Dolphins are not healers

Dolphins are smart, sociable predators. They don't belong in captivity and they shouldn't be used to 'cure' the ill

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An autistic child swims with a dolphin. ‘The dolphin smile is nature’s greatest deception,’ said Ric O’Barry, who trained the dolphins in the TV series Flipper.  Photo by Andrew Bosch/MCT/Getty

An autistic child swims with a dolphin. ‘The dolphin smile is nature’s greatest deception,’ said Ric O’Barry, who trained the dolphins in the TV series Flipper. Photo by Andrew Bosch/MCT/Getty

Lori Marino is a neuroscientist at Emory University. She is executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy in Decatur, Georgia. She has been studying dolphins and whales for 25 years.

Imagine this. Jay, an eight-year-old autistic boy, whose behaviour has always been agitated and uncooperative, is smiling and splashing in the pool. A pair of bottlenose dolphins float next to him, supporting him in the water. Jay’s parents stand poolside as a staff member in the water engages him in visual games with colourful shapes. She asks him some questions, and Jay, captivated by his surroundings, begins to respond. He names the shapes, correctly, speaking his first words in months. With all this attention Jay is in high spirits; he appears more aware and alert than ever before. A quick, non-invasive EEG scan of his brain activity shows that it is indeed different from before the session.

Jay's parents, who had given up hope, are elated to have finally found a treatment that works for their son. They sign up for more sessions and cannot wait to get home and tell their friends about the experience. They are not surprised to find that dolphins have succeeded where mainstream physicians have not. Everyone believes that dolphins are special — altruistic, extra gentle with children, good-natured. And any concerns the parents might have had about the welfare of the dolphins have been allayed by assurances from the trainers that they are happy and accustomed to the role they are playing. After all, as the parents can see for themselves, the dolphins are smiling.

‘Jay’ is a composite character drawn from the dozens of testimonials that appear on dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT) websites, but stories like his, stories about the extraordinary powers of dolphins, have been told since ancient times. Much of our attraction to these creatures derives from their appealing combination of intelligence and communicativeness, and the mystery associated with the fact that they inhabit a hidden underwater environment. Dolphins are the Other we’ve always wanted to commune with. And their ‘smile’, which is not a smile at all, but an anatomical illusion arising from the physical configuration of their jaws, has led to the illusion that dolphins are always jovial and contented, compounding mythological beliefs that they hold the key to the secret of happiness.

The mythic belief in dolphins as healers has been reiterated down the ages from the first written records of encounters with these animals. In Greco-Roman times, dolphins were closely linked with the gods. Delphinus was a favourite messenger of Poseidon, who repaid him for his loyalty by placing an image of a dolphin in the stars. The Greek poet Oppian of Silica declared around 200 CE that ‘Diviner than the Dolphin is nothing yet created.’ Aristotle was the first to recognise that dolphins are mammals. Indeed, the root of the word dolphin, delphus, means womb, and underscores the long-standing belief in an intimate (even chimeric) connection between dolphins and humans.

In ancient Rome and Mesopotamia, dolphins adorned frescoes, artwork, jewellery and coins, and in ancient Greece the killing of a dolphin was punishable by death. The Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete, dated to 1900—1300BC, contains one of the earliest and best-known ornamentations depicting dolphins in a fresco on the wall of the queen’s bathroom. In Greek mythology, Taras, son of Poseidon, was said to have been rescued from a shipwreck by a dolphin sent by his father, hence the image of the boy on a dolphin depicted on historical coinage.

The perception of dolphins as lifesavers is connected with beliefs that they possess magical powers that can be used for healing. The ancient Celts attributed special healing powers to dolphins, as did the Norse. Throughout time, people as far apart as Brazil and Fiji have traded in dolphin and whale body parts for medicinal and totemic purposes. Despite being saddled with these dubious supernatural attributes, there actually are several well-substantiated modern reports of dolphins coming to the aid of humans. In 2007, for example, a pod of bottlenose dolphins saved the surfer Todd Endris, who had been mauled by a great white shark off Monterey, by forming a protective ring around him, which allowed him to get to shore. But these instances are related to dolphins’ ability to generalise their natural anti-predator behaviours to another species, not to anything supernatural.

The intelligence and sophistication of dolphins is not just mythological, of course. Decades of scientific research has confirmed that they possess large and highly elaborate brains, prodigious cognitive capacities, demonstrable self-awareness, complex societies, even cultural traditions. In 2001 my colleague Diana Reiss and I provided the first definitive evidence for mirror self-recognition in two bottlenose dolphins at the New York Aquarium. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this study demonstrated, along with many others since, that dolphins have a level of self-awareness not unlike our own.

Yet in the face of this evidence for their very real brainpower, dolphins have been imbued with religious and supernatural qualities and remade into the ultimate New Age icon.

Margaret Howe spent 10 weeks living with a dolphin named Peter in a tank rigged up to contain just enough water for the dolphin to swim in and for Howe to wade in

The person most responsible for fuelling modern, New Age notions of dolphins as morally superior spiritual healers is the late neuroscientist John C Lilly, who pioneered research with captive dolphins in the 1960s. Lilly’s early work on dolphin brains and behaviour, conducted in laboratories in the US Virgin Islands and in Miami, was groundbreaking, bringing to light important knowledge about the species’ large, complex brains and keen intelligence. Lilly also provided evidence for dolphin sophistication in the realm of communication, reporting that dolphins could mimic the rhythm of human speech patterns.

