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Dolphin assisted therapy booming despite concerns

Dolphin assisted therapy booming despite concerns

Postby Cetacea » 2/23/10

Dolphin therapy is booming despite concerns about efficacy and animal cruelty

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."

More here

I wish people would get over the Flipper fondness, dolphins are not here for our convenience, just because we like them and like to interact with them and pretend we have a 'special' bond does not make it so. For the most part dolphins are vastly disinterested in us, maybe we should just learn to deal with that and appreciate them for what they are.
If one of the main propagators admits that there are similiar therapies that give the samer or more benefits, why does he still hang onto the live dolphin program?! Oh that's right,the 'special bond', or would that be the selfishness of making big bucks because parents are more likely to shell out for those cute flippered therapists with permanent smiles than a robot or a slide show. Never mind that according to the researcher himself, the latter two have same or better benefits. Feel the love. For the money that is....
/rant over
"There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by observing prisoners held in solitary confinement" - Jacques Cousteau

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Re: Dolphin assisted therapy booming despite concerns

Postby JeffM » 2/23/10

I'm asking this next question as a father trying to somehow come to grips with how to behave after watching The Cove...not as a troll, I promise. And I should preface my remarks by letting you know that my son is *crazy* for ocean creatures. So much so that I can barely begin to explain his passion for them.

Is there some sort of middle ground that can be reached on the subject of captive marine mammals like dolphins and orcas? I know that there are *way* too many dolphin shows and encounters like the one you're talking about, Cetacea, and that it is clearly not right to keep them in captivity. But my son *begged* to go to SeaWorld once he found out about it. We went and had a great time, and I didn't really think about it deeply until recently. And now I'm faced with him wanting to go again, and I don't want to a) break his heart and tell him he can't go, and b) break his heart *again* and tell him *why* he can't go. If he ever sees The Cove, I'm almost certain he's going to run away and join Sea Shepherd or Greenpeace. Hell, I was feeling like putting on my "Action Nerd" direct-action-activist hat after watching it too.

I'm trying to steer him more towards good aquariums, books & DVDs, and learning to snorkel, but even amazing places like the Georgia Aquarium are adding dolphin shows. Is there anything to be said for the fact that these kind of things have a huge impact on how kids view ocean creatures? There's a message of conservation and respect for the oceans that runs through places like SeaWorld and the Georgia Aquarium, even if that message is hypocritical in several ways.

I don't know. I'm rambling, and honestly just want to be able for my son to visit the Georgia Aquarium without me having an insurmountable crisis of conscience. SeaWorld is probably out for me, and even though I promised him that we could go to the dolphin encounter when he turned 8, I'm probably going to break that promise. Who knows, maybe once he's older and gets exposed to the fact that these creatures shouldn't be exploited, he'll be madder at me for *taking* him when he was young than he would be now for *not* taking him. They never tell you that there are going to be unforseeable, complex issues when you sign up to be a dad.

So anyway...thoughts? Am I just trying to hard to justify it? Does the good the Georgia Aquarium tries to do outweigh the fact that they're getting a dolphin show?

<edit> I've been reading a little more of the forum on this subject, and only ask that you go easy on me for not having a fully formed opinion on the matter. I'm new here, and new to the controversy, and I'm only trying to get more information and opinions...and I really want to know if there is any middle ground to be reached. I know we can't legislate the whole world, but these places aren't going anywhere in the US, and in the absence of a complete ban on captive marine mammals, what's the next step?
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Re: Dolphin assisted therapy booming despite concerns

Postby David » 2/23/10

Hi Jeff. Reading through prior discussions is a great thing to do on this subject. In a nutshell, with most of us in here being biologists of various sorts, mostly we believe wild animals should remain wild and allowed to live their lives naturally. Many people justify using animals anyway they see fit due to things like tradition, the bible, etc. but most change their minds when, or mainly if, they ever meet those animals in their natural element and see the truth.

I have an 18 month old son and he's already showing an amazing interest in animals so here's some of the things I'm planning to do with him:

1. DVDs like the Blue Planet and Life of Mammals series will be part of his library...
2. Underwater IMAX shows when he's old enough...
3. All sorts of books and websites (like http://marinebio.org - e.g., http://marinebio.org/search/?formaction ... elphinidae)
4. Aquariums like http://mote.org/ which rescue and rehabilitate dolphins and release them back into the wild...
5. As soon as he's old enough (~12 yrs), if he wants to, he'll learn to scuba dive and we'll go to places known for their dolphins in the wild to hopefully see them (Florida, Honduras, etc.)...

