Water Wings

 SF mar Apr 1991v37#2 p36


Swimming with dolphins may be the boost special kids need.

Since the beginning of time, tales of dolphins saving the lives of humans have amazed and inspired us. Ancient stories of stranded sailors befriended by smiling dolphins decorate museum artwork Even today re­ports of ocean rescues by “man’s best friend” in the sea still make headlines in newspapers around the globe. But of all such stories, old and new, the one now capturing most people’s imagination has nothing to do with ocean-dwelling dolphins and raging seas. Instead, at the heart of this high drama are captive bottlenose dolphins and handicapped people.

For more than a decade a handful of innovative therapists have been lowering patients into dolphin pools hoping for some degree of improvement in their clients. Because dolphins seem to enjoy spontaneous, non verbal play and have a reputation for being both gentle and attentive, some therapists believe these animals may be able to help them reach and motivate otherwise unresponsive people. In fact, after several studies, most of them have come to the conclusion that, at least for autistic, learning disabled, and emotionally damaged children, swimming with dol­phins can indeed improve the quality of life.

As a result some 50 to 100 health-related professionals now encourage patients to seek out swim-with-dolphins programs. Heartened individuals and families are traveling thousands of miles to take the plunge. Dolphinariums worldwide have expressed interest in establishing therapy centers of their own. Interestingly, while some of the originators of this novel therapy are pleased with the enthusiasm, the majority are concerned about what they call “over-interest.” They warn that if there is proliferation of swim-with-dolphins programs in the absence of regulation and professional conduct, both vulnerable people and captive dolphins stand the chance of being exploited.

The 130-mile-long chain of islands known as the Florida Keys lies like a string of pearls below the mainland, one tip tickling the famous Everglades, the other marking the southernmost point of the continental United States. Largo Key, the first island in the chain, is home to Dolphins Plus, one of the four marine mammal facilities authorized to let paying customers swim with their dolphins. It is also one of the three that host the handicapped.

Just beyond the upright rowboat marked ‘entrance are two giggling children zipped up to their necks in neoprene, and a friendly looking blonde woman named Julie Baxter. Julie is a licensed occupational therapist who works with handicapped kids in the Dade County Public School Sys­tem. She started swimming with dolphins five years ago, as part of her job as assistant to a psychologist who was researching dolphin-human interactions. Last year she started her own program at the request of the parents of two children—Julie O’connell, age 4, and Ryan Cheney, age 3. Both kids have cerebral palsy, a condition in which muscle control is impaired or lost due to injury to the brain. Like most kids with this condition, they have to abide by a rigorous schedule of exercise to train and maintain their muscles. Their parents asked Baxter to concentrate on strengthening the kids’ limbs and bolstering their self-confi­dence. So every Saturday she, the two kids, and their parents spend at least half an hour in a coral-bottomed pool working and playing with three 600-pound dolphins.

Sammy is Ryan’s favorite. “Look out, Mommy Monsteil Here she comes!’ he shouts to his mother, Kelly Cheney, who is treading water beside him. Slowly, as the little red-haired boy attempts to kick one leg, then the other, the dolphin surfaces and nudges the rigid limbs. “Somehow it seems to know that there’s something wrong with him,” Baxter says. Ryan’s leg muscles are normally tensed at maximum, so it is just about impossible for him to bend or manipulate them. “Sammy can get him to work much harder than I can, “says Kelly.

From across the pool Julie screeches with delight. She lies suspended in the water with a dolphin to either side. “Julie was scared of everything before she started coming to swim here,” says Mary, her mother. “Now look at her. It’s remarkable.”

“Both of these kids made an awful lot of progress in a short amount of time,” Baxter says. The water facilitates movement while the animals provide distraction and moti­vation. “I’m not sure how, and there’s no scientific data to back it up, but these animals seem to have a way of identifying and responding to the needs of special people,” says Julie. “You should see them work with autistic kids.”

