Complex and cultural beings, cetaceans inspire a feeling of kinship. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Dogs have been working as “therapists” for us for a long time now. Since the 1970s, they have been going into nursing homes, assisted living centers, children’s hospitals and prisons to help lift spirits and provide nonjudgmental companionship. Recently, they have even been sent into combat zones: in 2007, two Labrador retrievers were shipped to Iraq to help ease the stress of U.S. soldiers who were stationed there.

However, I was surprised to learn that another—wilder—animal has also been shouldering some mental health care duties for us: dolphins.

The therapist is in . . .

DAT, or “dolphin assisted therapy”—which involves swimming or indulging in other interactions with captive dolphins—has been in existence almost as long as pet therapy. It got started in the 1970s, with the support of an educational anthropologist from Florida International University, Dr. Betsy Smith. (She has since denounced the idea as exploitative and without merit.) In 1971, Dr. Smith watched as her mentally disabled brother waded in water that had two, adolescent dolphins present. The dolphins were extremely gentle with him, and Smith concluded that they must have known that her brother was somehow “different” from other humans. She then began dolphin-assisted therapy programs at two facilities in Florida.

Social relationships play a big role in dolphin society. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Today, more than 100 organizations offer the service worldwide: including several in the U.S. (mostly in Florida and Hawaii), Mexico, Israel, Russia, Japan, China and the Bahamas. This kind of therapy is being touted as an aid to treating everything from depression and anxiety to autism, cancer and infections.

DAT facilities advertise that those who pay—typically, $2,600 for five, 45-minute sessions—will benefit by gaining enhanced concentration (from communing with a dolphin’s echolocation sensory system) and an increase in biophilia, or love of life and the living world (from some kind of vague energy transfer from dolphin to human).

. . . hot water

Throughout time, people have used dolphin parts for curative and totemic purposes. As complex, intelligent, emotional and cultural beings, we tend to feel a kinship with them. Our military has even employed dolphins for various missions, from finding mines to rescuing lost or trapped persons. And in May 2005, Australian researchers discovered that some mother dolphins teach their daughters to use tools. Breaking off sponges, the mothers demonstrate how to carry them over their snouts, as a sort of shield against dangerous creatures, such as stonefish with venomous spines, as they hunt for fish on the ocean floor.

Being able to touch just a small part of the wild is always appealing and thrilling. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

As far as acting as therapists, however, to date there is no scientific evidence that DAT improves any disorder. In fact, many people have been hurt. Some have reported that they’ve been bitten, bruised and even held under the water by captive dolphins that are coerced into swimming with them.

It stands to reason that dolphins would behave this way, given the stress that captivity causes them. Social relationships play a big role in dolphin society. The artificially constructed “pods” captive dolphins endure in tanks are not natural groupings, so conflicts between dolphins often develop. When that happens in such a small, enclosed environment, unlike in the vast ocean, there is no way for a dolphin to escape. The 2010 U.S. Marine Mammal Inventory Report stated that Mylanta, an over-the-counter medication for humans, is often given to captive dolphins for stomach ulcers. DAT is not regulated by any authority overseeing health and safety standards—for either humans or dolphins—and its practitioners are not required by law to receive special training or certification.

Being able to touch just a small part of the wild is always appealing and thrilling. I’d even go so far as to say it’s restorative: “therapeutic,” if you will. But if we’re going to force nonhuman animals to work for us, perhaps we might be better off hiring our more domestic, best friends.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,