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Op-Ed: Dolphin assisted therapy — Quackery at its finest?

By Elizabeth Batt     Jul 8, 2013 in Environment
Dating back to the 70s, Dolphin Assisted Therapy or DAT, is increasing in popularity. Referred to by some as a "new and exciting field of modern medicine," DAT lacks scientific proof and few regulations.
Listening to supporters of DAT, interacting with dolphins can cure just about anything. From chronic fatigue syndrome to depression and phobias, 20 minutes with a dolphin — DAT advocates argue, can significantly improve your health.
Less touted however, is the cost of DAT, which according to the website, Autism and More, is, "approximately $7350," for therapy lasting two weeks, or $250 for one session (around 20 minutes).
Is it human nature to seek a cure?
For sick people, when more traditional methods fail, an "out of the box" cure is often the next step. But it isn't always without cost, an issue for the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Testifying before the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight in 1998, FDA Lead Deputy Commissioner, Michael A. Friedman, M.D., said:
FDA’s primary mission for over 90 years has been to promote and protect the public health, as directed by the FDC and Public Health Service Acts. These statutes were enacted and amended, in part, in response to devastating public health tragedies resulting from the sale to, and use by, an unsuspecting public of unsafe and ineffective products sold as medicines and medical devices.
In desperation, sick people and their loved ones, are easy targets for charlatans.
Expensive cures, few rewards
Westerners claim superior knowledge when it comes to man-made cures. We snarf at rhino horn to cure cancer and belittle the multitude of animal parts used to aid various ills in eastern cultures. Our culture resents tradition and favors science.
But are we truly any smarter?
Quackery, or the promotion of unproven or fraudulent medical practices, has been around since the 17th century. According to, dictionaries describe the quack as "a pretender to medical skill; a charlatan" and "one who talks pretentiously without sound knowledge of the subject discussed."
In the mid-19th century for example, a product called Revalenta Arabica was touted for its amazing restorative abilities for invalids. Grand name aside, the product was ordinary lentil flour, and did nothing for anybody, as noted in this amusing exchange between a doctor and his patient. [Published in the Dec. 1853, Assoc Med Journal].
We have of course moved on since the horsedrawn wagons came to down touting their cure alls. In fact, we have grown much smarter, but not necessarily any wiser. You see, quackery has grown smarter too.
Established centers operate on own research
In the Ukraine, Dolphin Assisted Therapy, is a DAT facility founded in 1986 by Dr. Ludmila Lukina. Lauded as "the first world scientist to receive a doctoral degree based on findings in the field of dolphin assisted therapy," nobody appears to care that the findings are the doctor's own.
Lukina has worked for decades at the State Oceanarium of Sevastopol and has essentially built an empire surrounding DAT, dolphin therapy games and selling therapeutic dolphin sounds on iTunes. According to their programs:
The main component of the dolphin healing method is the psychological effect from the interaction between person and exotic animal in an unaccustomed environment and the physical therapy effect from hydro-location or sonic waves made by these animals.
Lukina is also largely responsible for the explosion of DAT facilities within her country and far beyond.
Cost versus results and opinion versus reality
The Henry Spink Foundation was created to assist families who have a child diagnosed with severe disabilities. The Foundation covers both conventional and alternative medicine and therapies. They assessed dolphin assisted therapy and its outcome. While they neither supported nor decried DAT, they did warn:
Dolphin therapy is expensive and it is important not to expect dramatic results. on the other hand, slammed DAT programs and claims that studies, "published in support of DAT have hitherto been practice-based rather than controlled and are seriously flawed." Skepdic contends:
There has been only one randomized controlled DAT experiment whose results have been published in a peer-reviewed journal (British Medical Journal, November 26, 2005). The results were positive but the study sample was small (25 participants completed the study) and the length of the study very short (two weeks of therapy for depressed patients).
Skepdic also blamed the media for being quick to jump on the feelgood bandwagon. The website lamented the refusal by the press to be critical of the studies conducted on DAT to date. In one instance, Skepdic even accuses the Upledger Foundation of its "own special brand of quackery", for advertising craniosacral therapy at $4,500, for a 4-day DAT program.
What dolphin experts say
Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) wants a complete ban on all DAT facilities. The group explains in their, "Case Against Dolphin Assisted Therapy," just how dangerous DAT can be for both human and cetacean. Citing disease transmission as one legitimate concern, WDC also lamented the lack of oversight for these programs:
We are not aware of any specific regulations governing DAT in the countries where it is conducted. It is therefore not possible for authorities to ensure any health or safety standards in national DAT facilities.
Dr. Lori Marino, a leading neuroscientist and dolphin expert at Emory University, agrees. Following a newly published piece about DAT that recently appeared in Aeon magazine, Marino spoke with author David Kirby for this piece published at
Marino told Kirby:
DAT has proliferated globally throughout Asia, Europe, Mexico, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean with several centers in the United States, mainly in Florida and Hawaii.
The scientist also said that the DAT industry has not met minimal standards for legitimacy when it comes to measurable effects on core symptoms. Marino thus concluded in Aeon magazine:
Thousands of families visit DAT facilities and end up gaining nothing that they could not have gained from interacting with a puppy.
WDC added that "DAT is not a service concerned with the welfare of dolphins," and referred to Betsy Smith, a former pioneer of Dolphin Assisted Therapy. Smith eventually denounced DAT as:
A rather cynical and deceptive practice by dolphinarium and swim-with-programs owners. Some certified therapists with no dolphin knowledge will charge exorbitant fees for treatment that can be done without dolphins… At the heart of all these therapy programs is the exploitation of vulnerable people and vulnerable dolphins.
DAT has far-reaching consequences for dolphins
While some DAT facilities may hold a sincere desire to improve the lives of children, the absence of regulations allow others with more questionable motives to flourish.
In this article that appeared on San Carlos TV, an author named Vince Radice, shares the timeline of the Sonora Delfinaro. Based in San Carlos, Mexico, Radice daubed the Sonora Delfinaro, the "Deadly Dolphinarium," after four dolphins died at the facility over a six-year period.
Sonora Delfinaro was created by Eduardo Bours, who during his campaign for governor, promised — if he won, to start a dolphin therapy program to treat children with neurological disabilities and Down Syndrome. The treatments Bours announced, would be free to the public and paid for by the state. Bours lived up to his promise and inaugurated the dolphinarium by welcoming four dolphins captured from the Solomon Islands.
Appointed by Bours, the state run agency Comision De Ecologia Y Desarrollo Sustentable Del Estado De Sonora (CEDES), (Ecology and Sustainable Development Commission of the State of Sonora), was tasked with the aquarium's oversight.
Radice claims that CEDES was underhanded from the start, even hatching an illegal plan at one point, to capture wild dolphins from the area to add to the aquarium.
The author's account of this facility is everything a good crime novel should be. From dolphin kidnapping to threats, intimidation and attempted cover ups, Radice states that CEDES is frequently in violation of Mexican federal law.
With little unbiased research into DAT undertaken, Marino maintains, "there is absolutely no evidence for DAT’s therapeutic effectiveness. At best," she added, "there might be short-term gains attributable to the feel-good effects of being in a novel environment and the placebo boost of having positive expectations."
As for those people considering DAT at any time in the future, Marino's words are worth considering, as are Stephen Barrett's of Quackwatch. He sensibly cautions:
I find it most useful to define quackery as the promotion of unsubstantiated methods that lack a scientifically plausible rationale. Promotion usually involves a profit motive. Unsubstantiated means either unproven or disproven. Implausible means that it either clashes with well-established facts or makes so little sense that it is not worth testing.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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