In a paper published in Science in 1961, Lilly reported in detail on the range of ‘vocal’ exchanges between two dolphins in adjacent tanks, each equipped with a transmitter and receiver — Lilly’s dolphin ‘telephone’ — and noted how their ‘conversation’ followed polite rules; for example, when one ‘spoke’, the other was quiet. Lilly drew up a dolphin lexicon showing that dolphins used a variety of communication methods, from blowing and whistling to clicking. Convinced that dolphins had a sophisticated language of their own, he suggested that the species might provide the key to unlocking humanity’s potential to commune with extraterrestrials. He became part of the initial SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) group of radio-astronomy pioneers, who were so impressed with his tales of dolphin intelligence that they voted to call themselves ‘The Order of the Dolphin’.

However, Lilly and his followers eventually began mixing their own quasi-spiritual beliefs with their scientific work. They also began engaging in scientifically and ethically questionable research, including giving captive dolphins doses of LSD. In one ethically dubious experiment dating from 1965, Lilly’s research assistant Margaret Howe spent 10 weeks living with a dolphin named Peter in a tank rigged up to contain just enough water for the dolphin to swim in and for Howe to wade in. Within weeks, it became clear that Peter was less interested in Howe as a room mate than as a conjugal mate, and to stave off his increasingly aggressive behaviour, Lilly encouraged Howe to relieve the dolphin’s erections.

Lilly’s claims about the superior nature of dolphin spiritual and moral qualities soared well beyond any legitimate data. ‘We can presume that they have ethics, morals and regard for one another much more highly developed than does the human species,’ he wrote in The Dyadic Cyclone (1976). On the back of this conviction, he attempted to set up a formal but overly expansive programme of interspecies communication and co-operation between humans and dolphins called the Cetacean Nation, which was, needless to say, never fully realised.

Despite (or perhaps because of) his controversial activities, Lilly became a counter-cultural guru and was very influential in promoting the use of dolphins in captive research. His informal studies of dolphins interacting with autistic children led him to make outrageous claims about the psychic powers of dolphins, which have since become the basis for many pseudoscientific claims made by DAT facilities.

Dolphins and whales were first captured for public display by the circus mogul P T Barnum, who kept wild-caught beluga whales in an aquarium at his museum in New York City in the 1840s and ’50s. Then, as now, dolphins did not survive well in captivity, yet the popularity of dolphin displays, in which trainers engaged in increasingly daring aquatic gymnastics, grew dramatically, especially in the 1960s and ’70s.

A key influence here was the US television series Flipper, dubbed an ‘aquatic Lassie’ and originally broadcast in 1964. It featured a bottlenose dolphin who lived in a cove and helped his human pals — two boys, named Sandy and Bud — to save people from mortal danger. But if Flipper was a boon to captive displays and increased public demand for dolphins, it also sparked concerns over their welfare. Marine parks responded swiftly by rebranding themselves as centres of education, research and conservation, rather than just entertainment. And the shows continued.

The public’s enthrallment with dolphins and whales drives enthusiasm for aquariums and theme parks to this day. In the US alone, more than 50 million people visit captive facilities every year. Dolphin and whale shows have become increasingly extravagant, involving many different species, acrobatic interactions between trainers and animals and set designs to rival a Broadway show. Swimming with dolphins (SWD) programmes have emerged as a critical, and lucrative, component of the dolphin entertainment industry. Although some commercial operations offer opportunities to swim with wild dolphins, most SWD customers swim with captive dolphins in the convenience of concrete tanks. These SWD programmes emerged in the 1980s, and while there were just four SWD programmes in the US in 1990, now as many as 18 facilities offer dolphin ‘encounter’ programmes of one kind or another.

Many people describe their in-water encounter with a dolphin as one of the most exhilarating and transformative experiences they’ve ever had — even the highlight of their life. Others report feeling a sense of euphoria and intimate kinship with the dolphins, little doubting that this feeling is shared by the dolphins. In many ways, it was only a matter of time before the concept of dolphin-assisted therapy emerged as an enhanced version of SWD programmes, underpinned, once again, by healing theories derived from dolphin mythology, and by theme parks marketing themselves as places of science and education.

DAT took off in earnest when Lilly’s early explorations became better known through the efforts of the educational anthropologist Betsy Smith, then at Florida International University. In 1971, Smith let her mentally disabled brother wade into the water with two adolescent dolphins. She noted that the dolphins treated him tenderly: she believed that they knew her brother was disabled and were attempting to soothe him. Soon after, Smith established therapy programmes at two facilities in Florida, and offered them free of charge for many years. But she later concluded that DAT programmes were ineffective and exploitative of both the dolphins and the human patients, and in 2003 she publicly denounced them, calling them ‘cynical and deceptive’.

DAT typically involves several sessions either swimming or interacting with captive dolphins, often alongside more conventional therapeutic tasks, such as puzzle-solving or motor exercises. The standard price of DAT sessions, whose practitioners are not required by law to receive any special training or certification, is exorbitant, reaching into the thousands of dollars. It has become a highly lucrative international business, with facilities in Mexico, Israel, Russia, Japan, China and the Bahamas, as well as the US. DAT practitioners claim to be particularly successful in treating depression and motor disorders, as well as childhood autism. But DAT is sometimes less scrupulously advertised as being effective with a range of other disorders, from cancer to infections, to developmental delays.

