Malcolm Brenner is the only man on Earth to achieve international fame for having sex with a dolphin. A former investigative journalist who covered the American Southwest, he remains best known for his 1970's love affair—mostly romantic, briefly sexual—with a bottlenose dolphin named Dolly. Their "courtship," which Brenner sees as dolphin-initiated and also transcendently romantic, took place in a theme park in Florida, the state where Brenner, now 63, currently lives. He chronicled these events in his autobiographical novel Wet Goddess, and Brenner's story is the subject of a new short documentary called Dolphin Lover.
Watching Dolphin Lover, I was struck by the sincere, troubled and complicated intimacy with which Brenner recalls these events, which took place when he was only 19. About his first contact with Dolly, he says:
I started rubbing her forehead—she seemed to enjoy that—so I started rubbing her back, working my way down towards her tail, and as I was rubbing her, moving my hand towards her tail, Dolly started slowly rolling around her long axis. By the time I got midway down her body I was rubbing her belly instead of her back, and she swam forward so that I was rubbing her genital slit, and then she stopped moving. I thought, 'This is embarrassing."
About their eventual open-water sexual consummation—the dolphin had to be horizontal, him vertical; the CGI rendering in the film is really something—Brenner said it felt like he was "merging with her" into "one creature that was making love with himself."
Here, he describes Dolly's tactics:
Filmmakers Joey Daoud and Kareem Tabsch tracked Brenner down after reading his story on the internet, then his novel. I asked them if Brenner seemed concerned about turning over his story to outsiders for this documentary, and they admitted he'd had his concerns: "no Flipper jokes" and whatnot. But neither Daoud nor Tabsch was interested in being any more sensationalistic than the story is already.
Daoud talked about his initial reaction to reading the "Man Has Sex with Dolphin" headline. "You imagine that the guy got into a shallow pen with a dolphin and chased it around," he said. "But then I realized it was more detailed, more nuanced." Tabsch added that he was taken by Brenner's openness, and that the aspect of the story he found most surprising was "that he views his zoophilia as a product of nurture instead of nature, which is controversial, as many zoophiles and people of non-normative sexualities really feel that nature is the cause." More specifically: Brenner attributes his zoophilia to a protracted period of molestation at the hands of his childhood psychiatrist, now linked to many such crimes. (He also compares zoophilia to interracial dating, hoping that one day, the former may be as acceptable as the latter.)
As an non-shockable person interested in the point where the unimaginable becomes mundane, I sought out Malcolm myself for an interview. We talked on the phone yesterday, and at the beginning of the call, discovered we both own collie mixes. I asked him, awkwardly, if it was confusing to own a dog and be a zoophile. "I'm not indiscriminately attracted to animals," Brenner said, "in the same way that I'm not indiscriminately attracted to women."
Is that a common misconception about zoophilia?
Sure. Also, people often assume you're attracted to children, which is not at all true in my case.
In the documentary, you talk about figuring out that you were attracted to animals early, with a Disney cartoon at age five, then with your family dog Miss Clavel at age 11. But Miss Clavel wasn't interested.
Pretty much, no. My mom bred her, but I didn't have what it takes.
And during this period, you were being physically and sexually abused by a psychiatrist.
It's a rather strange field called orgonomy. The founder is a man named Wilhelm Reich, and it was one of his students that molested me. Reich had this school of psychotherapy in which everything was sexualized, where sexuality was the life force of the universe, responsible for gravity and light. Treatment involved a very harsh kind of physical therapy.
The particular physical therapist that I was treated by was—it turns out now—someone who mistreated literally hundreds of children and adult patients. My brother, who still follows this field of therapy, has done research and become really horrified at the guy's misdeeds.
Since this field of psychotherapy revolves around sexuality, would patients generally come to these therapists with issues related to sex?
I was taken to my therapist because I had a difficult birth. In orgonomy, when something happens to you and you repress your feelings about it, it shows up in the form of tension in your body—and you investigate these neuroses and treat them through the body. But this was done in very painful and invasive ways. It was not a pleasant experience.
When did you start linking your zoophilia to this experience of abuse?
Not until much later on, not until I became skeptical of Reich's theories in my thirties, when there was just an overwhelming amount of evidence that he wasn't right, not the hero I'd thought he was.
And that was after your relationship with Dolly, right?
Yes, that happened when I was 19, 20. Have you seen the movie?
Yeah. I thought it was great. I was wondering if you were apprehensive about it.
I really was. Joey and Kareem had only done one movie together before, and I wasn't sure if they would have the right tone for Dolphin Lover. But we met, had some talks prior. Kareem won me over when he told me he believed I was truly in love with the dolphin.
