Dolphins as Therapists

Candice Gaukel Andrews May 3, 2011 3
Dolphin

Complex and cultural beings, cetaceans inspire a feeling of kinship. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews.

Dogs have been working as “therapists” for us for a long time now. Since the 1970s, they have been going into nursing homes, assisted living centers, children’s hospitals, and prisons to help lift spirits and provide nonjudgmental companionship. Recently, they have even been sent into combat zones: in 2007, two Labrador retrievers were shipped to Iraq to help ease the stress of U.S. soldiers who were stationed there.

However, I was surprised to learn that another — wilder — animal has also been shouldering some mental health care duties for us: dolphins.

The therapist is in …

DAT, or “dolphin assisted therapy” — which involves swimming or indulging in other interactions with captive dolphins — has been in existence almost as long as pet therapy. It got started in the 1970s, with the support of an educational anthropologist from Florida International University, Dr. Betsy Smith. (She has since denounced the idea as exploitative and without merit.) In 1971, Dr. Smith watched as her mentally disabled brother waded in water that had two, adolescent dolphins present. The dolphins were extremely gentle with him, and Smith concluded that they must have known that her brother was somehow “different” from other humans. She then began dolphin assisted therapy programs at two facilities in Florida.

Three dolphins

Social relationships play a big role in dolphin society. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews.

Today, more than one hundred organizations offer the service worldwide: including several in the U.S. (mostly in Florida and Hawaii), Mexico, Israel, Russia, Japan, China, and the Bahamas. This kind of therapy is being touted as helping to treat everything from depression and anxiety to infections, cancer, AIDS, and autism.

DAT facilities advertise that those who pay — typically, $2,600 for five, forty-five minute sessions — will benefit by gaining enhanced concentration (from communing with a dolphin’s echolocation sensory system) and an increase in biophilia, or love of life and the living world (from some kind of vague energy transfer from dolphin to human).

… Hot water

Throughout time, people have used dolphin parts for curative and totemic purposes. As complex, intelligent, emotional, and cultural beings, we tend to feel a kinship with them. Our military has even employed dolphins for various missions, from finding mines to rescuing lost or trapped persons. And in May 2005, Australian researchers discovered that some mother dolphins teach their daughters to use tools. Breaking off sponges, the mothers demonstrate how to carry them over their snouts, as a sort of shield against dangerous creatures — such as stonefish with venomous spines — as they hunt for fish on the ocean floor.

Splash

Being able to touch just a small part of the wild is always appealing and thrilling. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews.

 

As far as acting as therapists, however, to date there is no scientific evidence that DAT improves any disorder. In fact, many people have been hurt. Some have reported that they’ve been bitten, bruised, and even held under the water by captive dolphins that are coerced into swimming with them.

It stands to reason that dolphins would behave this way, given the stress that captivity causes them. Social relationships play a big role in dolphin society. The artificially constructed “pods” captive dolphins endure in tanks are not natural groupings, so conflicts between dolphins often develop. When that happens in such a small, enclosed environment, unlike in the vast ocean, there is no way for a dolphin to escape. The 2010 U.S. Marine Mammal Inventory Report (which you can download from this site) stated that Mylanta, an over-the-counter medication for humans, is often given to captive dolphins for stomach ulcers. DAT is not regulated by any authority overseeing health and safety standards — for either humans or dolphins — and its practitioners are not required by law to receive special training or certification.

Being able to touch just a small part of the wild is always appealing and thrilling. I’d even go so far as to say it’s restorative: “therapeutic,” if you will. But if we’re going to force nonhuman animals to work for us, perhaps we might be better off hiring our more domestic, best friends.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

3 Comments »

  1. Mary Kuppenheimer May 3, 2011 at 1:23 pm - Reply

    So much depends on the individual human AND the individual animal. My mother, who was not an animal fan, would never have benefitted from having a sweet dog interact with her, but I know that horse therapy can do wonders for many, so I am not surprised that dolphins could also provide calming and therapeutic results for certain people.

  2. Jack May 4, 2011 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    That does not sound like a happy dolphin.

  3. autism scams exposed February 23, 2012 at 10:01 pm - Reply

    Before any parent of an autistic child decides to try and swim the dolphins, I suggest you see Japan slaughtering the same dolphins your autistic child may be swimming with: See the movie: The Cove (film) – The dolphins are herded into a hidden cove where they are netted and sold for about 150,000 bucks! Others are SLAUGHTERED or sold as dolphin meat. These people have no souls. They are evil people, part of the making money off autism industry. But they will be exposed and bad karma will follow them for years. How funny that
    attempts to view or film the dolphin killing in the cove in Japan are physically blocked….gee, it’s all about money, what else? Bad karma is coming to these dolphin killing people. What a scam. Just like the people making money off autism. It’s not about autism, it’s all about making money OFF autism. See the movie “The Cove” and be prepared to see of greed that will make you sick. Just say NO to dolphin swim therapy and autism.

Leave A Response »