Does it work? Is there a danger? What's wrong with DAT?
Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) has seemingly become the latest fad in alternative medicine. It most commonly takes place at marine parks and dolphinariums where people pay hundreds of dollars for a few hours to swim with dolphins. Some facilities have week long programs that cost thousands of dollars.|
Most people come looking for a magical connection and a once-in-a-lifetime swim with dolphins, but some come looking for a miracle cure for whatever ailes them. Autistic children, children with down-syndrome, people with cronic pain, cancer paitents, and countless others flock to facilities offering DAT in hopes that dolphins will offer them a miracle. People of all ages and sizes come to swim with dolphins thinking that they will be medically cured... However, the evidence seems to suggest that DAT is nothing more than false pretense. What's more, dolphin assisted therapy can not only be dangerous, but one day, it could be deadly.
Does DAT work? What does it do?
For quite a few years now, there have been stories of people with diseases and illnesses that went swimming with dolphins and were "cured." Is this proof or false hope? It wasn't until recently that actual studies were done on the effects of swimming with dolphins.
One of the groups that is most dedicated to proving DAT as a medical treatment is the AquaThought Foundation. They have used brainwave monitering systems to record the effects of swimming with dolphins. The data that they have collected has shown that after swimming with dolphins, the human brain is very relaxed. However, they have admitted that this effect is similar, if not identical, to interaction with domestic animals, such as dogs or cats, or simply taking a warm bath. That brings up the question of "why would anyone pay thousands of dollars to get the effect of a warm bath?" The simple answer - people are looking for a miracle cure and others are looking to profit from them.
Some of the most remarkable stories come from parents of children with down-syndrome or autism who took their child to swim with dolphins and he or she was miracally cured of their disability. However, statistics have shown that only approximatly 30% of child DAT patients actually show any improvement, whether it was mild or dramatic and very seldom did the effects last longer than a few days. Even more dramatic studies have shown that human interaction programs and positive reinforcement methods are far more successful, with as much as a 65% success rate. So why would parents choose a week long program for thousands of dollars over other programs with better success rates? Because the parents are victims of false pretense (or false promises).
Often, people with no medical or scientific backgrounds will promote a "healing swim with dolphins." These same people will often aggressively defend their practice. They will send out glossy brochures that offer "hope for the hopeless" and yet, fail to provide evidence for their claims. One of the most well known facilities with swim-with-the-dolphin and DAT programs, as well as one of the most notorious reputations for "stretching the truth" is the Dolphin Reasearch Center in south Florida. The DRC has a self-proclaimed "doctor" (with no medical history) who offers week-long DAT programs to ill people for $2,500. Anyone with an illness, from a headache to cancer, can participate in this program. Several complaints have been filed to the USDA by families who took out mortgages on their homes in hopes that they or a family member would be cured, only to find out that there is no guarantee or refunds available for DAT.
There have been some who have seen progress in children with disabilities and people with cronic pain, but there is no evidence to show that swimming with dolphins actually caused their incredible recovery. Further, there is more evidence to show that other programs could have been far more successful, or in some cases, the cause of their recovery.
Is DAT offering hope to the hopeless? In my opinion, yes, but it is only false hope.
Could DAT be dangerous, even deadly?
Most people envision dolphins as the cute, friendly and lovable "Flipper" who rescues drowning people, plays happily in the vast ocean and is everybody's best friend. However, the reality is that dolphins are large, powerful and often very agressive animals, just as capable of inflicting harm on humans as a lion.
Since the first dolphins were captured by P.T. Barnum in the late 1800's, dolphins in captivity have almost regularly attacked people resulting in countless injuries and even death. Thankfully, so far none of the public has been killed by a dolphin. However, with the increasing popularity of swim-with-the-dolphin and DAT programs, this statistic is not likely to stay that way for long.
Dolphins in the wild are naturally aggressive. Dolphins have been recorded commiting homicide, infanticide and gangs of male dolphins have been recorded attacking and "raping" females. The bottlenosed dolphin pod off Scotland known as the Moray Firth frequently murder smaller harbor porpoises and even infant dolphins. Evey year, approximatly 15 harbor porpoises and 5 infant bottlenosed dolphins wash up dead. This behaviour is not limited to this area alone. Dolphins kill dolphins all the time and scientists now accept this as normal behaviour. What happens when humans interact with dolphins, especially forced interactions such as the ones that take place in captivity? People get hurt.
Here are some injury reports from swim-with-the-dolphin and DAT programs in the US:
Dolphin Quest, dated March 8, 1993:These are relatively old records and these were some of the few incidents where reports were filed. The safety of swim-with-the-dolphin and DAT programs is very unsure. Although most facilities take as many precautions as possible to ensure the safty of their visitors, injury is still common and some measures do not go far enough.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) first approved facilities for the use of dolphins for public interactions (swim-with-the-dolphin) in 1985. Since then, the NMFS no longer has authority over captive dolphin facilities and swim-with-the-dolphin programs. That authority was handed over to the over burdened portion of the USDA called the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Recently, in April 1999, authority over swim-with-the-dolphin programs was completely taken away. Now, there is nothing regulating human/dolphin interaction, which will likely lead to more injuries.
Here is the APHIS press release over swim-with-the-dolphin programs:
USDA SUSPENDS ENFORCEMENT OF SWIM-WITH-THE-DOLPHIN REGULATIONSWith the elimination of authority over dolphin interaction programs, the problem will likely only get worse. DAT has become the newest concern for public safety representatives who believe that human/dolphin interaction programs pose a real danger. Their conern is shared by many, including me.
Are dolphins potentially dangerous? Yes. Can dolphins harm humans? Yes. Could a dolphin kill a human? Yes. How long will it be before a human involved in a DAT program is fatally injured by a dolphin? Only time will tell.
Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) is now an unregulated and unchecked business that is more about money than science. There is very little evidence to support the so-called medical benefits of DAT and there is more evidence that supports the claim that DAT is nothing more than another medical miracle sham with possible dangerous consequences.
As with any alternative medical therapy, especially DAT, a very simple phrase should be kept in mind... Let the Buyer Beware.