Navy dolphins are classified by the military as Advanced Biological Weapons Systems, each costing Uncle Sam multiple millions of dollars in training, upkeep, and - in some cases - initial capture from the wild. What happens when one of them goes AWOL (Absent Without Leave in military parlance) - and why might one decide to jump ship in the first place?

What was Chopper, the Navy dolphin in question, thinking when he skittered across the waves away from a steady job and headed off instead for the wilds of an open ocean?

No one can say for certain, but behavioral psychology can offer us some clues. All organisms - humans and dolphins included - typically adopt one of three primary responses to circumstances they find punishing: avoidance, aggression, or learned helplessness.

The last response is the most heartbreaking of the three to observe. It also comes last on the list for a reason. Learned helplessness is hopelessness and depression nearing its worst. It's what we do when all other ways out of unfavorable circumstances have been tried, often repeatedly and to no avail.

In humans, shoulders slump and smiles vanish, only to be replaced by a weary, far-away look in the eye announcing that defeat is at hand. Dolphins tend to float listlessly at the surface for hours at a time, avoiding both play and foraging for fish. Dark sunburns - with potential to blister and break, sometimes giving rise to fatal infections - can appear on their backs.

Thankfully, life in the Navy never got quite that bad for Chopper.

Why, then, did he decide to duck-and-run (or dive-and-swim, if you prefer), turning his back on active duty for nearly four months? Was it possible Chopper had moral compunctions about serving in the military? He wouldn't, after all, be the first large-brained mammal with such reservations.

Whatever the reason, Chopper's departure created more than a few ripples of reaction. Navy craft were deployed. Helicopters took to the skies. The Coast Guard was put on alert. And Lifeguard Services all along the Pacific Coast were enlisted as lookouts.

Quite a reaction to skipping a day at the office, wouldn't you say?

The problem from the Navy's perspective was that Chopper wasn't just a dolphin on holiday. He was a multi-million dollar weapon gone AWOL. He might as well have been Jason Bourne, the fictional assassin-gone-rouge of Hollywood movie fame. He had to be found and, if possible, returned to the fold. Re-programming, anyone?

The dolphin hunt lasted for weeks, but Chopper was never found - at least, not by the massive search party.

It might be tempting to say that Chopper heard freedom beckoning, that he wanted to live closer to nature - his rather than ours. But such a conclusion might be misleading and even highly romanticized.

We humans, after all, might well be living in a state-of-nature ourselves had we not long ago followed our desire for ease and comfort into the modern age of flush toilets and fluorescent lighting. Occasionally, we wonder about what might have been had we left well-enough alone.

When we do feel ourselves pulled toward our primal roots, we go camping for a weekend or two - and then return home to our four walls, our daily commutes, and our steady paychecks. Voluntarily, even if somewhat reluctantly. Very few of us ever opt permanently out of domesticity.

Neither do most of the dolphins I have known.

Just think of what they'd be leaving behind: secure lodgings free from predators, regular social contact with their own species (as well as with a host of amusing primates), numerous opportunities for job advancement, and a steady diet of restaurant-quality fish of assorted types to ensure variety.

Sounds like Club Med. What more did Chopper want - a health plan? Turns out he had one, and when things got a little too wooly out there in the wilds, he decided to pay his premium.

One day, months after the Navy had given up on ever finding him again, Chopper surfaced alongside the free-floating dolphin pens of San Diego Bay and announced his presence to a nearby trainer with an audible popping of breath from his blowhole. When the trainer approached, Chopper - who, like all other Navy dolphins, had received expert veterinary care on numerous occasions - raised above the waterline an injured pectoral fin in greeting. 

It should be noted that during the course of open water work, Navy dolphins routinely have ample opportunity to break from their human handlers simply by swimming away as Chopper had months before, but very few of them ever do. Incidents of absence without leave, when they do occur, typically last a matter of minutes or hours rather than weeks or months.

In fact, like their human counterparts - the enlisted salty dogs who may complain about pulling sea duty, but who find themselves "re-upping" every few years - military dolphins seem to consider the Navy home.

A well-known animal rights activist (who shall here remain nameless, but who regularly makes headlines around the world for his often bold rescue efforts) refused to entertain such a possibility.

Employing ninja-like stealth and armed with a diving knife during a middle-of-the-night military operation of his own, the activist famously infiltrated San Diego Bay's Navy dolphin facility some years ago. Intent on freeing captive dolphins, he slashed wide the netted enclosures housing scores of dolphins. Any dolphin then game enjoyed unfettered access to the bay as well as to the open ocean beyond.

At dawn the next morning, bleary-eyed trainers arriving at the fish house like a cadre of chefs ready to prep the morning meal were greeted by billowing nets - and the usual crowd of hungry dolphins.

None of them had gone anywhere - and, perhaps, not so surprisingly.

What, after all, would any of us have done had someone smashed all our windows in the middle of the night - and before breakfast, no less?

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2011

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