Dolphins have a reputation for being excellent therapy animals. But is this representation accurate, or is dolphin therapy merely a fad? A strong argument can be made either way. One fact is immediately obvious, which is that people are drawn to interacting with exotic animals. One of the highlights of my childhood was petting a Beluga at Marine land in Niagara Falls, Canada. When CNN ran an article about an elephant snatching a digital camera which belonged to a tourist and taking the worlds’ first ‘eflie’ with his trunk, people whom I showed the article to loved it because the mainstream media was talking about something other than doom and gloom. Who wouldn’t walk away from an experience like feeding Giraffes at a zoo with some level of glee?
An argument can definitely be made against utilizing dolphins as therapy animals however. For example, half of all Marine biologists who work with Dolphins or other large aquatic animals will be injured traumatically at some point. The renowned and revered Chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, who among other things was the first to establish that Chimpanzees utilize tools by observation, has stated that the tanks which theme parks and zoos house dolphins and killer whales in are intolerable for the animals. This is because the creatures use echolocation to navigate their environments. According to Goodall, the tanks reflect the whale’s sound waves. This in turn aggravates them and can cause them to lash out at people nearby. It is an established fact that Dolphins can be aggressive, which makes sense given that dolphins are carnivores, and that not every injury which dolphins have inflicted on humans has been accidental. Some of those injured have been the patients of the therapy themselves.
Life is a risky affair however. Driving, being involved in activities which take place in crowds and cooking are all dangerous activities. Car accidents, riots and burns are sadly commonplace. Many of the activities which some people love the most, whether it be mountain climbing or skydiving, also happen to be the very activities where their lives are most at risk. Additionally, the fact that firms which offer dolphin therapy are even still in business confirms that cases where dolphins become aggressive or injure people are fairly rare in the short-term and that such firms have trained their staff to minimize these dangers. Also, the fact that people love interacting with animals proves the therapy is effective for some simply because it can be a reward. A parent taking an autistic child on vacation could reward the child with a dolphin swim if they are good on the plane and tell them that if they are good they will get it in advance. Some biologists also suspect that dolphins have emotions like humans. Indeed, there are anecdotes of sailors lost at sea after a shipwreck having dolphins guide them to the shore- which would not only indicate compassion but also an understanding that the people live on land and thus some level of intelligence. Evidence exists which suggests that interacting with these animals can increase self-confidence and academic performance in children which lack those attributes.
So, an argument can be made either way for Dolphins as therapy animals. If I had an Autistic child, the factor keeping me away would be the price tag- many of these programs start at $5,000. Honestly, taking a child on a dolphin spotting tour as a reward for learning to read a book about the animals or making an ‘A’ on a report which the child wrote about them, makes a lot more sense to me. It seems much more humane and would likely be a world more enriching for the child.