Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) is a relatively new treatment that is becoming popular for children with learning disabilities, such as autism, Down syndrome and attention deficit disorder, as well as patients with epilepsy, cancer and depression.
Advocates claim that DAT boosts the immune system and increases the learning capacity by 2-10 times, with a retention rate of 50% in a year. However, this therapy is not without its critics. Researchers and psychologists are concerned that this growing fad is dangerous to humans and dolphins, overpriced and unproven scientifically. With that said, it is essential to understand the basics of DAT which lies within the communication of the dolphins.
A Dolphins language consists of a series of clicks, whistles, meows and barks. These sounds produce powerful sonar. Although complicated, the basics seem relatively simple: the waves of sonar resonate between the skull and the sternum, moving up through the spine, creating a relaxed state (similar to the brain wave called Alpha) where our bodies produce major infection and disease fighting T-Cells and endorphins. It also triggers a “phenomenon called cavitation , (a ripping apart of molecules).” (R.Blow, 01, 1995). Apparently this hole created by caviation fills with these critical healing molecules, and sends them out in force throughout the body.
LifePositive gives an example of the outcome: In 1995, “a child suffering from leukemia…with only a few months to live…,” received the therapy and is “enjoying a complete remission to this day.”
According to Dolphinassistance.org, working with dolphins increases learning for children with autism or Down syndrome from 2-10 times more rapidly than those without DAT. Upon successful completion of targeted tasks, the children are rewarded with dolphin interaction. Because the children enjoy being with the dolphins as much as possible, this reward becomes an effective tool, which in turn creates positive memories associated with the task, resulting in long term retention.
With over 150 Dolphin Assisted programs worldwide, it would seem that this therapy is beyond criticism. That is not the case.
In 2007, Lori Marino, a researcher at Emory University, and Scott Lilienfield, a clinical psychologist, began campaigning against DAT, stating, “DAT is bad for People and for Dolphins”. Their rationale is logical. No long term studies have proven the effectiveness of DAT, and “five studies [reviewed] for efficacy of DAT were invalid.” (From Wildlife Extra website)
Although sonar is used in modern medicine to break up kidney stones and gallstones, their contention is that the sonar used by dolphins is far less powerful, even if dolphins communicate regularly during therapy, which many do not. Their well-being is vital for their behavior and communication. But, with the demand of DAT, that is jeopardized greatly. Currently, regulations’ regarding the capture of dolphins is either non-existent or loosely enforced. Although most dolphins are bred in captivity in the United States, many are captured in the most brutal and tortuous ways and purchased by U.S. facilities.
It is estimated that as many are caught, an equal amount are killed or wounded. Many are separated from their mates and/or calves. This can lead to aggressive and unpredictable behavior. This creates great risk for everyone involved, especially the children.
Dolphins are also highly social mammals. Captivity, separation, isolation and stress often lead to sickness and/or death. Putting children in a tank with a sick or dying dolphin may increase the risk of infection for both the child and the dolphin(s) involved.
Dolphin Assisted Therapy is clearly controversial. Sonar is a medically proven therapy and rewarding children with such a delightful adventure as swimming with dolphins would clearly promote effective teaching and learning strategies. However, the risks to these gentle and intelligent mammals, and those they are purportedly healing, should be carefully considered by all interested DAT. The risks involved are not without warrant, and are most certainly more clearly documented than the benefits.
In conclusion, before considering DAT, do your homework. Research the facility, and know how they attain and care for their mammals, as this will directly affect your child. Talk to professionals, as well as those who have completed the therapy, and be open to both the positive and the negative feedback. Remember that the goal of many facilities is not necessarily the care of your child or the dolphins involved.
These children and the dolphins are both at great risk and should be protected. Neither should be sacrificed in the name of therapy.