Something to remember is that dolphins are akin to wolves in the sea and I will not trust the safety of my son to how well captive dolphins have been abused into submission aka "trained".

Lastly, dolphins are just one small group of marine animals, there are many many more others that are just as exciting and fascinating, and I plan on teaching my son about them all from the lowliest of worms to the greatest of the whales....

I hope that helps, Cetacea will likely also give you her perspective and I'm sure she'll go easy on you. Feel free to pm or email me if I can be of further assistance.
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Re: Dolphin assisted therapy booming despite concerns

Postby JeffM » 2/23/10

Thanks, David.

Yeah, after reading through numerous previous topics on the subject, I'm crossing my fingers that Cetacea will go easy on me. I'm on your side, really. I particularly agree with the idea that too many people use "dominionist" or "traditional" arguments to do what they see fit to the planet in general. I guess I've probably been too complacent in my thinking to expand my opposition to those ideas to dolphin shows, etc.

The Mote aquarium is a particularly good suggestion. Is there a good resource for other aquariums like them? Or in general, an idea of which aquariums take better care of their animals and/or are primarily for education and rehabilitation? I've got my fingers crossed that the three NC Aquariums on the coast of North Carolina fall in the "Good" category. Although they do have "touch pools" with stingrays...which is probably not in their favor.

There really is a lot of good conversation on the matter, and it mostly highlights the unease that I've always had with zoos and captivity. I've vacillated back and forth quite a bit on the subject in general over the years...and having kids has thrown a big monkeywrench in the works. But being completely creeped out by our local "zoo" in North Dakota when I was a kid was a huge reason for my initial uneasy reaction about zoos. It's probably better for them to know the truth, and only visit responsible zoos/aquariums, etc. It's just a tough sell to a six-year-old who has already been to SeaWorld and the Georgia Aquarium...and while it would be easy to illustrate why we shouldn't visit captive dolphins, etc. by showing him something like The Cove, I want to avoid pushing him over the edge towards eco-activism for a while.

Thankfully, he does have a great deal of interest in the non-cute animals as well...especially squid and assorted cephalopods at the moment (thank you for all the great info, by the way). So he's not totally in the target audience for dolphin shows and encounters. We've already done a lot of things on the list that you mentioned as well. Tons of Books and DVDs. We've got an Imax theater in nearby Raleigh, etc. And I'm going to be so excited if he wants to learn to scuba...because that means I'll have an excuse to learn as well!

Thanks for the thoughtful post.
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Re: Dolphin assisted therapy booming despite concerns

Postby David » 2/23/10

Sounds great. Scuba is a great idea (I think everyone should learn to dive) and you have lots of good diving starting out of Wilmington in fact... be sure you both go for Advanced Open water plus Nitrox all at once, you won't regret it. Re the local aquariums, I'd call them and ask about their rescue, rehab and release practices. NC has quite a few strandings each year so I'm sure there's at least one aquarium nearby that helps with stranded, injured or sick marine animals. Cool thing about those sort of places is that the patients change over time and they aren't trained to do stupid tricks so you get to see them being themselves in a way. I too have a real problem with most zoos, I just can't help but see how many are suffering from boredom, etc.

Lots of fishing is also an option and when I take my son he'll learn how to flatten the barbs and the joy of releasing what we catch as well so we can maybe catch them again someday and they can go back and have babies, etc.

The best aquarium in the world in my opinion is the Monterey Bay Aquarium and is worth the trip out to visit it: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/ - make a weekend out of it, I guarantee he'll love it and you will to. I've been 5 times and will go back every year or so....

Lastly, I hear you on protecting him from the horrors of this world for as long as possible. I still remember when I was very young and first learned the whole truth about WWII... it's a tough call but I too will try to prolong his exposure until he's as old as possible and best able to handle them. Movies, etc. like The Cove and The End of the Line are for adults and rightly so because we are the ones who need to know those kind of things so we can do what we can to change them. And change them hopefully soon before our sons grow up and ask us why....
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Re: Dolphin assisted therapy booming despite concerns

Postby David » 2/24/10

Classic argument in favor of both aquariums and zoos. Problem is I don't buy it and I have yet to see any studies to back it up either (no offense intended Daniel). It's one of those "it sounds good so it must be true" things and maybe it is. Another problem is that wildlife the world over has continued to be under threat and worse, including that in the ocean, the whole time there have been aquariums and zoos (and it hasn't lessened due to their existence as far as I can tell). Also, jobs are still very hard to come by for most biologists, zoologists and marine biologists... who are the ones that should be benefiting directly by more public concern I'd think.

