Inside the murky world of dolphin therapy

This controversial global industry claims that dolphins help treat those with autism and other disorders. Even some of its proponents say there’s no science behind it.

Dolphin-assisted therapy programs are premised on the idea that spending time with dolphins can help treat a range of human health problems. Here, Leonardo Araujo, 12, swims with Amazon river dolphins in northern Brazil.
Photograph by Ricardo Moraes

The weeks after the car crash are a blur for Kamin Bode. When she thinks back to that harrowing day in August 2015, she remembers pacing outside the intensive care unit where her six-year-old son, Zachary, was in a coma.

His babysitter, who had been driving the car, died soon after the accident. Her blood test showed evidence of recent drug use, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

Bode says she kept flashing back to four years earlier when an accident with a drunk driver had put her in a coma for three weeks. This isn’t happening to my family again, she thought. Everything would be OK—it had to be.

But the days slipped by with little change for Zachary. He turned seven in the ICU surrounded by the beeps and whooshes of machines. For Bode, the difficult thing was to stay optimistic: “Once you get into victim mode, it’s hard to get out,” she says.

As a police officer, Bode had been trained to remain calm in tough situations. During her 15 years as a cop in Michigan, two of her partners were shot in the line of duty. One died. Eager for a fresh start, she moved south with Zachary in the summer of 2015. She was just six weeks into a new job as an officer with the Ocala, Florida, police department when her world imploded.

Now she had no idea if, or when, life would return to normal. About two weeks after the accident, Zachary opened his eyes, but he still didn’t seem to be aware of his surroundings. He couldn’t speak or move his limbs. Bode’s coworkers raised money to help pay the medical bills; one, Dan Pope, offered to mow her lawn while she was at the hospital.

Finally that fall, Bode brought her son home, though he was still unable to speak or move and required help with all daily activities. She threw herself into a daily regimen: feeding, bathing, medicating, and shuttling Zachary to his many appointments. Life brought joys—Bode and Pope fell in love and later were married—but Zachary showed no real improvement the rest of that year or in the next few that followed.

Perhaps, Bode and Pope decided, the help Zachary needed didn’t lie with traditional medicine. To help his tight muscles relax, they took him to an acupuncturist. They even went to Mexico so Zachary could receive controversial infusions of fetal neuronal stem cells. They paid for many of the treatments with their savings, and some with donations, but his condition remained largely unchanged.

Then, in spring 2019, when Zachary was 10, Bode heard about the dolphins. Zachary’s acupuncturist said that her daughter (who also had sustained a brain injury) tried a dolphin therapy program in Freeport, Bahamas, and had “tremendous results.”

Dolphin-assisted therapy was first promoted in the early 1970s by educational anthropologist Betsy Smith after she noticed that aggressive wild dolphins appeared surprisingly gentle and curious around people with physical and mental disabilities, including her brother. The dolphins approached them—though no one was feeding them or providing other incentives, she says.

Smith, now retired from Florida International University, says the interactions seemed to bring people joy and motivate them to do what therapists asked of them. She began offering free sessions and called for rigorous scientific research to study the potential long-term benefits of the approach.

Fifty years on, and no such research has found significant therapeutic effects. Nonetheless, there are now programs around the world offering sessions to treat everything from autism and depression to helping stroke victims. In recent years, paid certification programs and continuing education for people in the industry have sprung up too. Smith is no longer a proponent, and many other critics, including neuroscientist Lori Marino in Utah and wildlife biologist Toni Frohoff in California, worry that dolphin-assisted therapy at best provides a novel, fun experience for patients, and at worst jeopardizes the health and safety of the animals and the people seeking succor from them.

These programs are “taking vulnerable children and vulnerable animals and profiting from them,” Smith says.

Facilities in the United States, the Caribbean, Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, China, and elsewhere offer various types of sessions, which may include swimming with dolphins, feeding them, watching them from a dock or boat, and touching them. Dolphin trainers and various kinds of therapists manage the sessions, often holding the patient in the water while the dolphin approaches or facilitating interactions. Some programs claim that children on the autism spectrum who were nonverbal uttered their first words after dolphin-assisted therapy, though none of the half dozen facilities I contacted found a family willing to attest to such an outcome. A standard program, which may involve spending an hour a day with dolphins over four or five days, costs about $6,000.