Thousands of families visit DAT facilities and end up gaining nothing that they could not have gained from interacting with a puppy

While not always promising a cure, DAT facilities clearly market themselves as offering real therapy as opposed to recreation. Under minimal standards, authentic therapy must have some relationship to a specific condition and result in measurable remedial effects. By contrast, DAT proponents cite evidence that is, more accurately, anecdotal, offering a range of explanations for its purported efficacy, from increased concentration to brainwave changes, to the positive physiological effects of echolocation (high-frequency dolphin sonar) on the human body. Parents of autistic children and others who appear to benefit from DAT believe that these explanations are scientifically plausible. The photos of smiling children and the emotional testimonials from once-desperate parents are hard to resist. Even those sceptical of DAT’s scientific validity often just shrug and say: ‘What’s the harm?’ In the worst-case scenario a child who typically knows little enjoyment and accomplishment in life can find joy, a little bit of self-efficacy and connection with others for what is sometimes the first time in his life. But amid all the self-justification, the question most often left out is: what about the dolphins?

DAT facilities will often post testimonials from enthusiastic parents on their websites, some of which are recorded just minutes after the session ended, when parents are feeling most hopeful. These websites attract other parents who are desperate to find cures for their own children. They come away impressed with the ‘evidence’ that DAT can improve their children's lives, and the apparently scientific approach of the staff. It all looks so promising, and so they figure it’s worth the plane fares, the time off work, and the high price tag.

Meanwhile, many of the parents featured in the enthusiastic testimonials return home to renewed disappointment. Their children fall back into their regular routine, and fall silent again. At first, cognitive dissonance will not allow these parents to consider the possibility that they’ve wasted their money. But later they recognise that nothing has changed, and that the initial improvement was due to the excitement of the trip, and all the personal attention their child received. Many families visit DAT facilities and end up gaining little more than they would have done from interacting with a puppy.

Equally sad are the lives of the dolphins. Hidden behind their smile, and therefore largely invisible to patients and vacationers, captive dolphins spend their lives under tremendous stress as they struggle to adapt to an environment that, physically, socially and psychologically, is drastically different from the wild. The results are devastating. Stress leads to immune system dysfunction. Often they die from gastric ulcers, infections and other stress and immune-related diseases, not helped by their sometimes being given laxatives and antidepressants that are delivered in their food.

The worst of it, perhaps, is that there is absolutely no evidence for DAT’s therapeutic effectiveness. At best, 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. Nothing more. Any apparent improvement in children with autism, people with depression, and others is as much an illusion as the ‘smile’ of the dolphin.

While there exist numerous published studies purporting to demonstrate positive results from DAT, none so far has controlled for feel-good and placebo effects. Most don’t even include a minimal control group, which would provide some measure of whether even general short-term feel-good effects are due to the dolphin or to other salient factors, such as being in the water, being given conventional tasks, getting increased attention from others, and so forth. Because none of these components of the DAT situation are disentangled, there remains no credibility to the claim that DAT offers effective therapy.

DAT clients are often among the most vulnerable members of society, so the industry takes advantage of them. The pseudoscientific patina and untested testimonials serve to reel in desperate parents and people suffering with severe anxiety or depression who will do anything to get some relief. They are persuaded by words such as ‘treatment’ and ‘therapy’ and by the misuse of scientific methods, such as EEG to measure brainwave patterns, which suggest scientific legitimacy.

The consequences are potentially dire. Despite the mythology, dolphins can be aggressive. Even Lilly acknowledged that their teeth were sharp enough to snap a 6ft barracuda clean in two. A number of participants in SWD and DAT programmes have been seriously harmed by these large, wild predators, sustaining injuries ranging from a ruptured spleen to broken ribs and near-drownings. In one example from 2012 at an Isla Mujeres resort, off Cancún, one of the dolphins in a SWD programme bit a woman who was on honeymoon. ‘I felt the dolphin had my whole thigh in his mouth and then I realised I had been bitten, and it was very painful,’ Sabina Cadbrand told reporters when she got home to Sweden. Two other people were bitten in the same incident, including a middle-aged woman whose wound went right down to the bone.

Though it might not chime with New Age dolphin lore, the reality is that dolphins, even those born in captivity, are wild. Parents who would never place their child in a cage with a lion or an elephant seem to think nothing of placing them at very real risk (of both injury and disease) in a tank with a dolphin. Only last year, an eight-year-old girl had her hand bitten at Sea World, Orlando, while feeding a dolphin.

The public is largely unaware of the consequences, because aggressive or dying dolphins and whales are often quietly replaced by others taken from the wild or transferred from another facility. Though the original star orca whale Shamu spent just six years in captivity in SeaWorld San Diego, dying in 1971, the name ‘Shamu’ has been used for different orcas in shows ever since, leading to the perception that the original Shamu is alive and well and enjoying longevity in captivity.

I’ve conducted research with many captive dolphins over the years, most of which died prematurely. Presley and Tab, the two young dolphins that starred in my mirror self-recognition study, were later transferred to new facilities and perished shortly afterwards. Their deaths were especially hard for me to rationalise, because my own study had shown them to be self-aware creatures. They convinced me, several years ago, never to return to captive studies, and to channel the bulk of my energies into campaigning for dolphin protection and freedom. I understand that desperate people will continue to visit DAT facilities for help with their own illnesses. Sadly, they may never realise that the dolphins they seek help from are likely to be as psychologically and physically traumatised as they are.

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  • rameshraghuvanshi

    I think human urge for miracle never die.We are helpless and hopeless creature. When we did not find out answer in science ,particularly incurable diseases we turn to magic and blindly believe in miracle.This happened all over the world.That is why million proof unauthenticity of miracle scientist given to us our blind belief in miracle never die.

