SF mar Apr 1991v37#2 p36
BY BETH LIVERMORE
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
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
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
David Nathanson, a
clinical psychologist and professor at
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
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
Interest in this question is not, by any
means, limited to the
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
The National Marine
Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency that oversees the capture and
maintenance of dolphins, has received correspondence from several patties,
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
‘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
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.