Brow Beat

It Is Time for Us to Forgive Zafar, the Sex-Pest Dolphin of Landévennec, France

Two friendly-looking dolphins, a mother and calf, swimming toward the camera.
Bella and Mirabella are both bottlenose dolphins from Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. Unlike Zafar, the sex-pest dolphin of Landévennec, France, neither Bella nor Mirabella has been accused of sexual misconduct.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

We all remember the awful day we first read the Washington Post’s shocking report that Zafar, the once-beloved bottlenose dolphin of Ladévennec, France, was allegedly engaging in very enthusiastic sexual misconduct with swimmers, boats, and even kayaks. We remember it because it was literally Tuesday. But even today, the questions raised by the troubling allegations against Zafar linger. How could such a brilliant dolphin fall so far? Was Zafar’s penchant for rubbing himself on anything he could find the driving force behind his art from the beginning? Do we really believe the story of a lowly kayak over that of a major dolphin talent like Zafar? Don’t dolphins have a right to make a living, even if that living seems to consist mostly of sexually terrorizing swimmers and watercraft? And—and this is the most important thing of all—do we have the courage, as a society, to provide Zafar with a path to redemption, even if he never asks for one? Can we be wise enough to welcome him back into the Bay of Brest and collectively pretend nothing ever happened from now on? I may take some heat for the bold and courageous stance my boldness and courage lead me to take here, but I think the answer is clear: It is time for us to forgive Zafar, the sex-pest dolphin of Landévennec, France.

There’s no sense minimizing it: The accusations against Zafar are very grave. But are they really all that grave? Here’s what we know:

• Zafar has been delighting swimmers for months, even giving them rides through the water.
• He has allegedly been seen making unwanted advances against swimmers, boats, and kayaks.
• In one instance, he allegedly blocked a female swimmer’s path, preventing her from leaving the water until a boat rescued her from Zafar’s attentions.
• In a separate incident, he allegedly “lifted a woman out of the water with his nose.”
• Did we mention he delighted swimmers in the past?

In response to these minimal allegations, the town’s mayor, Roger Lars, passed a Flashdance-style law banning swimming whenever Zafar is in the area. This draconian measure, according to Lars, is necessary “to preserve the safety of the people,” who were “frightened.” First of all, who elected Roger Lars mayor? But beyond the obvious arrogance of one man getting to decide for all of us what kind of nonconsensual dolphin sex counts as “frightening,” the response to the Zafar allegations—a blanket condemnation completely uninformed by any consideration of the larger context or what a charming, entertaining dolphin Zafar has been in the past—is disappointing, to say the least.

For one thing, Zafar is clearly the unwitting victim of changing social mores, and we need to be careful not to engage in presentism. It’s wrong to judge Zafar’s actions from a long time ago—earlier in the summer—based on the standards we’ve only developed in the last twenty-four hours or so. Bluenose dolphins can live as long as 40 years, so we can safely assume that Zafar learned how to behave around men, women, and kayaks in a different time. Specifically, we should assume he grew up in the time of Aulus Gellius, who, in his second century work Noctes Atticae, described the dolphin-human courtship rituals of a more civilized age:

Delphinos venerios esse et amasios non modo historiae veteres, sed recentes quoque memoriae declarant. Nam et sub Caesaris Augusti imperio in Puteolano mari, ut Apion scriptum reliquit, et aliquot saeculis ante apud Naupactum, ut Theophrastus tradidit, amores flagrantissimi delphinorum cogniti compertique sunt. Neque hi amaverunt, quod sunt ipsi, genus, sed pueros forma liberali in naviculis forte aut in vadis litorum conspectos miris et humanis modis arserunt. 

Loosely translated, the passage means that Zafar should face no further censure for anything he has done and anyone who is saying that being sexually harassed by a dolphin was an unpleasant experience is probably just jealous of Zafar’s fame. I’ve left the passage in the original Latin, which I don’t read, in hopes of steamrolling people into agreeing with me because it seems like I know what I’m talking about. If you don’t read Latin (and should, therefore, really consider letting people like me decide when Zafar should return to the public eye), here is an old-timey translation:

That dolphins are of a wanton and amorous nature, is declared as well by ancient hiſtory as by recent narratives. For in the time of the Cæſars, as Apion has related, in the ſea of Puteoli, and ſome ages before, off Naupatum, according to Theophraſtus, certain dolphins were known and proved to be vehemently amourous. Neither were they thus attached to their own ſpecies, but in a wonderful manner, and like human beings, felt a paſſion for youths of an ingenuous appearance, whom they had ſeen in veſſels or on the ſhore.

As Aulus Gellius makes clear, Zafar should be thought of as “an old dinosaur learning new ways,” rather than “a dolphin violently seeking sexual satisfaction from unsuspecting humans and a wide variety of inanimate objects.” Are we really willing to deny this dolphin the opportunity to practice his art, just because of certain horrible things he may or may not have done and may or may not do in the future?

And just how sure are we that Zafar really did what people are saying? At least some of the allegations come from boats and kayaks, vessels that can neither propel themselves through water without the help of human beings nor dive gracefully beneath the waves, as Zafar was so fond of doing after allegedly rubbing himself to completion. Is it so ridiculous to think there might be elements of professional jealousy in the stories we’re hearing about Zafar’s behavior? Do we really think a handsome, successful dolphin like Zafar would spend his time with a boat like this one?

A kayak sitting on a dock.
It just doesn’t make sense.
Aaron M. Schnee

Even if we accept the most outlandish claims about Zafar, we should still consider the wise words of environmental law specialist Erwan Le Cornec before demonizing him. In an interview with Le Telegramme about the allegations against Zafar, Le Cornec spoke out about the unintended consequences of the mayor’s reckless smear campaign:

It will turn the legitimately positive approach that people have to dolphins into a fear of these intelligent animals, and make this fear into a panic and this panic into a real psychosis. 

It’s difficult to imagine the long-term mental health problems that might be caused if people spent most of their lives being afraid, in personal and professional situations alike, that at any moment a previously friendly bottlenose dolphin might whip out his bottlenose dolphin penis. It’s the kind of thing that could poison civil society, which is why it’s important that we not make too big a deal out of Zafar’s alleged misdeeds and, instead, let them slowly fade into memory so Zafar can keep entertaining people, boats, and kayaks, even when they least expect it.

But the most compelling evidence that Zafar has served his time and should be welcomed back into our coves, bays, and oceans without any further delay or effort on his part comes from the fact that he is a bottlenose dolphin. Dolphins, scientists tell us, don’t speak much English—or French, for that matter!—and the most famous attempt to teach them language was a Zafar-sized disaster. It’s hard to imagine Zafar could ever apologize enough for his harshest critics, inasmuch as he is biologically incapable of apologizing at all, so it’s time for the reasonable people in the room to loudly applaud his return to the public eye. Who are we to judge the penance Zafar has done in private, or claim to understand the dark nights of his dolphin soul? Isn’t the shaming and humiliation Zafar has endured in newspapers he can’t and doesn’t read more than enough punishment? Zafar’s private quest for rehabilitation after his public fall from grace a few days ago is none of our business, and he couldn’t tell us about it if he wanted to, so we should assume it was lengthy, extensive, and, above all, sufficient, since that will let us all quietly get back to enjoying his dolphiny antics without any guilt. Expecting anything more from Zafar or his fans would be as unfair and unreasonable as asking a dolphin to try to act like a human being. And we don’t even do that to human beings.