Dolphin therapy

By Carrie Johnson • Published: July 6th, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Former Florida International University researcher Betsy Smith became inspired while watching her mentally disabled brother interact with a dolphin in the 1970s. When Smith saw how much he benefited from playing with the charismatic marine mammals, she offered the same opportunity to other disabled children, free of charge.

Today, dolphin therapy is a booming business. The Washington Post recently reported more than one-hundred organizations offer the service worldwide. The typical cost: About twenty-six-hundred dollars for five forty-minute sessions.

Advocates say exposure to these creatures is so rewarding it can improve patients’ health, or make them more receptive to other therapies. But the chorus of critics is growing. They say there’s no hard evidence dolphin therapy helps. In fact, it could be harmful… for both the animals and humans. Even early advocate Betsy Smith has renounced the practice.

Still, the Autism Society’s Web site touts it, saying children with disabilities learned faster and retained information longer when interacting with dolphins compared with classroom learning.

But conservationists are concerned about the dolphins’ safety They say forcing dolphins to swim with children and perform tricks can result in injuries for both mammal and child.

Some resourceful entrepreneurs believe they have found the answer: They offer a simulated experience, where patients lie on water-filled mattresses and watch images of swimming dolphins.

The question remains, does the therapy help, and, if so, does it require the true dolphin touch? Scientists aren’t certain. But humans have marveled about dolphins since before Aristotle studied them more than two thousand years ago. That fascination… and the hope that dolphins can help… will certainly continue.