Autistic children were among the first to participate in swim-with-dolphins therapy. In 1978 Betsy Smith. an edu­cational anthropologist and associate professor at Florida International University in Miami, set out to investigate whether dolphins could help her penetrate the guarded worlds of these seemingly impervious children. “Dolphins communicate with sound and a tremendous variety of body language. When you work with autistic children and ado­lescents, you need to pick up their subtle body cues to understand what they are doing and thinking. Dolphins are excellent at reading the body language of people,” she says.

Her first project involved Michael Williams, son of the president of the Autistic Society. This 16-year-old had been diagnosed as nonverbal—unable to reproduce human sounds. Never before had he interacted in a meaningful manner with another human being. But, as Smith sus­pected he might, Michael immediately responded to the dolphins. During his very first session he reached behind himself, picked up a ball and threw it to the attentive animals. During his fifth session he helped another autistic teenager to lift a bucket and pour water over the animals’ soft gray bodies. And by the end of a year, which included 16 encounters, his teacher noted that Michael was happier, easier to work with, and his attention span had increased from a few minutes to half an hour. He also stopped biting his fingers and smacking his head, overcame his fear of stairs and elevators, and was able to smile and show affec­tion.

Excited by these results, Smith set out to do a more formal study. In 1987, after securing funds from the Caribbean Center for Interdisciplinary Research and the South Florida chapter of the Autism Society of America, she invited seven severely autistic adolescents to participate. Four were al­lowed to play with the dolphins twice a day for seven days. The other three children made up the control group. They swam and horsed around for the same amount of time at a local park on Largo Key. The result: ‘We have noticed strikingly more interaction among the children who play with the dolphins. When the control group comes home from the beach, they are generally exhausted, and we have a lot of trouble getting them involved in activities. When the dolphin contact group comes home, they run up and down the halls or play with puzzles and crafts. They seem to run circles around the control group. One night two of the kids in the dolphin contact group actually had to be separated because they were laughing and playing so much.” But Smith remains cautious. Though she believes that swim­ming with dolphins affects needy people in ways other therapy cannot, she says that “there is no hard scientific evidence that dolphins are more effective than any other therapy. There is a real need for more study.”

David Nathanson, a clinical psychologist and professor at Florida International University, would agree. In 1987, he approached Dolphin Research Center (DRC), on Grassy Key, with hopes of studying the effect that dolphins might have on the rate of learning among retarded children. He hypothesized that the animals could have a powerful simulative effect on the children, increasing their attention spans and improving their retention.

After DRC approved his project. Nathanson spent six months teaching six retarded boys, between two and six years of age. He taught them everything from the alphabet to complete words, using dolphins both as stimulus and reinforcement. When he compared the speed with which they were learning to that of children he worked with in the classroom, he found that the kids in the dolphin study were learning two to ten times faster. “These findings demon­strate conclusively that dolphins can enhance the attention span of mentally handicapped children and thus increase the rate of learning, “he said in 1988 at the 24th International Congress of Psychology in Sydney, Australia. Yet he, like Smith, qualifies his findings. “I can’t say! know exactly why it happens.”

Just down the road from Grassy Key, at Islamorada’s Theater of the Sea, there is another group benefiting from this type of program. Here, spinal cord injury patients from Miami’s Jackson Memorial Rehabilitation Center come to swim with dolphins. Lucy Binhack, head therapist, was initially skeptical when dolphin trainer Gina Gouvin invited her to their center last year. But now she wholeheartedly supports their program, in which three people swim once a month for about ten minutes each. “Its a powerful experi­ence, a really bold way to say that an inability to walk doesn’t have to stop my life,” Binhack says. “No one gets out of the water and walks away, but there is a noticeable difference in these people. Much more so than after we’ve had them out playing softball or horseback riding.” They seem to be more motivated and to sleep better. “The positive feelings they get from this experience seem stay with them.”

Interest in this question is not, by any means, limited to the Florida Keys. Across the Atlantic, in Great Britain, veterinarian Horace Dobbs is investigating the effect of swimming with dolphins on clinically depressed people.

