Have You Heard about DAT?

Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT)

By Sophia Read
For The Bali Times

SEMINYAK ~ Swimming with dolphins is almost everyone’s dream come true. Humans have an age-old respect for and reverence of these amazing creatures. They have been credited throughout the ages with miracles. But can they really cure disease, or rebalance a troubled mind?

Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) programs are now widely available all over the globe, including here in Bali. What is Dolphin Assisted Therapy? Basically it’s interaction with a captive dolphin – this can be as simple as touching and stroking, or the “patient” may interact with the dolphin as a reward for completing a task. Does it work? That’s a much more difficult question.

The therapy is advertised in various places as being able to cure or improve the symptoms of such varying diseases as depression, eczema, bi-polar disorder, ADD, autism, cerebral palsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, paralysis, Downs Syndrome, epilepsy and even tumors. Does it? Well, we don’t really know. There has been a dearth of scientifically controlled studies on the subject, despite its popularity.

DAT was pioneered and popularized by John Lilly. He devoted his life to researching the limit of human perception (inventing the isolation tank, and experimenting heavily with LSD) and claimed that he could talk to dolphins and whales psychically. He finally decided that the reason dolphins and whales did not communicate with humans is that we as a species are “not ready.” He championed marine mammals, and some of his research may have been instrumental in effecting the implication of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the US. He was, however, interested mainly in actually breaking the “interspecies communication barrier,” and not focused on dolphins as therapy for illness.

The book Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology concluded that there was little evidence to prove the effectiveness of DAT. Another small but scientifically controlled study (published in the British Medical Journal) by Antonioli and Reveley did produce some positive results. This study was limited to the effects of DAT on patients with “mild or moderate depressive disorder,” and did find that more improvement was found in the group that interacted with dolphins than in a control group who were treated with a “outdoor nature” therapy, designed to recreate the exact conditions of the dolphin treatment group, just without the dolphins. They came to the conclusion that “the echolocation system, the aesthetic value and the emotions raised by the interaction with dolphins may explain the mammals’ healing properties.”

However successful DAT may be in the treatment of mild depression, there is no scientific evidence that it can medically improve any syndrome or disease. Some DAT advocates claim that the echolocation ability means that dolphins can “scan” a human with sonar, nuking cancer and curing paralysis. The few studies that have been done are scientifically suspect, and fail to prove that DAT is any more effective than other animal therapies. In fact, on the echolocation front: “even if the dolphin produced ultrasound continuously with a maximum power of 230 dB, the application time of 10 seconds per patient is not long enough to be comparable to therapeutic ultrasound in human medicine. Moreover, it seems to be practically impossible that a dolphin can produce ultrasound over several minutes with the maximum power directed to one certain patient. If this were indeed to occur, there would be a serious risk that the ultrasound could also damage the biological tissue.” (Brensing et al. 2003)

Basically, people like dolphins, and the chance to interact with them makes us happy, which combats depression. The very happiness itself may then lead to the release of hormones which lead to a reduction in levels of pain felt, or even a temporary alleviation of all symptoms.

It seems that advocates of DAT have missed one important logical step – if dolphins are to be accorded magical healing powers, and an intelligence sufficient to sustain compassion – how on earth can we justify keeping them captive in tanks? Most of the dolphins in DAT programs are in fact caught in the wild, and then exported around the world to the “dolphinariums” that require them. The president of the Dominican Republic refused to allow a dolphinarium to import wild caught dolphins, supported by an expert opinion that the capture of live dolphins had been used as a cover for a drive hunt in which many thousands of other dolphins were killed.

Swimming, or diving, with dolphins is inherently hazardous. Dolphins are large, wild animals and, like any other captive large animal, they have some impressive teeth. They can be extremely aggressive – both to humans and to their own species (they have been observed to attack and kill their own young). They are large, unpredictable creatures. Any captive animal that has its food supplied by humans comes to identify humans as the source of food – the fixed smile on their face is a pure physical chance, and does not indicate a benign mood. Some wild dolphins appear to be simply friendly – to enjoy human interaction, but even with a “friendly” dolphin, care should be taken. Many so-called friendly dolphins have just become used to food handouts, and will approach humans readily. The have been several cases of attacks by “friendly” dolphins – probably when the human failed to provide the expected food.

Even strong advocates of DAT have reversed their opinions, as have respected dolphin trainers (the man who trained Flipper is now outspokenly opposed to training dolphins). John Lilley himself released his captive dolphins some time before his researches were concluded. Given the lack of scientific proof and the potential dangers of these programs, there is an urgent need for either properly researched scientific validation of positive effects of DAT, or a ban capturing dolphins to provide it.

DAT programs around the world are hugely expensive, and unfortunately seem to appeal most to the most vulnerable – the parents of a sick child, for instance. If no benefit can be proven, I am sure that they could would be grateful for the funds to research or pay for other, proven therapies that may actually help.

The writer is sales manager of AquaMarine Diving – Bali.

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