Dolphins’ high intelligence and friendly mien have fueled the idea that they can help humans—and enjoy doing so. But some dolphin-assisted therapy proponents, even some facility operators, acknowledge that no hard science validates dolphin therapy. Still, they posit that the sessions seems to help some people anyway. “There’s only anecdotal evidence and no way to measure what we do,” says Kat Perry, who owns and runs Integrative Intentions, which offers dolphin-assisted therapy sessions out of the Bahamas.

“Dolphins act in myriad ways to humans,” says Frohoff, a behavioral and wildlife biologist who has visited more than a dozen dolphin-assisted therapy facilities and founded TerraMar Research, a California-based animal protection nonprofit. “They have an amazing capacity to feel emotions based on their neurobiology, ranging from great joy to fear and suffering that is rivaling, if not exceeding, our own emotions,” she says. “I have personally witnessed dolphins coming to the aid of at least one person who was having a hard time swimming in the ocean.”

But there’s no evidence that dolphins are gentler toward people with disabilities or medical conditions—a central premise of these therapy programs, Frohoff says. “It’s projecting what you want to see.”

Trained, captive dolphins aren’t domesticated animals, and close interactions between them and humans can—and have—resulted in sickness or injury for both. Reports in peer-reviewed papers indicate that dolphins have bitten people, rammed into them, or slapped them with their flukes. Even professional dolphin trainers have been charged, butted, bitten, or held down at the bottom of a tank.

If people get hurt during therapy sessions with dolphins, there’s no comprehensive record of it because of the lack of regulation and record-keeping. “Injury information is not collected and is not stored in our database” for any programs that involve dolphins swimming with humans, says R. Andre Bell, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the agency responsible for monitoring captive animal facilities in the U.S.

Willing to try anything

How spending time with dolphins might help heal her son was unclear to Bode. “I don’t necessarily believe everything I hear, and my husband is a fireman and army ranger, so we take everything with a grain of salt,” she says. Still, she was willing to try anything—as long as it wouldn’t make Zachary worse.

One claim proponents of dolphin therapy make is that ultrasound pulses from the animals’ echolocation clicks may alter human tissue, cells, and brain waves. Another is that in ways we don’t understand, dolphins intrinsically communicate with people who have had trouble communicating with others. (No evidence backs either claim.)

Bode looked into Integrative Intentions, the dolphin therapy program Zachary’s acupuncturist recommended. No one from the New Mexico-based company promised Bode specific results, but Integrative Intentions says on its website that the program has “the potential to be a truly life altering experience.”

The facility rents time with a dozen mostly captive-bred dolphins owned by a company in the Bahamas that also uses them for swim-with-dolphins tourism. They’re kept in an enclosure in Sanctuary Bay. Integrative Intentions had an opening in July 2019. It would cost $4,500 for five days of treatment—not including the family’s airfare, lodging, or food. The sessions weren’t covered by insurance, but organizers worked with Bode to set up an extended payment plan.

She says she didn’t expect a miracle—she just hoped that engaging with dolphins would help her son “emotionally heal.” The program also offered daily sessions of craniosacral therapy both in and out of the water, which as Bode understood it, would involve therapists lightly placing their hands on her son to induce flow of his cerebral spinal fluid and relax his body. The dolphins, she says she was told, would complement that work.

“There’s no guarantee,” says Perry, who owns Integrative Intentions. “We assist bodies in returning to homeostasis” by helping them self-correct. “We are not healers. We are just facilitators.”

“I was a bit stand-offish the first day, I’m not gonna lie,” says Bode, when she, Zachary, and Pope arrived in Freeport. “I was in police mode and watching and was like, I don’t know.”

Bode watched Zachary’s first dolphin encounter from a nearby dock and was stunned to see how the bottlenose dolphins interacted with her son. “They connect with you somehow. They will look you straight in the eye,” she says.

Zachary was floating in the water with the help of a therapist when one of the 400-pound cetaceans approached. Several more soon followed. She worried that they might chew on his feed tube or medication pump, but those concerns quickly gave way to awe about the dolphins’ delicate, deliberate movements around Zachary, she says.