  • blainemotsinger

    so long and thanks for all the fish.

    • yvetta

      dolphin isn't a fish ! dolphin is marine mammal.

      • blainemotsinger

        you're absolutely right!

      • Grafikman

        Of course he knows it's a mammal. So long and thanks for all the fish is a novel by the late great Douglas Adams, part of the HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy. The title is the last message dolphins sent to mankind before they left Earth right before it was demolished to make room for a hyperspace bypass.

  • James

    Great article. Please supplement with documentation and references to strengthen your assertions and to make the article forward-able to my New Age friends.

    • fivetonsflax

      Yes, scientific references are a great way to persuade Newagers. :-)

      • lorimarino

        If anyone would like some peer-reviewed scientific papers citing the points in this article, please email me at

  • Kim Plunkett

    Thank you, Lori, for a brilliant article. Having worked with young children with both physical and psychological problems, I can understand the willingness of their parents to fund-raise and get their child to a facility offering DAT. But it frustrates the heck out of me that so many people do not realise that these facilities are the modern equivalent of snake-oil merchants. I feel that many of these facilities prey on vulnerable people who are desperate for a cure for their child.

    • lorimarino

      Dear Kim - yes, the DAT industry clearly targets parents of autistic children and others who are, understandably, desperate to help their child. It is snake-oil.

  • Idiolect

    It would be interesting to explore at will human-dolphin interactions where the participants are free to come and go. There are stories of dolphins helping people and people have freed dolphins from nets. But our first priority must be to stop overfishing and polluting the dolphins' home.

    • lorimarino

      Yes, while most DAT and dolphin swim programs are offered in captivity, where the dolphins have no choice, a rare few do involve swimming with wild dolphins. But please keep in mind that dolphins are still wild animals and regardless of where DAT is done - there is no evidence for its effectiveness.

      • cindy

        sure there is evidence. it's called the placebo effect. is there some reason why you would deprive someone of benefitting from the placebo effect? 'dolphin abuse' aside.

  • we_are_also_wild

    Important ideas, but you fail to mention that Dr. Lilly himself eventually came to believe that it is unethical to study dolphins in captivity, as their sentience and self awareness was such that captivity could only mean depression. He built a facility that allowed his dolphin subjects to come and go as they pleased, and several of them apparently chose to return and work with him. I am not disagreeing with your overall premise but I feel that this aspect of Dr. Lilly's later work is important and often overlooked.

  • sedna101

    It was clear to me by the second sentence that a dog would be just as effective. Babies born to mothers in human prisons are not kept in the prison with their mom, or sent to another prison, but are placed back in society so they can live a normal life; but dolphin's offspring are kept prisoners for human use.
    Most captive dolphins come from the infamous Cove at Taigi, Japan (or someplace similar but smaller scale): the few survivors swim in waters red with the blood of their murdered families after listening to their death screams. Then these innocents are transported to some small barren tank and often kept in isolation. ANY stimulous supplied to these suffering beings will be interacted with. Any "person" who thinks that they are in a "healing" environment, would have reveled in all the "healing" at Auschwitz. Most days I am ashamed to be human.
    A better idea would perhaps be for these folks to have a "healing" encounter swimming with a shark: they would become very spiritual, very fast (in fact, ONLY spiritual); SAT (shark assisted therapy) could be guaranteed to eliminated every physical, mental, or emotional problem, and would provide more opportunities for Darwin Awards.

  • Michael Hanlon

    Wonderful article, cuts through great swathes of pseudoscientific dolphin-related cobblers like a scythe. Dolphins are big, often aggressive and undoubtedly intelligent predators. About 25 years ago I had a completely unplanned 'swimming with dolphins' experience in the sea off Cornwall. I saw dorsal fins, thought yikes, then I saw the smiley faces and thought aww, and for a few minutes two large bottlenose dolphins swam past and around me, never making contact but sometimes getting so close I could feel the pulse of water as they came past at 20 knots. It was a memorable experience but more slightly worrying than spiritual. I had no reason to believe that these beasts wanted to hurt me, but also no reason to believe that had they wished to they could have done a lot of damage. This is not to be anti-dolphin. We should leave them alone, stop killing them, and stop putting them in small tanks for our entertainment. An abomination.

  • sailor

    Seems to me we should not capture and keep dolphins. On the other hand we already have a bunch that have been estranged from their natural world. Let aquariums and like look after them well and breed them if they can. I was researching dolphin intelligence when Lilly had launched himself into the twilight zone. This was good article.

    • lorimarino

      Thanks Sailor:Seems to me that aquariums should not be in the business of making more dolphins who are "estranged from their natural world" by breeding them.

  • bdlaacmm

    "The perception of dolphins as lifesavers is connected with beliefs that
    they possess magical powers that can be used for healing."

    Well, I don't know about that, but let me relate to you something that happened to me personally. In 1968 I was "sailing" (if you can call it that) in the Gulf of California in Mexico on an inflatable raft. Due solely to my inattention, I had drifted far out to sea - much too far to ever get back to shore under my own steam (I could scarcely see land on the horizon).

    To my amazement, a school of dolphins surrounded my raft, and PUSHED me back closer to shore. It took them more than an hour, but they kept it up (taking turns) until I was close enough to make it the rest of the way by myself.

    And no, I don't like to see dolphins in a captive environment - not at all. I owe that much to them.

