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Department Of Dubious Ideas: Dolphin-Assisted Therapy

June 18, 2013

Lori Marino digs into the long and twisted history of human belief in the healing and spiritual powers of dolphins, and then zeroes in on the claims (versus the ethics and reality) of “dolphin-assisted therapy” (DAT):

DAT typically involves several sessions either swimming or interacting with captive dolphins, often alongside more conventional therapeutic tasks, such as puzzle-solving or motor exercises. The standard price of DAT sessions, whose practitioners are not required by law to receive any special training or certification, is exorbitant, reaching into the thousands of dollars. It has become a highly lucrative international business, with facilities in Mexico, Israel, Russia, Japan, China and the Bahamas, as well as the US. DAT practitioners claim to be particularly successful in treating depression and motor disorders, as well as childhood autism. But DAT is sometimes less scrupulously advertised as being effective with a range of other disorders, from cancer to infections, to developmental delays.

While not always promising a cure, DAT facilities clearly market themselves as offering real therapy as opposed to recreation. Under minimal standards, authentic therapy must have some relationship to a specific condition and result in measurable remedial effects. By contrast, DAT proponents cite evidence that is, more accurately, anecdotal, offering a range of explanations for its purported efficacy, from increased concentration to brainwave changes, to the positive physiological effects of echolocation (high-frequency dolphin sonar) on the human body. Parents of autistic children and others who appear to benefit from DAT believe that these explanations are scientifically plausible. The photos of smiling children and the emotional testimonials from once-desperate parents are hard to resist. Even those sceptical of DAT’s scientific validity often just shrug and say: ‘What’s the harm?’ In the worst-case scenario a child who typically knows little enjoyment and accomplishment in life can find joy, a little bit of self-efficacy and connection with others for what is sometimes the first time in his life. But amid all the self-justification, the question most often left out is: what about the dolphins?

Great piece. Here is just one example what Marino and others who would debunk DAT are up against. It’s a classic example of human exploitation of other (needy) humans, and animals, for profit.

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