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.