    • Maya48

      I sometimes wonder if the stories of people being rescued by dolphins pushing them towards shore is not offset by the times dolphins push people out to sea, but they don't survive.

  • disqus_KUPcRLuhg8

    Thank you, Lori.

  • Brent Eades

    A lovely and perceptive piece, though perhaps a let-down to those many parents dealing with the challenges of children with autism (my sister is one, not that she has had my nephew swim with captive dolphins that I know of.)

    I'm surprised, Lori, that no one has remarked on your surname, Marino -- "of or by the sea", originally. Did your name predestine you I wonder? :)

    • lorimarino

      HI Brent - I hope this piece isn't a let-down for parents of children in need of help. My intention is just the opposite - to warn them that they should not be preyed upon by this industry that promises what it cannot deliver. I want parents to be empowered by this knowledge. Thanks.

      • Brent Eades

        Lori, that's exactly how I read your piece, a caution against being taken in by opportunists, and rightly so. It's just that parents of children with autism are often desperate for solace, and the dolphin 'magic' seems (wrongly) to offer that.

        I have a young colleague whose 10-year-old son is far down the violent and destructive end of the autism spectrum. The 'treatment' that has made the greatest difference to him involved, not surprisingly, a person, not a dolphin; a quite remarkable fellow named Izzy Paskowitz, who gets the kids surfing, of all things. But still in the sea, interestingly!

      • DocDolphin

        To describe all therapy that includes dolphins as a single 'industry' is disingenuous. Dolphin Assisted Therapies vary across a broad spectrum. Some depend solely on belief that dolphins are uniquely capable of creating beneficial changes in humans by their presence, while other practices use time-tested, well-documented and effective therapies such as physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and a variety of behavior-modification therapies applied while in water, with dolphins assisting the process.

        DAT is a field of therapies, not a single type. To claim otherwise reveals a willing disregard of fact, and disregards the tens of thousands of families whose lives have been significantly improved by DAT.

        To claim that DAT 'promises what it cannot deliver' is a very unscientific claim. Without credentials in any therapeutic field, or any training in clinical psychology, it seems a peculiar argument to make, Dr. Marino. Especially when you have not done any research on DAT itself, but have only criticised the methods others have attempted to use to demonstrate qualitative improvments that are obvious to those who have spent time investigating DAT from inside its community of practice.

        Beware, readers: Dr Marino has misrepresented Dolphin Assisted Therapy.

        • lorimarino

          Dear DocDolphin - You have made my point beautifully. DAT can involve many conventional therapeutic techniques and so there is no reason to believe that "assistance from a dolphin" is necessary. But how many parents would spend thousands of dollars for their children to go to traditional therapy? Why not just offer what we already know can help these kids?

          By the way, I do have a background in psychology, including research methods and statistics, and my co-author, Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, is a prominent clinical psychologist and therapist.

          You mention "qualitative" results from DAT that are "obvious". Why can't you quantify and demonstrate these "obvious" results the way the rest of science does? The bottom line is this: there is still no evidence - in a peer-reviewed scientific journal - that shows DAT - in any form - is effective therapy apart from any conventional therapies thrown in for good measure.

          Are you, I'm curious, an objective observer without any investment in DAT? I am.

          Thank you.

          • DocDolphin

            As a matter of fact, DAT is many facetted, and does require the presence of a dolphin. Do the research among the community of practice, and one will find the frequent comments by parents, carers, and therapists about the significant differences between therapies with horses, dogs or other animals, and therapy with dolphins present. There are many ideas about why dolphins have the unique effects on a child's attention span, the sensory stimulus they receive visually, by touch, and by the intelligent interactions of dolphins. To date, no definitive research has made clear what the 'cause' of a human child's stimulus in the presence of a dolphin is. This does not mean there is nothing to this idea, it only means no good research has yet been done. Some weak (inconclusive) research has been done on their ultrasound's effects, finding that, while it is certainly possible that it could have a physical effect, the research done was so poorly designed no conclusion can reasonably be taken from this research.

            It is curious that Dr Marino does not hold this, and other research that has concluded that there is little or no efficacy in DAT to the same standards she requires of those that do.

            Teaching about therapy is not the same as being a therapist. Being a Professor who teaches students about clinical psychology is not the same as being among those whose livelihoods depend on achieving real results. Neither Dr Marino nor Dr Lillienfeld include any credentials as practicing clinical psychologists in their CVs.

            To claim that no evidence exists of the effectiveness of DAT is a fallacious statement. By changing the claim to say none exists in peer-reviewed journals is still incorrect, since in Dr Marino's own reviews of the research of others, she acknowledges possitive effects, and the likelihood of positive effects under certain conditions.
            One cannot logically claim that there is no evidence, or that it has been proven that DAT has no efficacy, except within the limits of one's own investigations into same. Plenty of evidence exists. Some is unsupported, some is weakly supported, some is strongly supported, and some is unarguable. Blanket claims about a therapeutic practice that a researcher has never done any research on is illogical and demonstrates the weakness of such claims, especially when the reviews the claims are based on make disingenuous claims, ignore many research projects, and mis-state many of its findings.
            It is clear that Dr Marino has vested interests in her anti-captivity stance and her statments about DAT as part of her campaigns, acting as a consultant, co-developer, and outspoken activist for several organizations. While the capture of dolphins for any reason must be stopped, and it is commendable to campaign against such practices, to extend this argument to include DAT, based on misrepresentations of fact, is simply wrong.

