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Dolphin assisted therapy: from ancient myth to modern snake oil.

Diviner than the Dolphin is nothing yet created.

Oppian of Silicia

Greek poet, 200 A.D.

No nonhuman animal has attained the mythological status of the dolphin. Much of the fascination comes from our recognition of the dolphin's deep intelligence and lively curiosity; in fact, modern science confirms ancient intuitions that dolphins and other cetaceans (aquatic, mainly marine mammals like whales) possess large and highly elaborated brains, sophisticated thought, demonstrable self-awareness, complex societies and multilayered cultures. Also, dolphins live in a mostly inaccessible and therefore mysterious environment, adding to their allure. And the dolphin "smile"--not a grin but merely the physical configuration of the jaw--leads some mistakenly to pronounce dolphins as interminably happy and benign.


These attributes fuel several prominent themes in dolphin mythology, all bound by the common mystical belief that dolphins hold an elevated position above all other animals and that dolphins share an inherent empathic bond with humans.

The dolphin as hero

Kinship and rescue scenarios, typically involving human redemption and literal rebirth, recur in dolphin legends from Australia to Papua New Guinea to Laos to the Greco-Roman empires to South America, to name just a few sources. For example, in ancient Greece, Taras, son of the sea god Poseidon, was said to be rescued from a shipwreck by a dolphin sent by his father, and historical coinage depicts him riding one. In modern times, stories abound about dolphins protecting humans from sharks or guiding ships across treacherous waters. One famous example over the past several years is JoJo, a wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphin from the Turks and Caicos Islands in the British West Indies, whom inhabitant Dean Bernal claims safeguards him from sharks. Bernal has turned his bond with JoJo into a full-time job.

The dolphin as enlightenment

Similarly, some people believe that dolphins are spiritually and morally superior to humans. The simplistic notion of dolphins as entirely peaceful, altruistic and moral in contrast to mainly violent, self-absorbed, immoral humans persists among many Western metaphysical movements. Dolphins double as the ultimate New Age icon, omnipresent in websites, books, music CDs and posters, representing unconditional love and, just as eons ago, a path toward transformation, and an entrance into Utopia.

Indeed, in the most extreme New Age postulations, dolphins are saviors of humankind, and the devotion to dolphins becomes one of religious worship. Jeff Weir, executive director of the Dolphin Research Institute in Hastings, Victoria, Australia, aptly refers to these radical beliefs as "Dolphinism."


Dolphin assisted therapy

The practice of dolphin assisted therapy (DAT)--humans swimming and/or interacting with captive dolphins with the intent of treating some mental or physical disorder--derives from these notions. The view of dolphins as the means to a transformative end has always been intimately connected with the dolphin's supposed special healing and empathic powers. Throughout time, people as far apart as Brazil and Fiji have traded in dolphin parts for curative and totemic purposes. Today, people recast these superstitions in the context of medicine and science for a patina of credibility, allowing dolphin therapy to move easily from alternative medicine circles to the mainstream as a profitable worldwide commercial industry.

DAT formally began in the 1970s with Florida International University educational anthropologist Betsy Smith--who would denounce it publicly in 2003 as ineffective and exploitative. DAT now has facilities all over the world, including several in the U.S. (mostly in Florida and Hawaii), Mexico, Israel, Russia, Japan, China, and the Bahamas, to list only a few countries. The pervasiveness obscures the fact that DAT is often not readily distinguishable from the "swim-with-dolphin" recreation programs that permeate the entertainment and tourism industries. Like those experiences, DAT is not regulated by any authority overseeing health and safety standards for either humans or dolphins, and DAT practitioners are not required by law to receive special training or certification.

Supposed benefits of DAT

Autism and similar developmental disabilities top the list of conditions touted as highly treatable by DAT. Proponents also claim it helps everything from depression and anxiety to infections to neuromuscular disorders to cancer and AIDS. These sessions often include conventional remedial tasks, such as hand-eye coordination exercises, or rudimentary physical therapy, such as limb exercises in the pool or poolside.

