Health News Digest

March 1, 2010

Dolphin Assisted Therapy : A Gift From The Sea Or Destructive Hype?


By  Michael D. Shaw

The unique relationship between dolphins and humans dates back to at least ancient Greece, where they were revered as being helpful to sailors. In fact, killing a dolphin in that culture could be punishable by death. But do dolphins have special powers that can cure humans?

Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) stems from the collaboration between Hank Truby—a linguist and acoustic phonetician—and fabled dolphin researcher John Lilly, MD. Lilly was convinced that dolphins could mimic human speech patterns, and published a number of scientific papers on the subject. Less well-publicized is that his findings that the animals knowingly uttered human words have never been replicated.

Among his many other interests, Lilly was a proponent of psychedelic drugs and believed that he was in psychic contact with aliens, who guided him to his work with dolphins. He considered dolphins to be psychic conduits between aliens and humans.

Early research involved two boys with autism and limited attention spans, who were seen to interact with the dolphins for as long as 90 minutes. Their parents were overjoyed that the boys were so engaged—cooperating with each other, and playing with and feeding the dolphins.

However, the first authority who truly pursued the therapeutic aspects was Dr. Betsy Smith, an educational anthropologist at Florida International University. In 1971, Smith let her mentally disabled brother wade into the water with two adolescent dolphins. “They were pretty rough dolphins,” she remembers. But they treated her brother tenderly. “The dolphins were around him, still, gentle, rubbing on him.” Smith believed that the animals knew her brother was different from other humans.

Based on these and other encouraging results, Dr. Smith began therapy programs at two facilities in Florida, and offered them free of charge for many years.

Advocates of DAT claim therapeutic benefits for such conditions as:

  • Angina
  • Autism
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Depression
  • Down syndrome
  • Joint problems
  • Microcephaly
  • Partial vision loss
  • Tumors

Advocates will refer to some sort of vague energy transfer from the dolphins to humans as the mechanism behind the therapy. Rosemary Angelis—self-described as a psychic artist and vibrational energy facilitator—claims she can channel dolphin energy, and that if a person places a palm over a picture of a dolphin she has drawn, he can “receive the sensation of their loving healing energies.”

Some advocates are a bit more specific about the mode of action, suggesting that it is due to the animals’ sonar. Again, there is precious little scientific evidence to back this up, and plenty to refute the concept.

Unfortunately for the advocates, most therapeutic claims are anecdotal at best, and virtually none have been demonstrated in a conventional scientific manner with rigorous controls. Notably, Dr. Betsy Smith herself abandoned DAT back in the 1990s, going further in actually denouncing it:

It is a rather cynical and deceptive practice by dolphinarium and swim-with-programs owners. Some certified therapists with no dolphin knowledge will charge exorbitant fees for treatment that can be done without dolphins… At the heart of all these therapy programs is the exploitation of vulnerable people and vulnerable dolphins.

To be sure, the recent autism epidemic has driven anxious parents to unconventional therapies. Whatever “results” that are observed can easily be attributed to a host of confounding factors, including increased attention being given the child, a purchased supportive environment, and the good old placebo effect, heightened by the parents’ desperation and desire to garner a positive outcome no matter what. That such therapy can cost thousands of dollars might also be a factor.

Emory University researchers Lori Marino and Scott Lilienfeld have studied DAT extensively, and concluded that “There is little reason to believe that DAT is a legitimate therapy or that it constitutes much more than entertainment.” Other authorities note that there are much cheaper, morally more recommendable, and equally effective alternatives to DAT, such as programs involving horses, dogs, and conventional domesticated animals.

Finally, a significant amount of research indicates that dolphins are not well-suited to being confined, and are subject to stress, which can blow back on humans. Ric O’Barry, the trainer of the dolphins used in the Flipper TV series, says that one of the reasons the show ended was that it became too dangerous for the actors to be in the water with the animals. There are many reports of injuries inflicted by dolphins on humans.

Moreover, there can be drastic effects on the dolphins. The title character of the series was portrayed by five dolphins, though mostly by one named Cathy. O’Barry swears that he watched her take a single breath and drop to the bottom, committing suicide.

Even if you don’t care at all about the dolphins, you should probably be quite suspicious of a costly unproven therapy, directed toward desperate consumers.