Miracle cure or exploitation? Susannah Pearce investigates the controversy surrounding Dolphin Assisted Therapy.
There is no doubt that dolphins fascinate people, but can they really change lives? In the last few years Dolphin Assisted Therapy has become increasingly popular for treating children with cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome and autism, as well as other disabilities.
“Dolphins are such gentle and perceptive animals and children really respond to them. They attract attention, stimulate awareness and interest, and provoke excitement and motivation.” explains Anna Salamonowicz, Director of Rett Syndrome Association UK. People who have Rett syndrome have an affinity for water and are clearly more interested in faces, people and movement than in static toys.”
Researchers claim that the sounds made by dolphins may actually modify human brainwaves, cause changes in the nervous system, promote relaxation and strengthen the immune system.
Dolphin Assisted Therapy is based on the theory of behaviour modification. Used in conjunction with traditional therapies such as physio and speech therapy, interaction with the dolphins is used as a motivating reward for the child. It was first developed in 1978 by Dr. David Nathanson, a psychologist with extensive experience of working with disabled children. According to his research, the dolphins ‘jump start’ the children, increasing their concentration so that responses to the therapies can be made.
However, the Born Free Foundation argues that Dolphin Assisted Therapy exploits vulnerable parents. “The cost has been high for both the dolphins and those desperate for release or cure. There are no studies of interactions having radical results,” states its website.
Yet parents are seeing results, enough to make them raise the huge sums of money needed to go back for further Dolphin Therapy time after time.
Sara Chicken has twice taken her daughter Emily, who has Rett Syndrome, to Florida. I first read about Dolphin Therapy in a magazine. Then I saw a TV documentary and contacted Dolphin Cove in Florida.’
Eight-year old Emily hyperventilates, constantly wrings her hands and has no gripping strength but Sara is convinced the therapy has been a big help.
“Before we went I thought, It’s not a miracle cure’ - I never expected that. But Emily loved it and she was a different child when we came back home. It lasted a couple of months, then we started to raise money again and went back a year later.
Before the Dolphin Therapy, Emily was trapped in a world of her own and cried a lot, but since we’ve returned, she has been noticeably brighter, more aware and she’s making more eye contact.”
Sessions run over a five-day or two-week programme of dockside-based therapy followed by dolphin interaction. Children must be aged from three years and have head control, be able to swallow, and must not display aggression or have had a seizure in the last 6 months.
“We booked 18 months in advance and went when Emily was 4 months old. She had an intense 10 days, with 40 minutes of therapy a day. She was matched with a therapist to suit her needs – the first time we went she had a physio and they worked on the dockside in the sunshine. On our second trip, a speech therapist massaged her mouth, face and neck to encourage Emily to talk. We were able to sit on the side, watch and take photographs”.
“Emily had to complete a task, like pointing to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ cards in response to a question, and the reward was swimming with the dolphin. She also sat on the side and the dolphin came and kissed her feet, which was lovely”.
“The most amazing thing was watching Emily being pushed along by the dolphin as she held on to a float. She can’t talk, but she was really excited and made lots of vocal noises. I felt really emotional.”
The biggest drawback is the price. “It’s expensive,” agrees Sara. “It was £500 a day for the 40 minute therapy sessions. The whole trip for the 4 of us cost £12,000, including tickets to Walt Disney World. We would love to go again but it is a lot of money to raise”.
So is it worth it? Sara certainly thinks so. “If it hadn’t been for the therapy, Emily wouldn’t be like she is today. She is more able to communicate and sometimes laughs and giggles. We play ‘ready steady go!’ when she runs from one side of the room to the other – she would never have been able to do that before. Sometimes she really looks at my husband when he is talking and we are sure she knows what he is saying.”
Using dolphins commercially has become a lucrative business and swimming with dolphins was voted the number one experience that people most wanted to do in their lifetime, for the BBC 1 programme 50 Things to do before I die. But this popularity presents a serious threat to the welfare of dolphins, as it creates a market for further captures, trade and captive breeding.
Due to these ethical concerns, research is being carried out into electronically replicating the benefits of dolphin interaction. The Dolphin Dome Project, run by The International Dolphin Watch (IDW), aims to create an interactive, sensory environment inside a dome. Using technology to project images and sound, the dome will simulate and investigate the physical and psychological effects experienced during human-dolphin interaction, without using captive dolphins.
“It is undeniable that dolphin healing has a powerful effect on the human psyche, “says Dr. Horace Dobbs, Founder of IDW. “The ethos of the Dolphin Dome Project is to treat the whole family so that the benefits then get passed back to the child again. The other advantage of the dome is that severely disabled children who cannot be treated in water can be reached – and you won’t have to travel to Florida. We are also developing a mini dome for individual use. The Dilo Dome is much cheaper to produce and useful for children with Asperger’s syndrome as they often want isolation.”
Eventually though, Horace predicts The Dolphin Dome Project will have a big impact on medicine and that treatment will one day be available privately or on the NHS. Will it be as good as the real thing? Horace is optimistic. “Our aim is to try and identify the essence of the benefits humans receive from dolphins and we believe it will be an improvement on the original concept.”
Rett Syndrome Association UK 0870 770 3266