Does the mounting evidence linking dolphins and humans in the evolutionary tree, as mentioned in my recent post, add weight to the belief that Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) is A Jolly Good Thing? After all, our cetacean cousins are intelligent, gregarious, social creatures whose interactivity with those in need of palliative treatment or respite from illness or disability seems to bring about some positive benefits for the humans involved, so you could be forgiven for thinking so.
But it’s certainly not the case, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), which has recently called for a ban on DAT. With the results of their report Can you put your faith in DAT? being endorsed by Research Autism, the WDCS investigation came to the following conclusions:
+ There is no scientific evidence to prove that the therapy is effective
+ There are no official standards or regulation governing the industry
+ Dolphins are removed from the wild to stock the growing number of DAT facilities, and this has both serious conservation and welfare implications for the animals
+ Both people and animals can be exposed to infection and injury when participating in DAT
+ DAT is extremely costly despite the lack of evidence of its success and there are other therapies available that are both cheaper and easier to obtain
I’d read about DAT in the past and watched TV items about it; I hadn’t given any thought as to whether it was actually doing any good for the people involved (I just assumed it must be), nor whether dolphins were suffering as a result of it — I assumed they must be enjoying it too. It’s easy to anthropomorphosise.
But this report woke me up.
The WDCS says the process of removing dolphins from the wild is incredibly stressful to the animals, involving them being ’rounded up’ by boats or trapped by nets. Many dolphins die as a result of the experience, and those that are later transferred to other facilities still have a shorter life expectancy.
It’s a costly financial exercise for the families of the participants. Often, they’re people in an understandably vulnerable state, desperately seeking some form of therapy that’ll help their loved ones. They’ll spend a fortune on trips to the centres where the dolphins are kept. Might not that money be better spent on other cheaper (and safer) forms of therapy?
The Times Online picked up on this story on 30th October. Science Editor Mark Henderson reported that since the 1970s dozens of centres around the world have offered children and adults with a wide range of physical, psychiatric or developmental disabilities the chance to swim with, stroke and feed the marine mammals, usually in captivity but occasionally in the wild, at a typical cost of at least £1,500 for five 40-minute sessions. As there are no centres offering the therapy in Britain, and most are in the US, the cost to British patients can be much greater because of flights and accommodation.
He also wrote that Richard Mills, of Research Autism, said: “We understand that parents will wish to do anything that might potentially help their child but we would urge people to exercise caution when considering such an undertaking.” The charity’s website gives the treatment three exclamation marks, indicating a therapy with very strong evidence of harmful effects.
I’ve no wish to upset anyone who’s been involved in DAT as a patient or carer. I’m sure many would say that their loved ones enjoyed the experience and gained some form of benefit from it — but frankly, we would all benefit from the unique experience of meeting and swimming with these graceful, amazing creatures if we had an opportunity to do so. It’s in the nature of such an extraordinary communion — such a meeting of minds — that it will be memorable and meaningful.
Surely, though — no therapy that involves killing the members of a species as sentient as dolphins is worth the price, whatever the perceived benefits to us. This investigation has shown that some are being killed in the process of capture, while survivors are having their natural lifespans shortened through stress-induced illnesses when in captivity, so there has to be an immediate end to dolphin capture for DAT — and, of course, for all other purposes.
It’s the human thing to do.