The “healing power” of dolphins is something that has long been publicized. You’ve probably seen the sensationalistic headlines where parents bring their children to a “healing retreat” and their condition is miraculously changed for the better. Dolphin therapy can be compared to working with a therapy dog. These retreats and therapy programs are generally geared towards patients who suffer from depression, motor disorders or even children who suffer from autism. During sessions, patients swim and interact with dolphins, but they also partake in more conventional therapy tasks, such as solving puzzles or other motor exercises. While some people have lauded the positive results that dolphin therapy had for them, there is not much science that actually supports why dolphins are used.

So how did we begin to believe that dolphins had these special “healing” abilities anyway? Well, you have to go way back. Like, thousands of years back.

In Greco-Roman times, dolphins were treasured. In ancient Greece, killing a dolphin could get someone the death sentence. The Greek god Poseidon had a dolphin messenger, named Delphinus, who helped get him a ladyfriend (Amphitrite). He repaid Delphinus by creating a constellation in the image of a dolphin. In ancient Rome, dolphins adorned jewelry and other fine goods. The ancient Celts believed the mammals had those magical and mysterious healing powers, while people in Brazil and Tahiti believe the parts of dolphins and whales have magical healing abilities.

Suffice to say, our world has loved these mammals for a long time. But loving an animal doesn’t exactly explain this jump to magical healing.

 A Dolphin’s Allure 

For those who have ever encountered a dolphin, you know there is something special about seeing these animals in person. Perhaps this experience could be the basis of their relationship with humans going so far back in time. Being on land, there are not that many opportunities to see these gorgeous animals, which adds another layer of mystery. They glide through the water effortlessly, jump and play and have intelligence on par with humans. They are incredible and alluring, which could be why many people experience that euphoric and “magical” feeling when they are around dolphins.

Dolphin Assisted Therapy 

When it comes to Dolphin Assisted Therapy, or DAT, there are a lot of factors to consider more than just being around a dolphin for the first time. When families come to these programs, they are usually traveling a good ways. It could also be part of their vacation. Either way, this is a special trip; one you get excited for. The person there for the “healing” is in a completely new environment, which could elicit excitement, nervousness, confusion or another emotion that could change their behavior. These conditions are usually not considered when the clients are experiencing DAT.

What the Expert Says 

Lori Marino, PhD. is the science director for the Nonhuman Rights Project, founder and executive director The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, Inc. and Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology and a Faculty Affiliate of the Center for Ethics at Emory University. Basically, she’s a big deal when it comes to animal intelligence and welfare. In 2013, she published an essay on Aeon called “Dolphins are not healers.” The essay is based on years of dolphin research. In it, she debunks the myth that dolphins can heal the ill. She acknowledges that dolphins, like any wild animal, can be aggressive and a danger to humans, using an example of a girl who had her hand bitten by a dolphin at Sea World, Orlando. Since Marino’s essay was published, there have been more bites.

“While there exist numerous published studies purporting to demonstrate positive results from DAT, none so far has controlled for feel-good and placebo effects,” Marino explains, “Most don’t even include a minimal control group, which would provide some measure of whether even general short-term feel-good effects are due to the dolphin or to other salient factors, such as being in the water, being given conventional tasks, getting increased attention from others, and so forth. Because none of these components of the DAT situation are disentangled, there remains no credibility to the claim that DAT offers effective therapy.”

Captivity is Cruelty

Marinio also highlights the cruelty of captivity for the dolphins. Essentially, captivity is like living in a bathtub for dolphins compared to the freedom they get in the wild. This stunts their extreme intelligence, social abilities and natural instincts. The behavior they exhibit in captivity — the tricks and personality displays that humans have come to love — is, in fact, artificial and beaten into them through cruel training methods.

By participating in DAT, or even going to amusement parks and zoos that feature dolphin shows, humans are not only supporting cruelty in the form of captivity, but the cruelty involved in the wild-caught dolphin trade. The Taiji dolphin hunts (made infamous in The Cove), are driven by the thousands of dollars from organizations and parks that pay to use these dolphins for captivity. The hunts not only tear the dolphins away from their pods, but results in the slaughter of many other wild dolphins as well.

The only way we can stop these cruel practices is to understand that dolphins are best experienced in their wild habitats, not captivity. While DAT programs might be considered healing for humans, we would be remiss not to think about the cruelty that they cost dolphins.

As Marino asserts, “Sadly, they [patients] may never realize that the dolphins they seek help from are likely to be as psychologically and physically traumatized as they are.”

Working with domestic animals, like cats and dogs, has proven to be highly effective for patients, and is virtually cruelty-free. Dolphins deserve to life on their own terms in the wild, not to be used as props for human purposes.

Image: Michael Gray/Flickr