Maybe the success of animal protection acts and laws is somewhat due to aquariums and zoos BUT the public "exposure argument" of animals should never be the excuse for the mistreatment of any animals (and it has been used frequently to justify various things) including especially wild dolphins and others that naturally live in wide open spaces.

Lastly, zoos and aquariums often show animals as if they are happy and their species are doing fine which is often the opposite of the truth. Zoos and aquariums should strongly highlight the threat the animals they keep are under and motivate visitors to get involved and help stop habitat destruction, pollution, poaching, illegal fishing, etc. I have been to many zoos and aquariums and most are not doing that in any meaningful way at all, as if it's a dirty little secret. Visitors then leave with the wonder of seeing the animal life they've just seen but not the truth about their existence on this planet we all share.
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the ocean inspiring conservation, education, research, and a sea ethic. ~~~


Extending a sea ethic would mean recognizing the ocean’s importance to the continued existence of life on our planet and to human futures. From this recognition would flow an appropriate sense of moral imperative, commitment, and urgency—urgency toward ending overfishing and wasteful bycatch and aggressively rebuilding depleted ocean wildlife populations, stabilizing human effects on world climate, slowing habitat destruction, stemming global transport and accidental introduction of "alien" species, curbing the flow of contaminants and trash, developing sustainable seafood farming, cultivating an informed approach to the seafood marketplace, and implementing networks of protected areas in the sea. - Dr. Carl Safina

If you think you can, you might, if you think you can't, you never will. - Anon
Don't believe everything you think. - Anon
It's nice to be important. But it's much more important to be nice. - The Nature of Existence
Imagination is more important than knowledge. - Albert Einstein
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Re: Dolphin assisted therapy booming despite concerns

Postby Cetacea » 2/24/10

JeffM wrote:Is there some sort of middle ground that can be reached on the subject of captive marine mammals like dolphins and orcas?
First off, orcas are dolphins ;)
In my opinion there is little grey area when it has been so comprehensively shown that captivity effects cetaceans so significantly. BUT I am not fundamentally against zoos or aquariums, I believe it needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis and on the animals they keep and for what reasons.

I disagree with captivity for the sake of entertainment, I find it appalling an in now way justifiable. It is not educational, it has no conservation benefit. It is making money at the animal's expense. Captive breeding and AI should be stopped and animals retired to more suitable environments that mimic their natural habitat more closely or released if there is the possibility of a successful release.

With stranded dolphin I am in two minds, I think if the animal is ill and will obviously not survive in the wild if released, it should probably be put down then and there, saving resources for actually releasable dolphins that have a chance to make a return to the ocean rather than building up a population of captive invalid dolphins that eat resources and money. But it's not always that simple. some animals may seem releasable when taken into rehab but may have other problems that are not intermediately obvious, say liver problems as it is the case in Moonshine at Mote. He recovered fine from the sunburn and all the obvious problems and when on medication he is healthy but this may not have been foreseeable when he was rescued. What are you going to do then? Put an otherwise healthy dolphin down? If this is the case maybe the animal should be kept, I certainly do not put rehab facilities keeping dolphins in the same category as SeaWorld although conditions in captivity need to improve all around, including in rehab facilities. What I think should not happen is that the animal gets passed on to the captive entertainment industry, if anything, it could be used to conduct scientific research to learn more about cognitive abilities of cetaceans. However handicapped unreleasable dolphins should under no circumstances be bred to build up a population of captives.

One other eventuality: breeding for conservation. I know, it's not being implemented anywhere and I am certainly not condoning taking animals from the wild to set up a breeding program but say hypothetically, if there was a population of captive vaquitas (which to my knowledge is not) that is reproducing successfully and the offspring was raised with the sole aim to be returned to the wild to restock the wild population and this had been implemented successfully, I don't think I would be opposed to that, however once populations levels had improved, I would still want to see it close down and release the remaining animals. But this is obviously only a hypothetical situation as non of the cetacean species in captivity is actually critically endangered, noone is actually running such a program and as mentioned before, starting something like that would be destructive to put it mildly.

Animal captivity is only ever justifiable if: the animal's well being is not affected by it, it benefits the species conservation as a whole and it is in the hands of people who know what they are doing, ie. the scientific community not people who are in it for the money. Also, whatever the reasons for captivity, the current state of cetacean captivity is appalling and needs a lot of improvement and work on enclosures and enrichment, even the ones that are not in it for the money (ie. rehab facilities).