            No, I have no vested interests in DAT. I simply have watched over the years as an excellent means of dealing with the peculiar problems experienced by dolphins, who have nowhere to go but to remain among humans, have been given enriched lives by having disabled children brought to them for therapy. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, where both children in need and dolphins in need help each other to have improved lives. My interests arise from compassion, for both dolphins and humans.

            If Dr Marino had actually done research on DAT, instead of standing on the sidelines criticising the research of others, she would have found that DAT is a field of therapies, some of which do not stand up well to critical examination, while some do. The efficacy of DAT can be found, and has been documented...but Dr Marino and Dr Lillienfeld persist in claiming this is not so. The best programs, serving tens of thousands of families successfully for decades, do not claim that dolphins 'heal' anything. Instead, they include the presence of dolphins as special, and uniquely effective, adjuncts to therapeutic techniques. Without the dolphins, the same therapies, applied in clinics around the world to the same patients, have had much less effect. Do the research on patient results, and this will be obvious.

            It is clear that Dr Marino thinks that 'real science' is quantitative, and does not include qualitative research. As has been clearly stated by several researchers who have done DAT research, there are substantial ethical problems with the requirements that Drs Marino and Lillienfeld have insisted must be put in place for DAT research to achieve their 'standards of scientific rigor'. I urge anyone interested in how a well-regarded, practicing clinical psychologist has responded to the weak and disingenuous claims of Drs Marino and Lillienfeld, read:
            Nathanson, D. E. (1998) Reply to Marino and Lilienfeld. Anthrozoos, 11, 4 201-202.

            As for force-feeding contraceptives, Dr Marino is closely associated, in many ways and in many projects, with those who openly espouse this, making parallel claims about the 'improper breeding practices' of dolphin facilities. What do you propose, Dr Marino, if not the intentional ending of all dolphin captivity? This can only be achieved by ending all reproduction by dolphins, the vast majority of whom in developed nations can never be 'released'. Would you separate them by gender? Or does that not contradict your requirement for their social needs to be met?

            Beware: Dr Marino misrepresents DAT and her position on dolphins.

          • Alison

            If I could vote up this response 1000 times I would. THANK YOU!

  • DocDolphin

    Dr. Marino, while well-meaning, persists in promoting her agenda against dolphins living among humans by using misrepresentations of fact.

    Among many errors, I will first mention this one: "His informal studies of dolphins interacting with autistic children led
    him to make outrageous claims about the psychic powers of dolphins". Lilly never did any studies of 'dolphins interacting with autistic children'. None. Laying responsibility for DAT on Lilly is simply an abuse of the reputation of a man who can no longer defend himself. In addition, Marino names Lilly as an 'unethical' scientist without any context, or apparent understanding, of his work and the times in which they were done.

    As for DAT itself, Marino has endlessly promoted herself in her attacks on DAT, especially in referring to her reviews of DAT research. While she has contributed to improvements in DAT research by pointing out various methodological weaknesses in some research, she also ignores the research that has been done well. To claim that "there remains no credibility to the claim that DAT offers effective therapy" is disengenuous. This would seem to depend upon her definition of DAT as...what? Swimming among dolphins? Looking at their 'smile'?

    The opening of this article can serve to highlight the actual nature of DAT: it is holistic. It involves water, intense therapies applied by trained experts, families all closely involved in the hard work done by the patients, a special and charged environment in which a steady focus on the 'kick-starting' of new responses to stimulus is taking place. Dolphins, even Marino admits' are charismatic, and do stimulate unusual responses in persons with disabilities. If, as Marino insists, there is 'no evidence', she makes a clear mistake in logic. It is not possible to prove a negative unless one is doing research inside a closed system. DAT is not closed, it is an open, fluid, dynamic array of processes, and it addresses qualitative improvements in sometimes small, but very important abilities. Ask a family the importance of a child gaining bowel control, or the ability to swallow, as a result of two weeks of intensive therapy, where dolphins have assisted the process. Marino has never done this...

    Marino claims 'no evidence', as if 'lack of evidence equals evidence of lack'. She has produced no evidence that DAT does not work, having never done any research on DAT itself. She has not interviewed families, therapists, trainers, managers of facilities, nor has she ever investigated the long-term effects of DAT. What Marino and her colleague Lilienfeld have done is review the research of others, finding flaws, and claiming on this basis (clearly believing her views to be the final 'truth') that no evidence exists for the efficacy of DAT. Even her own reviews have discussed the postive effects of DAT, but these comments are ignored in her own conclusions and public statements.

    Thousands of families have had their life-histories postively changed by DAT. This cannot be ignored.

    Marino's characterization of dolphins living among humans is deeply flawed. Ignoring the fact that dolphins live longer lives when under human care than in the wild, and ignoring that over 80% of dolphins living in facilities have been born there, in the developed regions such as the US and Europe, and cannot be 'released', and ignoring that dolphins, as highly social beings whose social needs require mixed gender groups in facilities and therefore produce offspring, which enriches their lives, Marino and her cohorts want to force-feed contraceptives to all dolphins living among humans, causing them to "die out over the next 40-50 years", as Thomas White, Ric O'Barry, and others state.

    Instead, DAT can be understood as a strange and exciting new frontier, where human health and wellbeing, and dolphin health and wellbeing come together. It is not possible to go back: dolphins now live among humans. It is up to us to find better and better ways of caring for them, not planning ways to kill them off.