Proponents also assert that DAT provides humans with enhanced concentration (a vague claim unproven scientifically); alters people's brainwaves therapeutically via the dolphin's echolocation, the sensory system of high-pitched sounds the dolphin makes (nothing more than pseudoscience); and generally enhances biophilia (a feel-good, New Age love of nature).

Actual results of DAT

As with other fad treatments, DAT inundates popular media with testimonials, often involving the hope of a remedy for a child's illness. But instead of offering proof of DAT as legitimate therapy, these anecdotes are nothing more than justifications of the emotional needs and significant costs of the participants. Moreover, many of these reports, filed immediately after a DAT session, smack of bias via the understandable enthusiasm, sincerity, and desperation of those attesting "in the moment."

But no scientific evidence exists to support the claim that DAT improves any disorder. My Emory University colleague, psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld, and I published two analyses of DAT literature in Anthrozoos, a multidisciplinary journal of the interactions of people and other animals (in 1998 and 2007), focusing on papers that tried to show that DAT was effective. We found all of these studies fraught with methodological weaknesses that rendered the authors' suppositions untenable. For instance, these studies often lacked a control group with which to compare the so-called positive effects of dolphin therapy. And none of the studies provided evidence for even general feel-good effects enduring beyond the therapy session. Authors of other critiques of DAT have come to the same conclusion.

Just like the snake oil of yesteryear, DAT is a modern-day quack-medicine version of dolphin mythology. Yet it continues to grow in popularity for desperate people persuaded that dolphins dispense a special healing quality that sometimes even modern medicine cannot match. (While similar therapies involve cats, dogs, horses, and other domesticated animals, almost none include direct contact with wild animals.)

Some might argue that DAT is not completely devoid of merit because, at the very least, children and adults enjoy interacting with dolphins in a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So, even if DAT provides no scientifically proven salutary benefits whatsoever, who could quarrel with putting a smile, at least temporarily, on the face of a sick child?

There is more to DAT than meets the eye and when one becomes aware of the tradeoffs, DAT no longer seems benign. The costs are enormous, for humans (except for the practitioners) and dolphins alike, in all sorts of ways.

How DAT hurts humans

It provides false hope. In the spirit of bogus remedies, DAT takes advantage of vulnerable people, most especially parents of children with autism and other developmental disorders, as alluded to above. Hawked heavily to these target audiences, DAT plays on the desperate needs of frantic parents trying any means possible to improve their children's communication and social skills.

It comes at great expense. Families carry a heavy financial burden when paying for DAT. The standard fee ranges from S5,000 to $7,000 for a few half-hour sessions over the course of several days, excluding travel expenses. (And DAT is not covered under health insurance.) Families might also wipe themselves out in other ways: forgoing more effective mainstream treatment because of their emotional and monetary investment in DAT.

It poses a risk of injury or disease. DAT programs place participants at risk for physical injuries and dolphin-human transmission of infections and parasites. Numerous published reports tell of children and adults being bitten, scraped, bruised, thrown around, and even held under the water by these massively strong animals. DAT dolphins are not domesticated--including those born in captivity. They are wild animals often coerced into swimming with people and would rather be, and should be, left alone.


How DAT harms dolphins

It causes debilitating stress, disease and mortality to both the wild-caught and captive-born. Stress derives from many aspects of captivity, not the least of which being changes in social groupings and resulting isolation and estrangement from friends and family. Social relationships play a critical role in the well-being of dolphins and whales. Bottlenose dolphins, orcas, and other cetaceans form complex societies with intricate networks and cultural traditions. For instance, bottlenose dolphins pass on tool use (e.g., sponge-carrying) and cooperative prey-capture methods from one generation to the other. In the wild, individuals can build strong and long-lasting relationships. Social group composition is dynamic and fluid, with individuals exerting choice about their associations and avoiding intense aggression by spacing out. In the confines of captivity, social groups are often artificially constructed and transferred in and out of different pools and facilities without choice, and there is not enough room or social support to resolve conflict.

