A rescued dolphin swims around at the Mystic Marine Life...

A rescued dolphin swims around at the Mystic Marine Life Aquarium. Credit: AP / Carla M. Cataldi

For many years, I managed day programs for an agency that serves people with special needs on Long Island. As part of my job, I worked in community habilitation and crisis-response programs. It was extremely gratifying, and the courage and determination of those with whom I interacted was inspirational. One unpleasant element of our work, however, was vigilantly ensuring that no one was taken advantage of or sold “cures” that emptied their wallets but did nothing to improve their lives.

Dolphin swim-with programs, or dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT), is just that. Touted as a treatment, such programs exploit both dolphins and humans with special needs, including children with cerebral palsy, cancer, Down syndrome and autism. Families are told that interacting with dolphins is so memorable that patients will miraculously reap benefits from the experience.

But there’s no scientific evidence that interacting with dolphins has any meaningful therapeutic effect. Neuroscientist Dr. Lori Marino says, “Despite DAT’s extensive promotion to the general public, the evidence that it produces enduring improvements in the core symptoms of any psychological disorder is nil . there is little reason to believe that DAT is a legitimate therapy or that it constitutes much more than entertainment.”

David Nathanson, who profited from selling DAT interactions for years, admitted that using an animatronic dolphin resulted in “no significant difference between dolphins and TAD (Test Animatronic Dolphin)” in generating responses from study participants and that in “children with profound disabilities, TAD was significantly more effective” in eliciting a response.

Even the anthropologist who is widely credited with having launched DAT, Betsy Smith, now denounces it, saying, “When I started this whole thing, I had no idea what we were unleashing.” She notes how profitable DAT programs have become, stating, “These are vulnerable, vulnerable families. They take the child to see the dolphins, and it’s one of the few times the family is together, and the child is getting all this attention, and it becomes wonderful to them, while someone is ka’chinging a cash register in the background.”

Since these programs can cost hundreds of dollars, it may surprise families to learn that DAT is not regulated by any government authority.

There is ample empirical evidence that dolphins suffer and die prematurely in captivity, including two who have already perished at the recently opened Dolphinaris in Arizona. So many dolphins have died in the Las Vegas Mirage’s tank, some call it “The Dolphin Death Pool.”

Many facilities operate almost continuously, giving the animals little respite. In the wild, dolphins swim vast distances every day in extended pods and use echolocation to navigate. To dolphins in captivity, even the largest pool is like a prison.

They also have distinct personalities, call each other by name and can think about the future. Scientists have found that they not only communicate but also speak in complete sentences and patiently wait until another completes a thought before joining the conversation.

All this validates the growing call to relocate dolphins languishing in tanks to seaside sanctuaries, just as the National Aquarium is in the process of doing.

Facilities that promote DAT as a cure are mercenary and merciless. Visitors go home facing the same challenges but with less money in their pockets, and the exploited dolphins continue to suffer in cramped concrete tanks.

John Di Leonardo is an anthrozoologist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.