    Finally, it is particularly troubling to see Marino making equivalent the extraordinary challenges faced by severely disabled children and their families and communities with the lives of dolphins who are given excellent care and live enriched, meaningful lives.

    My comments should not been seen as an effort to legitimise the capture of dolphins, for any reason. Capture, and their slaughter, must stop. However, to attack a system of therapy that has many mutual benefits for humans and dolphins on the basis of misrepresentations, is disengenuous, deceptive, and far from acceptable.

    • StephDK

      This is merely your opinion, right? You have any data to back up your claims that it DOES work? Just curious...

      • DocDolphin

        Hi StephDK:
        Yes, there is evidence. One just has to look for it. Marino set up strict conditions around what she would review, and eliminated other research. Even in her own research she admits that some has been done fairly well, but when one seeks to find flaws in methods of research, and when finding any, concludes that the existence of any flaws erases the validity of all evidence, one is only engaged in the Straw Man fallacy, and not engaged in honest, unbiased research.

        For instance, for Marino and Lilienfeld to have reviewed the rigor of a poster presentation, clearly identified as such, as if it were a full peer-reviewed journal article, is disingenuous. They knew better, but wanted to find another 'research paper' to denigrate, stating that it did not present enough information for them to analyse. Posters are not supposed to present the data, but to summarise research.

        For this, see

        Iikura, Y., Sakamoto, Y., Imai, T., Akai, L., Masuoka, T., Sugihara, K., Utumi, M. & Tomikawa, M. (2001) Dolphin-Assisted Seawater Therapy for Severe Atopic Dermatitis: An Immunological and Psychological Study. Novel Approaches to the Treatment of Allergic Diseases. International Archives of Allergy and Immunity.

        Also, Marino only reviewed research up thru 2005. Much has been done since then. Marino and Lilienfeld have made an important contribution to DAT research in that they have made clear that those who want to deny any validity to DAT to further their Animal Liberation agenda can force researchers to do better and better research. Research on DAT today has grown more and more sophisticated, altho many of the complaints Marino has made about DAT research are overstatements and misrepresentations, as you can see for yourself in Dr Nathanson's reply to their first critical review of his DAT research:

        Nathanson, D. E. (1998) Reply to Marino and Lilienfeld. Anthrozoos, 11, 4 201-202.

        As for evidence of the efficacy of DAT there is quite a bit now:

        For instance, see Antonioli, C. & Reveley, M. A. (2005) Randomised controlled trial of animal facilitated therapy with dolphins in the treatment of depression. British Medical Journal, 331, 1231-1236.


        Salgueiro, E., Nunes, L., Barros, A., Maroco, J., Salgueiro, A. & dos Santos, M. (2012) Effects of a dolphin interaction program on children with autism spectrum disorders - an exploratory research. BMC Research Notes, 5, 199 1-8.

        (this one used five measures for testing, found non-significance in three measures, but significant change in the other two measures)


        Breitenbach, E., Stumpf, E., Fersen, L. v. & Ebert, H. (2009) Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: Changes in interaction and communication between children with severe disabilities and their caregivers. Anthrozoos, 22, 3 277-289.
        (note that this research understands that social effects, rather than 'medical effects' are in evidence from DAT)


        Schenk, R., Pollatos, O., Schenk, S. & Schandry, R. (2009) Animal-assisted therapy with dolphins in eating disorders. Munich, Ludwig-Maximilians-University.


        Ilyukhina, V. A., Krivoshchapova, M. N. & Manzhosova, G. V. (2008) Psychophysiological Study of the Effects of Adaptation to Tactile Interaction with Dolphins in Six- to Seven-Year-Old Children. Human Physiology, 34, 4 421-430.


        Dilts, R. (2011) Dolphin-Assisted Therapy for Children With Special Needs: A Pilot Study. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 6, 1 56-68.


        Chia, N. K. H., Kee, N. K. N., Watanabe, K. & Poh, P. T. C. (2009) An Investigation on the Effectiveness of “Dolphin Encounter for Special Children” (DESC) Program for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Special Education Professionals, 3, Fall 57-87.

        If you are serious about understanding DAT, go back over the 7 papers that Marino and Lilienfeld reviewed and see for yourself the evidence they denied the existence of. It exists, but they deny that it withstands their tests for validity, even tho their own review is flawed on numerous grounds.

        Hope this helps.

  • lorimarino

    I want to make one point perfectly clear, readers. Despite DocDolphin's rants and raves his accusation that I promote force-feeding captive dolphins contraceptives is a slanderous lie. Anyone can contact me at any time to obtain the peer-reviewed scientific evidence supporting my arguments about the lack of validity of DAT as well as the poor welfare of captive dolphins. I will not further dignify these comments.

    • DocDolphin

      I urge anyone reading Dr Marino's reviews of DAT to also read the original texts she cites. There are many discrepancies.
      Beware of the conflation of 'swimming with dolphins' and DAT, which is applied therapeutic techniques in the presence of dolphins.
      Beware of claims of the dangers of 'swim programs' as evidence of the dangers of DAT programs.
      Beware of claims of the dangers of zoonotic infections from dolphins, based on a survey of marine mammal carers, who reported injuries and infections....from seals.
      There is much to be wary of in Dr Marino's claims.

      If Dr Marino does not join her closest associates in their joint anti-captivity campaigns in promoting force-feeding contraceptives to all captive dolphins, how does she seek to end all captivity, since dolphins reproduce very effectively under human care?

      Readers beware.