As a result, captive dolphins suffer extreme stress that has led to disease and reduced life expectancy in captivity. (Bottlenose dolphins, the most common species, can live 45-50 years in the wild.) The 2010 U.S. Marine Mammal Inventory Report lists numerous stress-related disorders, such as ulcerative gastritis, perforating ulcer, cardiogenic shock and psychogenic shock, as causes of death for captive dolphins. (Mylanta and other over-the-counter medications for humans are commonly given to captive dolphins for stomach ulcers.) Moreover, when dolphins are forced to make physical contact with people and tow them around in the water, hyperaggression often results, toward humans, as summarized above, but also towards other dolphins and themselves in the form of self-mutilation.

It depletes natural populations and contributes to dolphin slaughters. Many DAT facilities outside the U.S. take dolphins from the wild and, by doing so, harm whole populations. The removal of even a single individual from a social group can destroy the cohesiveness and integrity of that group. And regular interference with natural populations through capture can affect reproductive behavior.

Many of these facilities also support horrific drive hunts around the world that involve the slaughter of tens of thousands of dolphins. (The worldwide count of bottlenose dolphins is estimated at 600,000.) Drive hunts, such as those that occur every year in Taiji, Japan (the subject of The Cove, winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 2009), involve panicking and herding whole groups of dolphins into a small cove where they are brutally slaughtered for meat. Representatives from captive facilities also use these drives as opportunities to choose individuals to capture and take back to their sites. American public outcry inspired a moratorium on U.S. facilities taking animals from the wild in 1989 but DAT remains in use nationwide with animals taken from the wild prior to that time. And there is no such moratorium outside the U.S.

The ultimate irony

Human fascination with dolphins continues to give rise to modern-day versions of dolphin mythology and has led to the ultimate irony: exploitation of and death for these creatures because of our very admiration of them. The contemporary view of dolphins encouraged by DAT and other captivity-based programs serves as a cruel reminder that humans compartmentalize their beliefs in a way that makes for some very inconsistent behavior. In ancient Rome, harming dolphins was punishable by death because Romans revered them as messengers from the gods, for one reason. Today, directly and indirectly, humans cause the deaths of tens of thousands of dolphins each year through hunting and captivity. Most participants in DAT have a genuine affection for dolphins (and a real need to find treatment for what ails them), and the tragedy is that DAT proponents, with their vested interests, exploit these feelings and try to keep the public unaware of the harmful impact of captivity on dolphins, of the risks of injury to participants, and of the lack of evidence of therapeutic effectiveness.

Towards true healing

Our attraction to dolphins will never wane, nor should it. They, like us, are complex, intelligent, emotional and cultural beings and therefore stimulate our desire for communion with them. We do not need to attach supernatural qualities to them, for their actual nature is much richer and multidimensional than any human mythology can provide. It is time we move into a more progressive, knowledgeable and respectful relationship with dolphins by refusing to support their exploitation. If we decided to do this, then we could say that both dolphins and humans would, for the first time, experience true healing.

Lori Marino


Lori Marino is a senior lecturer in psychology at Emory University, a faculty affiliate at the Emory Center for Ethics, and co-founder and executive director of the Aurelia Center for Animals and Cultural Change, Inc., a nonprofit organization focused on applying scholarship and science to animal advocacy. Her research and teaching interests include the evolution of brain, intelligence and self-awareness in cetaceans and other species; human-nonhuman animal relationships; and animal welfare/ rights and ethics. Marino is author of more than 80 publications in her areas, including several methodological critiques of dolphin assisted therapy and dolphin-human interaction programs. In 2001 she published, with Diana Reiss, the first definitive evidence for mirror self-recognition in bottlenose dolphins in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an experience that prompted her to view research on captive animals as ethically unjustifiable. Marino is a founding signatory of the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans and recently testified at a session of The House Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife, about the educational claims of the marine mammal captivity industry. She earned degrees from New York University (B.A., Psychology), Miami University (M.A., Experimental Psychology), and University at Albany, State University of New York (Ph.D., Biopsychology). Email her at
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Author:Marino, Lori
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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