The scam of dolphin-assisted therapy

Swimming with Captive Dolphins
Image by Eric Schwartzman via Flickr

The first in the list of “50 things to do before you die” as nominated by BBC TV viewers, is swimming with a dolphin. Regardless of the many psychological explanations that may be summoned to account for this oddity of human behaviour, the simple truth is that playing in the water with a dolphin is a condition that lots of people dream about.  Thus it is not hard to imagine that being at close quarters and interacting with a dolphin may have a positive effect on the kind of persons who are known to benefit from animal-assisted therapy, i.e. those afflicted by some physical, social, emotional, or cognitive functioning impairment.

The dolphin captivity industry has been very quick to seize such a golden opportunity for justifying the practice, highly lucrative – although, luckily, increasingly controversial – of keeping dolphins confined for life in small pools. Who can deny needy autistic children the help which may derive them from frolicking in the water with a wonderful dolphin, which by the way appears to be enjoying the circumstance just as much? One reason why dolphin captors can easily get away with their story is that the general public is largely unprepared to understand that dolphins don’t have anything to enjoy about their captivity, in spite of their unfalteringly merry appearance. Dolphins look to us like they are smiling because that’s the way their head is made, but they are not. That same face smiles to us also when they are in excruciating pain; it smiles to us even when they are dead. But if you are not familiar with dolphins you cannot tell, and you may think that the dolphin you are seeing is a happy dolphin.

Given these premises, no wonder that DAT (short for dolphin-assisted therapy) has been spreading recently like wildfire throughout most of the world, often with the blessing of the relevant authorities: unwitting or corrupt? Perhaps both.

Take Turkey, for instance, where the government three years ago authorised the capture of 30 Mediterranean bottlenose dolphins to be kept in small pools in various coastal hotels for the purposes of “scientific research and physical and mental therapy of disabled patients”. Captures were made in full lack of a non-detriment finding, in spite of protests and of a strong concern expressed by the regional conservation authorities. Rumours exist of significant dolphin casualties in the process, although no evidence has been forthcoming. Can we believe that all this was authorised by the authorities in the best of faiths – that there was no under-the-counter wheeling and dealing?  With a bit of effort we can decide to be naïve and give the benefit of doubt to those who granted the permits and espoused the cause of autistic children and depressed adults. This, however, is not the entire story.

First, animal-assisted therapy can be equally done with less exotic “comfort animals”.  Actually, it can be done much better, cheaper, and safer with domestic critters such as dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, and most notably horses and donkeys, none of which needs any of the expensive outfits and machinery required in the upkeep of dolphins.

Second, the clinical validity of DAT is highly dubious, to say the least. It is my understanding that even though general physiological and emotional positive effects (e.g., lowering blood pressure, lowering stress levels, raising mood) are thought to be derived to selected patients as a result of interactions with domesticated animals, such evidence has not been demonstrated concerning interactions with dolphins (see, for instance, the British Medical Journal doi: 10.1136/bmj.331.7529.1407).

Third, we should not forget that the establishments offering DAT don’t have much in common with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. These are invariably for-profit outfits which use captive dolphins to attract patients as well as generically tourists, and where the suffering of people and dolphins alike is being exploited to gain an economical advantage.

Alternatives to DAT exist which are clearly more desirable, and present none of the problems connected with the use of dolphins.  Wild dolphins are born to be free: they should be left in the sea because they don’t do well in captivity, and once they have been captured, their eventual release back into the sea can rarely be done safely. Capturing a dolphin amounts to sentencing it to prison for life.


Read “In opposition to dolphin captivity“, a conversation with Dr. Lori Marino.

9 comments to The scam of dolphin-assisted therapy

  • Maha Khalil

    Thank you very much for this post, sir! As a marine biologist and a dog trainer, I particularly love this post for the following reasons.

    The use of domestic animals in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is indeed so much better!! Not only does it leave the dolphins alone in the wild where they belong, it also gives stray, unwanted and abandoned domestic animals, especially dogs which are often abandoned, something to do with their lives other than being euthanized, turning feral and dangerous or dying horribly on the streets. Not only do these domestic animals enjoy the company of humans, they are in fact genetically programmed (after thousands of years of artificial selection) to NEED and depend upon human beings to survive and be healthy. So, abandoning DAT and sticking only to domestic animals in AAT is a perfect win-win-win situation: a win for the dolphins which get to stay in the wild, a win for the domestic animals which enjoy and need human company and a win for the autistic kids or whoever else needs AAT, as they will still get the treatment they need and they will do it more safely…

  • Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara

    Thank you for your comment. You are so right of course to mention the third, and certaily not negligible element in this win-win equation. “Comfort animals” get a clear advantage from AAT as well, and one more good reason for promoting it.