Oh, for what it's worth, I always thought that was obvious. Why would someone devote such a large part of themselves to the memory of someone they didn't love?
Judging from a lot of the comments sections, people haven't thought that to be true.
Do you read the comments?
I started to, at first. But now, I don't so much.
That's good. So, I have a general question. What is attractive to you, in animals? Is it a type of animal, or a type of personality, or a situation, or a combination of these things?
I'm attracted to animals that have a rather independent streak in them. Animals that think for themselves. In addition to the dolphin, the only animal I ever had any sexual experience with is canines.
What was it about Dolly that attracted you? In the documentary, you talk about how she seemed attracted to you: initiating physical contact, running her teeth gently down your arms and legs, rubbing her genitals on your body.
That didn't happen initially. The water was too cold when I first got to the park.
But Dolly was a very unique dolphin, because she was allowed to perform with a riverboat. She was the only dolphin outside the US navy who could do open water work. She could have left the amusement park any time she wanted to, but she kept coming back. So I started wondering, what was the big draw? I really don't have a satisfactory answer, but I really think she was studying human behavior. I really do.
I think I missed it in the documentary that she would perform in open water.
Yes. The riverboat was refitted to look old-timey, and she'd swim alongside it, and jump about 11 feet in the air and take the fish out of the trainer's hand. It was something. It was really beautiful.
You were in this park for a photography project, right?
Yes, I was taking pictures for a writer's book. That first physical contact happened probably three months after I got there, so probably from November to late January.
How did it feel after she touched you? Did you immediately start thinking about initiating a sexual relationship with her?
I felt very embarrassed. I was not comfortable with my own zoosexuality—I didn't want to be a zoophile. I was trying to do everything I could to avoid this animal, who seemed to know what my secret was. It took her literally about 3 or 4 months to begin to win me over and convince me that she was intellectually pretty much my equal.
And at that point, I had to start asking myself—well, if I have this high of a regard for her, and if this was a woman who was being so forward with me, would I hold out on her? The answer I came up with was, no I wouldn't. And so I felt my sort of inhibitions just eroding.
Dolly actually changed her courtship tactics through the course of the relationship. At first she was gentle and forward, as you noted, but after that she became very aggressive. She would throw herself on me and rub her vulva against my knees. Any protruding part of my body was fair game for her. She would masturbate on me, essentially. I had to watch out that no one was around to witness this.
I was going to ask you if anyone in the park noticed.
Nobody picked up on it. I was slow to pick up on it, to be honest. I was not a virgin, but basically one. I wasn't either sexually very experienced, or emotionally very experienced. That, I think, was the downfall of the relationship.
In what way?
I'd made plans to go to college out of state, at Evergreen, in Washington State. I'd been going to New College of Florida, and I was dissatisfied, and Evergreen looked like an exciting and innovative type of place. But I was also frankly freaked out by the intensity of my involvement with the dolphin. I was having telepathic connections with the dolphin.
Was the act of intercourse you talk about in the documentary the only one?
Yes. But the telepathic connection was much more intense than the documentary represents, and it started earlier. I was getting high a lot back then, and it began while I was high one night. The voice did not immediately announce itself to be a dolphin trying to communicate with me—it was a voice that wanted to play games, 20 Questions, that kind of thing.
I was skeptical but intrigued. And I couldn't make it go away. I could tell it to shut up, but not to go away. I wondered if I was going schizophrenic, but most schizophrenics have voices that are violent, tell them to hurt themselves. This voice was playful and benevolent, and gradually, I came to the conclusion that it was the dolphin.
The voice had the personality you perceived from Dolly.
Yes, it did. And the thing was, I could go to see the real dolphin, and I might have a very puzzling and challenging experience with her. Once I took a girl I wanted to impress down there, and she thought swimming with the dolphins would be a wonderful idea. Dolly was the dolphin you could swim with at this park—the other ones were males, who are supposed to be more rambunctious. So I took this young woman down to see Dolly, who basically towed her to the side of the far pool and tossed her out of the water.
The dolphin was acting like a girlfriend.
Yeah, she sussed what was up. And I saw, she is appropriating me like this.
What was it like when you were finally had sex with her?
It felt like I was making love with the ocean itself. It felt like, first of all, that I had forgiven myself—gotten over my hesitations about finally giving her what she wanted. When I had that realization, then it just seemed there was this energy surging between us, growing more intense, bringing us both to orgasm. Some scientists say that female animals don't have orgasms, but I know she did. She vocalized it.
Would you describe this as the greatest intimacy you've ever felt with anyone?
Yeah, it stepped right over the species line. The dolphin, I know, was just as aware. She'd had to elude a male dolphin to get to me.
