Can Dolphins Really Heal the Sick, Or is Their Captivity Abuse?
Source: aeonmagazine.comDolphins are smart, sociable predators. They don’t belong in captivity and they shouldn’t be used to ’cure’ the ill
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.
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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