Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VII No. 2 April 1998

What About Dolphin Assisted Therapy?

by William Rossiter, CSI President

Mix an autistic child, desperate parents, an advertised miracle, a hefty fee, a plastic lined hole in the ground, water mixed with salt, and throw in a dolphin, and you have perhaps the worst example of a controversial growth industry called Dolphin Assisted Therapy, or DAT. CSI recently became concerned with this enigmatic aspect of cetaceans in captivity when we learned of possible situations in Latin America where the treatment and care of dolphins used for DAT was reported as minimal, even inhumane. Portable displays now bring captive dolphins hundreds of miles from the sea, and if promoted well, generate great profits from people eager to see the mystical creature, and desperate for a miracle cure.

DAT is a very complex but poorly documented issue. There are very few statistics, but an abundance of promotional and anecdotal information. The majority of patients may be children suffering from disorders such as autism, Down's syndrome and movement disorders. Among other things DAT is promoted for the reduction of stress, alleviation of depression, and increased cognition for children with mental retardation.

Dr. Bernard Rimland, director of the Autism Research Institute in San Diego says, "There is no scientific evidence at all that using dolphins is helpful. The reputable people in the field simply feel the kids like the dolphins and it's a recreational thing." On the other hand a medical representative for Convimar at Mexico City's Aragon Aquarium feels their success rate is very high because of the dolphins' help; the dolphins seem able to diagnose problem areas. He said 90 percent of his patients show significant results, although he hadn't completed a formal survey. Convimar is reported to supply dolphins for several traveling shows in Latin America. Michael Westerveld, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Yale University's School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, said he'd be "quite surprised if there was any validity to the notion that they (dolphins) could target any particular area with their ultrasound. If there's any success, I'd be much more inclined to attribute it to the general effects of ... the opportunity to interact with animals. You could buy them a puppy and probably see the same results". The medical validity of DAT treatments is intriguing, but obviously outside of CSI's scope. CSI's focus is on the care of the captive dolphins. But how can anyone be unmoved by the human stories as well? Some see DAT as mostly sham. To others DAT is an opportunity to help a loved one; perhaps to believe in miracles.

Miracle is a potent word associated with DAT by people who have watched a normally unresponsive child find a way to move or speak to keep a dolphin interacting. Some dolphins seem to relate to the patients in a most understanding, some would say mystical, manner. Success stories have been amplified and promoted to feed a desperate human market. There are successes through legitimate practitioners, but there are also expensive and disillusioning failures associated with irresponsible shams. The truth is that no one knows how many DAT operations exist, how many dolphins are involved, what kind of conditions they are kept in, and how many don't survive. The promise of miracles has created a certainty of profit. The necessary regulations and studies may never catch up to the development of this industry. Clinical evaluations and professional studies are also irrelevant to people desperate for a cure.

A 1988 study by David E. Nathason found that "animals appear to increase attention for cognitively deficient groups" under the hypothesis that the inability of the mentally retarded to learn is primarily a function of a deficit in physiological attention to the stimuli, rather than an inability to process information. Along with noting that water is an effective stress reducer, he concluded that dolphins are "potentially the most useful non-human species to help increase cognitive functioning for retarded populations". There is ample research to demonstrate that handicapped people may respond to therapies that include the stimulus of an animal, but there is little data to conclude that dolphins provide more significant results than other creatures. The key seems to be the value the patient places on the stimulus.

CSI put questions about DAT to several thousand cetologists via the Internet. We were heartened by the number of concerns expressed by this normally reticent group. All seemed to agree; DAT is long overdue for study. Some felt the programs place too much emphasis on the healing power of the dolphin and not enough on the role of the therapist in implementing a high-quality therapy session. Information may come from the International Dolphin-Assisted Therapy and Research Association (IDATRA) that works closely with the Delta Society. We have received information from reputable DAT programs, others that just consider themselves reputable, and a loose network of concerned people. There even may be an unusual collaboration between CSI, the better facilities, and local activists as we work to improve the conditions some DAT dolphins suffer. The better DAT operators agree that information, standards and regulations are needed in all aspects of this issue. We would appreciate any information that you offer to us.

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