Does it feel lonely to you now that this height of intimacy in your life happened so long ago, and with a dolphin?
Yeah, it does. But I had a very strong sense of intimacy with my second wife, also. It was some physical thing that happened when we were close together—her smell, or her electrical field. I thought that that intimacy would sustain our relationship. In the long run it did not, and I've always felt cheated by intimacy, ever since.
You've been married twice—was either of your wives ever jealous of Dolly?
I don't think jealousy was a big part of what caused this relationship to founder. There were other circumstances.
I read in your bio that your first wife introduced you to Wicca, which was a belief system that allows for your sexual relationship with Dolly.
In Wicca, all acts of love and pleasure are rituals to the gods. That's a pretty open statement for sexuality, and it seemed to encompass my experience. I practiced Wicca for 20 years.
Recently, you told Vice that your atheism presents a larger problem in dating than your sexual history.
Frankly, I think that after all of this publicity, my dating life is shot.
I want to ask you again about what you said about wishing you'd been able to handle your relationship with Dolly differently. What would you have changed?
I wish I had stayed closer to her, not gone clear across the country. She was moved to an aquarium in Mississippi, kept in very poor conditions, put in a concrete pen with a view of open water. For a dolphin like her, that must have been torturous.
Her trainer told me that he came out one morning and she was just dead on the bottom of the tank.
I had forgotten that about dolphins, until the documentary—that they don't breathe automatically, but consciously. You also talk about a dream you had sort of forecasting her death. I can imagine how awful that must have been for you.
It took me about five years to work myself out of an immediate sense of depression. It wasn't only that Dolly was separated from me. She had developed a fondness for the male dolphin, too, the one in Florida that she had to avoid so that we could make love. She was separated from him, too. And the other dolphins in the new aquarium did not take up with her. They have their pecking order and that's that.
It's really sad to imagine anyone you love being lonely when they die.
Yeah. And that's why I'm trying to get the message out. That's not how we should treat animals.
I wanted to ask you about that—the idea of getting a message out. The phrase "zoophilia advocate" gets attached to your name a lot, and I'm wondering what that means to you.
If I could have told this story without coming out of the closet about being a zoophile, I would have, but there was just no way. I am not advocating for zoophilia at all. I would advocate that the government quit prosecuting us for loving who we love. But I'm not advocating for it.
Okay, yeah. Because it seems clear to me that you're very interested in establishing whatever consent can be established between people and animals, but that seems impossible to legally regulate or verify.
Yes, I'm not advocating for it.
You differentiate zoophilia from bestiality in the documentary in a way that I interpreted as drawing a certain line: that bestiality draws on the fact that the animal can't give explicit consent—like, the consent-breaching quality of the act is part of the appeal in bestiality. But zoophilia draws on the desire to elicit consent nonverbally from the animal, as much as a person can.
Yeah, I would say so. A zoophile is as concerned with his or her partner's consent and pleasure as any other person would be. Animals do consent to each other—that's what the process of courtship is about. And if you approach an animal from the animal's point of view, you can obtain consent the same way another animal would.
It's not necessarily a difficult thing to do. You're approaching a female animal; she'd better be in heat. If you don't do this correctly, you can get seriously hurt. Animals have no compunction about letting you know that what you're doing is not acceptable. People accuse me of having raped the dolphin, but one man in the water could never rape a dolphin.
It could just swim away from you at 20 miles per hour.
Navy SEALs have told me that they would be helpless against a dolphin.
I read that you haven't had sex with any other animals since Dolly. Is this out of respect to her, or lack of the right circumstances?
Except for one very brief sexual encounter, I haven't had any partners for the last 10 years.
Would you trade your sexuality for a "normal" one?
I don't know. That's a difficult question to answer. I would give anything to get the dolphin back. Almost anything. And for a long time in my life, the answer to your question would have been easier. But at this age, I've accepted myself as a zoophile, indelibly.
Have you connected with other zoophiles? Considered dating them?
Zoophiles tend to gather in chat rooms that I don't spend a lot of time in. According to Kinsey, female zoophiles are about half as common as male zoophiles. I haven't really met any or had any approach me.
Do you ever get tired of talking about Dolly?
I find the publicity I'm getting right now rather stressful. I'm not a public person. I wrote the book so I wouldn't have to tell the story, but here I am, telling it.
Do you think about her every day?
At least. Yes, every day.
For more about Malcolm Brenner, visit his website or buy Wet Goddess. Next from Miami-based documentary filmmakers Kareem Tabsch and Joey Daoud is the award-winning short documentary Cherry Pop: The Story of the World's Fanciest Cat, which will be making its online debut soon. You can find out more about Dolphin Lover and stay updated as to the film's release at its website.