  • Tamara Oyarzabal

    I so totally agree.Leave dolphins in the wild AND give unwanted pets a new life helping others? Its’ a win-win situation for all! Well, except for the greedy owners of the prisons where dolphins and other wild animals are now kept.So,hmmmmm…it IS a win-win situation after all!!

  • Catarina Fonseca

    As a biologist student with a passio for cetaceans I thank you for this article because I really thought that DAP was a good thing and that it had a scientific foundation. I’m really sad to find out that that’s not true.
    I once read somewhere that if you release an orca that has lived in captivity for most of it’s life they are able to learn how to live in the wild. Is that true? And does that happen with dolphins too?

    • Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara

      An orca named Keiko (who was the main subject in the “Free Willy” movie) after having spent many years in captivity in a crammed pool in Mexico was returned to his native Iceland waters where he was under rehab in a fenced-off bay for several months. After his release he swam all the way to Norway, where he settled in a fjord apparently seeking the company of humans. I am personally convinced that when one separates a cetacean from its group it is very hard to have it integrating into its society again when reintroduced. I know of two bottlenose dolphins who many years ago were released together in their native Florida waters after they had been kept in captivity for a much shorter time than Keiko, and as far as I know that reintroduction went well. But I believe that was an exceptional case.

  • Tessa

    What you dont do is talk about wild dolphin encounters – it is possible to spend time with wild dolphins in their enviroment on their terms. If the dolphins didnt want to spend time with us they would simply swim away – some days they do some days they dont. Its up to them.

    Whilst there are claims and counter claims for the benefits of spending time with dolphins what I know for sure is how our guests react when they have been in the sea with wild dolphins who have chosen to come and interact with us. What cannot be denied is when you are with wild dolphins its hard to stop yourself from smiling. It makes people feel good. Anything beyond this is a bonus.

    I NEVER have and NEVER would condone keeping these creatures in captivity and indeed am actively fighting their captivity in Egypt where I live. But dont dismiss ALL dolphin encounters – just those who make claims of cures or or quackery and all those who exploit captive whales and dolphins for any entertainment or pseudo science purposes.

    What we could do with though is regulation on how close boats get to wild dolphins – some operators respect them others just want to get bigger tips from the guests and get closer and closer. Thankfully the dolphins an of course just swim away if they want but still it would be good to have some control. This will come I hope.

    • Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara

      I agree. In my blog I only referred to swimming with dolphins in captivity. However we should also be aware that swimming with dolphins in their habitat carries danger as well. There are too many instances around the world where swimming with dolphins and whales in the wild has skyrocketed into an abusive business. We need control there too. Samadai in Egypt is a special case because there – unlike in open sea waters – enforcement is easier. You can do zoning of the area, which was done, and control compliance. I hope this is still done. Without enforcement Samadai’s dolphins are in danger of being extirpated from the reef, and so are becoming those further to the south, in Sattayah.

  • ginger

    Great blog. Before any parent of an autistic child decides to try and swim the dolphins, I suggest you see Japan slaughtering the same dolphins your autistic child may be swimming with: See the movie: The Cove (film) – The dolphins are herded into a hidden cove where they are netted and sold for about 150,000 bucks! Others are SLAUGHTERED or sold as dolphin meat. These people have no souls. They are evil people, part of the making money off autism industry. But they will be exposed and bad karma will follow them for years. How funny that
    attempts to view or film the dolphin killing in the cove in Japan are physically blocked….gee, it’s all about money, what else? Bad karma is coming to these dolphin killing people. What a scam. Just like the people making money off autism. It’s not about autism, it’s all about making money OFF autism. See the movie “The Cove” and be prepared to see of greed that will make you sick. Just say NO to dolphin swim therapy and autism.

  • brigitte jones

    I agree with the view it’s wrong to use dolphins in captivity. Furthermore, while some disabilities respond well to animals and water, that would not be the case with those who are truly autistic. They generally hate novelty and have no inclination to interact meaningfully with either humans or animals. Truly autistic persons are propelled by their condition to preferring instrumental objects or treating all living things as such. Autistic children’s progression is when they discover and retain that they need this human to do “X” so they can get “Y”. A need or desire to be fullfilled. This they do by treating the person, their object for enacting “X” like an instrument, via gestures pulling them , using limited words or sounds and possibly pointing. Autism is so much of an issue that any pipe dream is clung onto.
    Born of desperation, resulting in improbable beliefs in solutions that are based on rare, odd improperly evaluated examples. Extremely twisted as “autistic children” are the supposed main beneficeries, the least likely ones to respond positively. Just shows how exploitative and unethical marketing for a profit can be.

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