After a chance encounter with a wild dolphin in the late 1970s, he began to wonder if the dolphins would help people suffering from mental distress. He decided to take a man who had been seriously depressed for 13 years to the open sea off Pembrokeshire, where a friendly dolphin was known to frequently appear. “The man said it was more therapeutic than all the antidepressant medication he had taken over the last decade,” says Dobbs. “But as a scientist trained in skepticism, I knew that to draw any conclusions at this stage would be premature.” But soon he will release the results of a case study of three individuals that he took to meet a dolphin off the west coast of Ireland.

Researchers in France, Greece. Spain, and Australia are also considering similar studies. American entrepreneurs hope to establish programs in ~he Soviet Union, Ama­zon, and Caribbean before the end of next year. “There is a great deal of interest in this idea all over the world,” says Sita Horn, head dolphin trainer for Holiday Park Dolphinarium in Hassloch, Germany. “But there is also ~wing concern for the animals, and this has apparently slowed things down, at least in Europe.”

In the United States this concern has brought plans for expansion to a halt. The difficulty is that the therapeutic swim-with-dolphins programs are hosted by the same facilities that run the profit-making swim-with-dolphins programs for the general public. The use of dolphins in these programs has prompted several private groups and government agencies to voice con­cern over a number of issues.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency that oversees the capture and mainte­nance of dolphins, has received correspondence from several patties, including Florida’s Department of Natural Resources, raising safety issues. Among their biggest concerns is disease transmission between dolphins

and humans, increased stress on the animals, and risk of injury to humans. Although aggression is not typical of human-dolphin interactions, there are a few docu­mented cases of dolphins injuring humans, sometimes severely, while swimming with them.

As a result, in November of 1989, NMFS announced that the four facilities (one in Hawaii) authorized to use dolphins in swim programs may not have their permits renewed. But after several months of consideration, NMFS, in a final environmental impact statement, stated that “no significant new information regarding swim programs’ effects on dolphin biology, mortality and disease, or public health and safety was received during the comment period.” Therefore NMFS extended the experimental permits to all four facilities until Decem­ber 31, 1991. But no additional swim programs, ex­pansions of existing programs, or captures of dolphins from the wild for this purpose will be authorized for this period.

‘We don’t know enough to say that these programs are fine and everyone should have one, but we also have indications that people have benefited from them, so to discontinue them would be arbitrary at this point,” says Anne Tethush of NMFS’s Office of Protected Re­sources and Habitat Programs. “We have a serious and growing concern about over-regulating. We would actually prefer to leave this to the interests involved.”

According to some of those closest to the subject, that might not be such a bad idea. “The integrity of the animal is paramount to these people,” says Nathanson. The philosophy of Dolphins Plus is that to force an animal to interact with humans against its will is un­thinkable and no amount of educational or therapeutic value would justify treating an animal in that way. DRC staff members believe that swim-with-dolphins pro­grams can be conducted without risk to dolphins or people, if proper precautions are taken. They hope federal officials will continue to sanction swim pro­grams that have educational, scientific, or therapeutic value.

The therapists are also pushing for unified stan­dards. Toward this end, last June at the 22nd Interna­tional Dolphin and Whale Conference held in Nambucca Heads, Australia, Betsy Smith and others proposed a code of ethics for those sponsoring swim-with-dol­phins programs. She suggests that all professionals putting clients into the water with dolphins take water-safety training, be certified in adaptive aquatics, have some knowledge of dolphin behavior, and never force an animal to interact with their clients.

It is a thorny issue to say the least. At this point, those who stand to lose the most also have the most to gain from an honest assessment. If the programs prove to be dangerous, stopping them now will prevent unwanted hassles in the future. If they are deemed safe and worthwhile, then those with most invested will be empowered to take the next step, which is to expand responsibly. No one can predict the outcome. One can hope, however, that answers are sought and reported with the same degree of integrity that kids like Julie and Ryan use to face each and every day.