Navigating between the possibilities of benevolent therapy and dolphin freedom
A big part of my thesis was studying Dolphin Assisted Therapy: what happens, how it works, how it doesn’t work, what was scientifically proven, etc. Please find links to some of the research here if this is of interest to you. But here, I want to simply present my reflections on the subject as a whole.
Dolphin Assisted Therapy has had many wonderful results over the years. It also raised many questions and doubts, since dolphins were used mostly as positive reinforcement, meaning a treat for a job well done, a carrot on a stick.
It wasn’t easy for me to dive deep into the subject, because until that moment all I had was my own personal experience with dolphins in the wild. My meetings were not scheduled, constructed, or organized in any specific way. So, you can imagine me reading about therapists working with dolphins in captivity, training them to act a certain way while trying to get a response from a child or disabled person… it seemed so contrived, downgrading the magnificence of what is possible into predictability and form.
It was like taking a free-flowing formless dance master and teaching them steps for waltz (no offense to people that like to waltz). I know and understand, there can be gifts in that, but it certainly didn’t feel like a path I wanted to tread, or simply put: It just didn’t feel right!
And I wasn’t the only one. Over the years, many centers have changed the way they keep dolphins in captivity. They have started to allow them to form pods and swim openly in a part of the ocean that’s separated with nets.
Dolphin Reef Eilat
Probably the most well-known is Dolphin Reef Eilat in Israel, where they went a step further and have dolphins interact with swimmers on their own terms, meaning dolphins are not trained to pull you around or take happy photos with you. They are still in captivity, but with much greater freedom than most of the dolphinariums in Mexico, the Bahamas or Florida. Here’s a short description of Dolphin Reef’s therapy program, “The Dolphin Reef is a unique site in terms of the conditions in which the dolphins live and the Human-Dolphin relationships that are formed as the result of our way of interacting with them.
The dolphins are able to maintain their social structure, living as a permanent group, and they are free to choose whether or not to approach any person who enters their world.
“The program "Supportive experience with the aid of dolphins" has existed since 1991 and was initiated by Sophie Donio, M.A. The program is suitable for children from 6 to 16 years old who face various challenges and mental difficulties with problems such as: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Autism, Dyslexia, behavioral problems, Down-Syndrome, depression, cancer patients, and victims of sexual-abuse, among others.
“The concept and core of this program are to give the children an opportunity to experience positive moments and be themselves. The children feel, and respond to, the freedom given to them, so they more easily accept our working framework; they receive love so they become more open; they feel their success and they receive personal attention which makes them more confident; they receive strong emotional stimuli, which strengthens them; and they walk on the moving pier, which improves their movement and balance.
“Motivation is the word to describe what the Dolphin Reef is creating for the children in this program. When the children feel better about themselves, they become motivated to accomplish greater things.”
I’ve heard amazing stories about Eilat dolphins interacting with disabled kids in a unique way, like they knew and understood they could make a big impact on these children’s lives. I congratulate Dolphin Reef on implementing a much more natural, dolphin-friendly way of keeping these creatures in captivity. If it has to be done at all, this should be the standard.
Water Planet Florida
Exploring further I was truly happy and excited when I discovered Water Planet in Florida; to my knowledge the only place in the world, that offers Dolphin Assisted Therapy in the wild. Here’s what they say about their program, “Water Planet’s dolphin therapy programs use the emotional impact of a dolphin encounter in his own environment combined with expressive art, massage, cranio-sacral therapy and music as a beneficial experience for children with disabilities, emotionally challenged and fragile children.”
“Finally, somebody gets it,” was all I could say. My soul was singing as I read the following passage from their webpage,
“A dolphin encounter in the wild is an extraordinary experience. The adventure of being face to face in the ocean with a large and wild air-breathing mammal is a powerful one that will not easily be forgotten and that is only given to a minority, especially in our society, where we are mostly living in a controlled environment without direct contact with the wilderness. A wild dolphin is a symbol of freedom. He triggers in us these feelings of joy, excitement, wonder, sometimes awe, even rapture for some. Therapy with dolphins deals with using the strong emotional release of this experience to disrupt social barriers and inhibitions.”
Please take a moment and just imagine a future where the standards set by Dolphin Reef and Water Planet are widely accepted and implemented; where every Dolphinarium is based on the values of deepest respect, love and freedom of the dolphin kind; where dolphins are free to interact with us when they choose; and where meeting them in the wild is preferred (if not the only) option for therapy and healing. Thank you!!!