Magical Healing Dolphins

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Yesterday morning, NBC’s Today Show ran a story about a sick dolphin who needed surgery to save his life. But this was not just any dolphin. This dolphin is named Sarah, and she lives in a lagoon at Key Largo’s Island Dolphin Care. No, it’s not a dolphin hospital. IDC is a “dolphin therapy” center, where people bring their children to receive magical healing treatments from one of several captive dolphins. Poor Sarah had developed a breathing problem that could become life-threatening. The good news is that she received cutting-edge medical care and is now doing just fine.

The bad news is that “Dolphin Assisted Therapy” just got some new national press. DAT is the controversial use of interaction with captive dolphins to treat a wide range of physical, mental, and emotional ailments and disorders. Proponents of DAT cite hundreds or even thousands of children and adults who seem to have benefited in some way from swimming with these dolphins. “Great,” you say. “What could be wrong with that?” Well, there’s a problem… two, actually.

First, there’s no scientific evidence that it actually works, at least no better than more conventional animal therapies. There are theories about how it might work, ranging from cellular-level effects of the dolphins’ echolocation to mystical dolphin energy. But there’s no science to back it up. In fact, one of the original pioneers of DAT, Dr. Betsy Smith, has denounced the therapy on the grounds that its effectiveness could not be proven and it put at risk two very vulnerable groups: disabled people and captive dolphins.

DAT also plays into the mistaken belief that dolphins are innately gentle and benevolent. Unfortunately, DAT enthusiasts often buy into the mystical dolphin myth and promote the idea that any experience of swimming with dolphins can lift your depression, improve your health, or even raise your consciousness. This article from the Huffington Post is one example.

The second problem is that promoting this idea only serves to increase the demand for dolphin swim experiences, which, in turn, requires more dolphins to do the work. Now, there’s no dolphin factory out there. If you want a dolphin, you have two ways of getting it. You either take it from the wild (Captures are currently illegal in United States waters, but are still carried out on a large scale in many countries, including Japan, Cuba, and the Solomon Islands.) or you trade for or purchase a captive-born dolphin from another facility. Either way, the dolphins don’t apply for the job and they don’t volunteer to be taken away from their families for the rest of their lives.

Now, the Today Show piece was not about the issue of DAT in general, but rather about a sick dolphin whose life was saved so that she could go on “treating” needy humans. But if your brain works like mine, you might have wondered where Sarah the dolphin came from. After watching the segment, I checked Ceta-Base. But I couldn’t find any mention of an “Island Dolphin Care” in Florida. Puzzled, I eventually decided to search for one of the dolphins listed on IDC’s website. “Fonzie” was at the top of the list, and a relatively unusual name. So I tried that. I quickly found him in the search results. But according to Ceta Base, until his unfortunate death in 2004, Fonzie belonged to Dolphins Plus, also in Key Largo. Comparing the names and biographies of the dolphins at Dolphins Plus, with those at Island Dolphin Care, it was obvious that many of them were the same.

So what does this mean? Are Sarah and the others only part-time therapy dolphins, spending the rest of their time making money for the for-profit Dolphins Plus, where swimming with a dolphin will set you back at least $150 per person? Are the dolphins owned by Dolphins Plus and merely on loan to Island Dolphin Care? With both companies claiming them, I had to wonder if the dolphins were pulling double duty. And what exactly is the relationship between these two entities? Whatever the case, two of IDC’s seven dolphins (and two more owned by Dolphins Plus) were, according to Ceta Base, taken from the wild during the 1980s.

Let me be clear, I don’t think the clients of IDC have any wish to harm the dolphins, and the staff and board of directors probably think that their motivations are completely noble. But there are many, many captive dolphin facilities around the world where dolphins are enslaved for the sole purpose of making money, and in my opinion, the false promise of Dolphin Assisted Therapy only serves to legitimize this industry.

Researching Sarah and her living situation has raised more questions than it answered. So I would like to know what you think. Even if it works, is keeping dolphins in captivity justified if it helps a human child have a better life?

Dr. Naomi Rose of HSUS talks about Dolphin Therapy (and other topics)

Here’s a nice mystical dolphin video to raise your vibrations!

Dr. Rose talks about the magical angelic dolphin myth.


  1. Island Dolphin Care is the therapy side of Dolphins Plus but its located on the same property as Dolphins Plus. Basically Dolphins Plus utilizes one side of the lagoon system (off Corrine Place) while Island Dolphin Care uses the other side (off Lorelane Place). Dolphins will move between the therapy side and swim-with program which is why there is no distinction between the two on the Ceta-Base website.

    • Brian Lochlaer :

      CetaBase, thanks for the clarification. And I apologize for the delay. It doesn’t normally take a year for me to follow up on a comment, but this one got caught by my filters. We really appreciate the work you do. Your database is a unique resource.

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