      • Sabete

        DocDolphin, methinks you have an axe to grind. I think Lori Marino presents a very strong case. Animals such as these are not there for our entertainment or to be used fraudulently to effect a temporary and expensive change in a sick child

        • DocDolphin

          My concern is that an excellent form of therapy, when done well, can produce real results, and benefit both humans and dolphins. The evidence is strong (see the post below directed to StephDK).
          Dr Marino is an activist with extremist goals: to stop humans from having contact with dolphins and to have all dolphins cared for by humans die off, ending the compassionate extended care given to dolphins who would otherwise die if not cared for by humans.
          I have watched this therapy grow from its beginnings, and have seen the mistaken ideas of some tried out, eventually finding that they were based on poor methodologies. I have also watched it mature, done by professional therapists who have included dolphins in their work, making a significant difference in the lives of tens of thousands of families.

          I just hate to think of something so beautiful, so beneficial, for children who can be reached by dolphins, and dolphins whose lives are limited because they have no other choice but to live among humans, not having the stimulating and life-enhancing experience of DAT.

          That is what motivates me. I have no financial interest in any DAT program. I simple care.

  • Peter Spiegel

    Dr. Lori Kirshner is looking forward to your upcoming interview on Animals Today radio. Lori, thanks for your tireless efforts on behalf of all the cetaceans.

  • Tamara L. Goldsby

    So sad that you can't be open to dolphins as healers. They don't belong in captivity, but they are still natural healers.

    • lorimarino

      Tamara - its not a question of "being open". Its a question of evidence.

      • Guest

        do you have evidence that materialism is the only valid position?

  • jddlondon

    Bottlenose dolphins survivorship is now greater in captivity than the wild:

  • StephDK

    Brilliant article!

  • Drkamal Mohanani


  • Louise Trower

    A very interesting read - thankyou - I am against dolphins in captivity in any form and also have many years experience of working with children with various special needs, including Autism and children with life limiting illness. Many children I have worked with have been involved with experiences which do not involve using wild imprisoned animals which have had a great effect on them such as music/art therapy, riding for the disabled centres, visits from pets such as cats and dogs ( In my experience, particularly good for shy children, selective mutes or those with low self esteem) These things do not claim to 'cure' these children, and of course they don't, they provide an outlet for the release of a child's pent up emotions, provide a positive experience, teach them responsibility, help them make relationships.And, more importantly they can be done on a regular basis, giving children something to look forward to over a longer time period so they can improve on the skills they are learning rather than a "one off" which, depending on the age and ability of the child, maybe forgotten in a matter of months, weeks or even hours!

  • chiara

    You can do the same with donkey and they enjoy very much the contact with children and grown-up people! :)

  • pvs as cheese

  • JB

    Lori - are you opposed to spontaneous, non-captive, human interactions with wild dolphins with no coercion? I assume no, since many anticaptive supporters enjoy and love dolphins in the wild.

    So, assuming you are OK with wild dolphins in their own environment to interact with humans socially (we don't have to feed to train or anything similar with them), why can't you imagine the same scenario for DAT? Granted, many parents of autistic children would be weary to use wild dolphins in DAT, but if they truly believed in dolphins and DAT, they shouldn't care. I agree, captivity is bad. No way around that.

  • waterspirit57

    I am thinking that both positions would find great benefit if actual scientific research was done to verify healing or no healing. Also scientific research on the effect of captivity on dolphins should also be done. it looks like captivity causes a lot of stress and a miserable life. Just get this quantified in studies directed solely at this. In other words where is the scientific research to elucidate the realities, not the assumptions? Gather current observational data and add scientific research data.

  • Warpworld

    Google "stop dolphins in captivity" and you will see pages of organizations and individuals doing just that.

  • lorimarino

    This is a good question. In fact, there are many
    organizations dedicated to doing just those things. But it is not easy and will
    take some time. In the meanwhile its important to educate the public so that
    they don't keep these industries going by buying tickets. If the public refused
    to go to these places they would end quickly but, unfortunately, there are
    still people who are taken in by the claims of DAT and the false statements of
    the captivity industry.

  • Steve

    As others have pointed out, there are a number of organizations dedicated to freeing cetacean captivity and ending the slaughter at the Cover in Taiji, Japan. Ric O'Barry's (flipper's trainer) organization being one of them. Ric's involved with Earth Island Institutue and a group within EII, along with many other organizations. Also, see the academy award winning documentary, "The Cove"

  • Michael Mountain

    SeaWorld is a $-multi-billion operation owned by a holding company that just went public on the NY Stock Exchange. According to the Orlando Sentinel, sales have topped $1 billion and it pays virtually no federal taxes and won't for several years to come. After their captive stud Tilikum killed his third person, trainer Dawn Brancheau, three years ago, SeaWorld paid a fine of just $12,000 for "serious" negligence of its employees. Recently they were hit with yet another violation. But SeaWorld is a key aspect of the tourist industry wherever it operates. Angry, frustrated, depressed orcas like Tilikum regularly take out their frustrations on themselves, on each other and on their captors, leaving a trail of death and injury that goes back decades. Watch for the movie "Blackfish", being released in the U.S. in July - a thriller-style expose of the story of Tilikum, SeaWorld, and the whole shabby industry.

  • ArchiesBoy

    Ah, thanks for the tip!

  • lorimarino

    Thanks Warpworld.

  • Warpworld

    Thanks for the wonderful article Lori! I, (Kristene, co-author of the Warpworld series), have been fortunate enough to spend hundreds of hours with wild dolphins - and that's where they belong, in the wild!

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