So in, very, very few cases, yes middle ground can be reached. But SeaWorld is in now way shape or form part of it.

JeffM wrote: If he ever sees The Cove, I'm almost certain he's going to run away and join Sea Shepherd or Greenpeace. Hell, I was feeling like putting on my "Action Nerd" direct-action-activist hat after watching it too.

Oh, Sea Shepherd is the other extreme, let's not go there, lol, not a fan!

JeffM wrote:I don't know. I'm rambling, and honestly just want to be able for my son to visit the Georgia Aquarium without me having an insurmountable crisis of conscience. SeaWorld is probably out for me, and even though I promised him that we could go to the dolphin encounter when he turned 8, I'm probably going to break that promise. Who knows, maybe once he's older and gets exposed to the fact that these creatures shouldn't be exploited, he'll be madder at me for *taking* him when he was young than he would be now for *not* taking him. They never tell you that there are going to be unforseeable, complex issues when you sign up to be a dad.

In the light of recent events, SeaWorld may disillusion him all by itself....
Could you take him dolphin watching instead or is that not feasible/too far? I know it's different and not the 'hands on experience' many people crave but you do often get to encounter dolphins at close hand. Some countries (though not the US) also have wild swim with the dolphin programs, which while having their own ecological concerns, are probably better and more s


Broadreach wrote:As an avid scuba diver (like many of you) I can tell you that seeing the underwater world in person brings a whole new perspective to the use of marine life in aquariums. As much as I would prefer the animals to be free, it is worth considering the effect that it has over the millions of people that visit aquariums each year

JeffM wrote:I'm trying to steer him more towards good aquariums, books & DVDs, and learning to snorkel, but even amazing places like the Georgia Aquarium are adding dolphin shows. Is there anything to be said for the fact that these kind of things have a huge impact on how kids view ocean creatures? There's a message of conservation and respect for the oceans that runs through places like SeaWorld and the Georgia Aquarium, even if that message is hypocritical in several ways.


As David said, very common argument, and yes, some aquariums are wonderful, aquariums like Monterey Bay that focus on conservation, research and education. Some animals are just not suitable to be kept in captivity. I don't know, I might be slightly less opposed if they did not put on the ridiculous shows they do which have little stimulating effect and if anything show a false image of these animals, dolphins do not spend their days tailwalking and beaching themselves and giving their trainers kisses, all of these popular tricks are unnnatural, tailwalking can even damage their spine. Most people coming out of the Shamu show, although there might be a few remarkable exceptions, get presented with an artificial Disney character like animal that if anything inspires them to want to become Shamu trainers, not biologists.
"There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by observing prisoners held in solitary confinement" - Jacques Cousteau

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Re: Dolphin assisted therapy booming despite concerns

Postby JeffM » 2/25/10

You can count me among your camp, Cetacea. After hearing from you and David on the subject, I can't come up with a defensible reason not to side with you completely. I broached the subject briefly with my son, and he was really thoughtful about it. He's passionate about things, especially ocean-related things, and I have no doubt that he'd come to the same conclusion as you on his own in the future, so we might as well start doing the right thing now. Any other suggestions you guys have for aquariums like Monterey Bay or Mote would be welcome.

And I truly appreciate the thoughtful response.

One thing I would like some clarification on though:

Cetacea wrote:First off, orcas are dolphins ;)

My son asked me to clear this up for him a while back, and I didn't come up with a good answer for him because I got confused about the scientific classification. I'm a computer guy, not a biologist :) Anyway, I know Orcas are in the Delphinidae family (through Wikipedia...not the best source, I know), but Delphinidae is in the Odonticeti suborder. So I came to the conclusion that while orcas are dolphins, dolphins are whales. Which didn't really seem *completely* right to me since for comparison I looked at humans, and by the same logic knew that humans are apes, but apes are primates...and we typically call humans apes, not primates. I just want to clear up my own confusion!
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Re: Dolphin assisted therapy booming despite concerns

Postby David » 2/25/10

I understand the confusion. Here's a way to simplify it that I use. Taxonomy is hierarchal in that the closer you get to a species the more specific the attributes are that are being defined. So, the quick answer is first that the order goes from more general to specific:

Kingdom > Phylum > Class > Order > Family > Genus > Species (this is a simplified version, there are all sorts of subclasses, suborders, subfamilies, etc.)

