphins show the ability for mirror self-recognition and spontaneous vocal imitation, and they manufacture their own bubble rings out of thin air. We also provided young dolphins with an underwater keyboard, which offered them some choice and control in obtaining specific objects and activities by pressing specific keys.
What's a normal day like for you?
There is no normal day and that's what I like. I am a professor in the psychology department at Hunter College so I teach and work with doctoral, master's degree, and undergraduate students. During the semester I often travel to the National Aquarium or National Zoo to conduct studies on communication and cognition with dolphins and elephants—big gray mammals with big gray brains! During the summer months my students and I study dolphin communication in Bimini and Belize.
Do you have a hero?
I admire many scientists but I found Donald Griffin a real pioneer in the field of animal cognition. In 1976 he wrote a little book with a big message, The Question of Animal Awareness.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My favorite field experience was the rescue of a humpback whale, Humphrey, after he wandered into the San Francisco Bay and traveled about 60 miles inland through an intricate set of waterways. We were able to lead him back out to sea by playing back sounds of other whales feeding in Alaskan waters. Luring him to follow us, we led Humphrey back out to sea. We had saved a whale.
What are your other passions?
I love to read and listen to music (rock, classical, and jazz). I love to garden, go to stationary stores, and to travel (especially to Paris).
I am also passionate about bringing an end to the dolphin drives in Japan and other countries.
What do you do in your free time?
I love to read, go to flea markets, and listen to music.
If you could have people do one thing to help save dolphins, what would it be?
Dolphins are killed in dolphin drive hunts in areas of the world like Taiji, Japan. In these drives dolphins are chased and then killed in an incredibly brutal and inhumane manner. Our science must be applied globally now to gain increased protection for dolphins and whales.
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The capture of an unusual dolphin with an extra set of fins is shedding light on a controversial hunting technique in Japan.
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In Their Words
Our science must be applied globally now to gain increased protection for dolphins and whales.
Professor Diana Reiss tries to protect dolphins from inhumane slaughter.
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