Smiling dolphin. (Istockphoto )
Do you or does your child suffer from cerebral palsy? Down syndrome? Autism? A knee injury? General ennui?
If you do -- and you have a week or two and a few thousand dollars to spare -- a growing and controversial group of global entrepreneurs claims it can help you feel better by putting you in close contact with dolphins.
The strategy is known as dolphin-assisted therapy, and the basic idea is that even brief exposure to these charismatic creatures -- swimming around with them, petting and kissing them, watching them do tricks and hearing their clicking calls in tanks, lagoons or the open ocean -- is so uniquely rewarding that it produces benefits all by itself and/or jump-starts a patient's receptiveness to more-conventional therapy.
Emory University neuroscientist Lori Marino, who has spent more than a decade tracking the trend, estimates there are now more than 100 organizations offering therapy with dolphins. They're found in such widely scattered places as Florida, Hawaii, Mexico, Israel, Australia and Ukraine, and a study cited in 2007 by the international Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society said a typical charge was $2,600 for five 40-minute sessions.
Their approaches vary widely: At one end are relatively conservative nonprofits such as Island Dolphin Care, which operates programs for "special needs" children out of a $2 million facility in the Florida Keys; its Web site acknowledges that "there is no scientific proof that [dolphins] heal nor is there proof that they do not heal" and attributes most children's progress to being in "an environment that is highly motivating."
At the other end are more imaginative operations, such as the Dolphin Connection, based in the small Hawaiian town of Kealakekua, where Joan Ocean, described on her Web site as a "psychologist, shaman, and authority on the subject of Dolphin Tel-Empathic Communication," charges $1,995 for week-long swim-with-dolphin programs offering "cellular communication and healing" and "intergalactic journeying."
The dolphin-therapy business has been booming, fueled in part by the rapid growth in diagnoses of childhood mental disorders such as autism. Desperate parents in search of cures have flown to the facilities, as if to a seaside Lourdes, when all else has failed.
The practice, however, is fiercely criticized by researchers and marine mammal conservationists, including the educational anthropologist widely credited with having invented it, retired Florida International University researcher Betsy Smith. These critics charge that it is no more effective and considerably more expensive than skillful conventional treatment, while potentially harmful to the humans and the animals.
Smith, who was originally inspired by watching a dolphin interact with her mentally disabled brother in the 1970s, offered the therapy free of charge for more than a decade, before abandoning the work out of ethical concerns in the 1990s. She now maintains that dolphin therapy boils down to "the exploitation of vulnerable people and vulnerable dolphins."
"When I started this whole thing, I had no idea what we were unleashing," she said in a telephone interview.
Even Ric O'Barry, who won fame in the 1960s as the trainer of TV's Flipper, has since become what he describes as a "dolphin abolitionist," opposed to all forms of dolphin captivity and domination, and leading efforts to end dolphin hunting and return captive specimens to the wild.
"It's a fascinating paradox," said Marino, who along with two colleagues described concerns about dolphins in a presentation they made in San Diego Sunday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science convention. "People are wacky about dolphins, and yet they're becoming the most abused of animals."
Dolphin therapy is not regulated by any U.S. government authority overseeing health and safety standards for either humans or dolphins.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has urged that the therapy be abandoned, citing reports of serious injuries to people who swim with dolphins, including bites and broken ribs, and the potential for disease transmission and stress for captive dolphins that are obliged to interact with a continuous stream of strangers and may be scratched by fingernails and jewelry.
Marino has published reviews of the scientific literature that rigorously dispute claims of any unique therapeutic benefit from contact with dolphins. Even so, the Autism Society, the nation's leading grass-roots advocacy group for the illness, describes dolphin therapy on its Web site, without caveats, as one of several treatment approaches that "can help by increasing communication skills, developing social interaction, and providing a sense of accomplishment."