Humans are classified as:
Animalia > Chordata > Mammalia > Primates > Hominidae > Homo > Homo sapiens

And Chimpanzees are classified as:
Animalia > Chordata > Mammalia > Primates > Hominidae > Pan > Pan troglodytes

So, we are in the same Family (Hominidae) as Chimpanzees but the differences between us put us in different Genuses (Homo vs. Pan). We humans are therefore, Animals, Mammals, Primates and are of the same Family as Chimpanzees (which isn't surprising since our DNA is over 90% the same).

Orcas are classified as:
Animalia > Chordata > Mammalia > Cetacea > Odontoceti (suborder meaning toothed whales - includes sperm whales, beaked whales, white whales, marine dolphins, river dolphins and porpoises) > Delphinidae > Orcinus > Orcinus orca

So, because orcas are classified in the suborder Odontoceti they are toothed whales and they are also in the Delphinidae family so they are also dolphins. In fact, all members of the Delphinidae family (dolphins) are considered toothed whales.

A great resources for taxonomic information is http://www.itis.gov/ (which is where I checked the above).

One interesting aspect of taxonomy is that it often shows how similar to each other much of life is. As humans we are built to pick out the differences in all things (which has often caused all sorts of problems) whereas the truth is often that many things are more similar than different (for example, men and women, humans and the great apes, races of people (which is actually nonexistent in biology), etc.).
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Re: Dolphin assisted therapy booming despite concerns

Postby Andrew_R » 2/25/10

Hello all ....

Initially I was thinking there was some discussion about DAT, but it seems people choose a bit wider topic.

Thanks David, your post about imaginable "no-problem" world as presented by many zoos vs real situation (both in captivity and outside zoo's walls) really echoed my own thinking. And here in Russia this sad fact greatly amplified by another one: this is much cheaper to just talk about some "good conditions", compared to creating them! So, cetaceans end up in swimming pools, traveling shows, and after some time (few years) disappear (died) or being sold into another countries ... I was greatly surprised by learning what there was only very few (five or six) captive-born walruses worldwide, and most of them come from the wild ... some sort of hunt ("aboriginal hunt" - forgot even about false "humane capture standards" as it written in papers.). Yes, I was forced to learn all this because there was another live-capture operation in 2009, and all this end up with big enough scandal. So, in this sense - animal captivity still helps me _think_.

Probably most appealing thing - at least some of "marine mammals dealers" here in Russia want to call itself scientists, and use this as some sort of armor against any control. And science here was long used as weapon against nature - so, many people still thinks in very old ways about Nature, animals, and how to deal with different problems. yes, formally they are scientists, but their most active years sometimes strangely correlated with whaling, for example. So, they see nothing wrong in killing animals, use them in any imaginable ways ("in the name of Science" - may be this is not just PR words .... may be they really believe in this.).

After all this - i found it a bit hard to trust humans, but, thanks again to many different people all around the world - i can see very different thinking, much better, not only in words, but most important - in their actions! So, thanks for this - and i'm going back to my corner ....
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Re: Dolphin assisted therapy booming despite concerns

Postby Andrew_R » 2/25/10

... back from some outside "dog time".

Really, this is strikes me again and again - how initially good idea (learn about world, use this knowledge, accurately) turned into "Universal Justificator". Want something to cover your dolphin business? Call it "science" and few people will bother you, if any. Want to sell and profit from endangered animals? Use same magic word - few people will check what you actually do. Hopefully, other countries has some barriers against this - but here is different problem: people want simple ideas, simple solutions. So, they will follow not necessary real scientist with real (but hard to understand) data/ideas, but some other person who offer better-looking, simpler, easier for public's collective mind ideas/interpretations. People love attractive images, even if they are not represent reality. And this circle sometimes seems unbreakable....

Lori is fighting hard against this, but still too many people will just ignore most arguments, may be after just few minutes ..."because, of course, people who keep wild animals should know what they doing" ....

Too many good words were turned into something completely wrong. So, sorry Cetacea, sorry David, sorry many others who read this forum - often i sounds clearly not softly, but at least partially this is because too many things were proven wrong (in the outside world) but still in wide use here ...

PS.: myself hit forum timeout
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Re: Dolphin assisted therapy booming despite concerns

Postby Andrew_R » 3/3/10

Hm, just ranting not actually fair ....so, there is link. It may explain ... something.

(Not about cetaceans at all - but still about marine mammals)

http://www.semel.ucla.edu/publication/j ... eep-walrus
full pdf here:

http://www.semel.ucla.edu/sites/all/fil ... aslova.pdf
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