“The therapists are really working on moving that cerebral spinal fluid and working on craniosacral release and stuff—the dolphins almost were just helping them,” Bode says. “I think the most amazing part was a dolphin touched him on his head and looked at his feed tube and pump and touched him on the belly—and he does have gastrointestinal issues.” The dolphin also touched his left hip, where he’d been injured. “How would they know that?! It was crazy!”

On the second day, Bode joined Zachary in the water. With her there, he relaxed and uttered a rumble from deep in his throat. That means he’s feeling calm or content, she says.

Four dolphins interacted with Bode and Zachary. “You can feel their intentions while you’re in the water,” she says. “I don’t know how to explain it without sounding like a weirdo…you just know they won’t hurt you. They look at you in the eyes. It’s like a staring contest.” 

After five days in the Bahamas in 2019, Bode says she saw changes in Zachary, changes that lasted. “He doesn’t get as frustrated as before. When I look at him, there is something different in his eyes,” she said months after the trip, adding that Zachary’s chiropractor and occupational therapist noticed it too. “He still gets frustrated, but it takes a bit longer.” He seems happier, she says. “He is always laughing and smiling.”  

Another mother, Jennifer Lansink, also noticed differences in her daughter, Teal, following repeated summer sessions with Integrative Intentions. Teal was born very prematurely and suffers from developmental delays and extremely tight muscles that keep her from walking unassisted, Lansink says. But she giggled and appeared happy when a dolphin first rubbed up against her feet. And on the way home after their second visit, when Teal was three, she stood unassisted for the first time. “To see your daughter stand up who has never done that…” Lansink explained later, her voice catching.  

Lansink says Teal has progressed in other ways. “She doesn’t form sensical words, but she is significantly more verbal, expressing her opinions and frustrations with more and longer sounds.” Dolphin and craniosacral therapy aren’t wholly responsible for these improvements, she says—Teal also has had occupational and physical therapy at home—but she believes the dolphin sessions were essential.

‘People want to believe this stuff works’

Before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted life, miniature horses trotted onto planes as emotional support animals; llamas wandered through nursing homes; therapy dogs toured children’s cancer wards. During lockdowns, therapy dogs even moved to Zoom—purportedly offering virtual entertainment and an emotional salve.

“People want to believe this stuff works,” says psychologist Hal Herzog, a professor emeritus at Western Carolina University, in Cullowhee, North Carolina, who studies human-animal relationships. Small wonder, then, that some people hold dolphins in similar regard—especially given the myth, bolstered by Flipper, the 1960s Hollywood character portrayed by multiple bottlenose dolphins, that they’re ever chipper and eager to spend time with humans. The physical shape of the animals’ jaw buttresses this idea; they always seem to be smiling.

But as Herzog points out, there’s a difference between animal-assisted interventions and animal-assisted therapy“Intervention is someone going to the hospital, and a therapy dog visits, and then that person feels better afterward,” he says. But therapy seeks “a long-term effect treating the disorder. And I think that’s where things get sketchy.”

The evidence for animal-assisted therapy just isn’t there, he says.  

Neuroscientist Lori Marino, an expert in animal behavior and intelligence and the president of the Whale Sanctuary Project—a Utah-based nonprofit working to establish a seaside sanctuary for whales and dolphins from marine parks—has published multiple journal articles reviewing the existing studies of dolphin-assisted therapy. She says there’s no clear evidence of medical benefits and that research detailing alleged benefits is flawed. It doesn’t account for environmental factors that could cause changes in patients’ behavior—the relaxing effects of water, for example, the other therapies patients may be receiving, or simply the influence of being in a novel situation, she says.

“To me, the idea that [families] are being told it is therapy, that is just fundamentally immoral,” Marino says. “I know that there are claims that there are permanent changes, or some kind of actual change in cognition and in social relationships and so forth, but there’s no evidence of that at all.”

In one of her published studies critical of the practice, she adds there’s also a risk that the price tag “may cause patients and their families to make a choice between [dolphin therapy] and more effective, empirically based treatment options.”

What’s most important, Marino says, is “you need to know that this is risky.”

Because dolphins aren’t domesticated, they don’t lose their wild traits, and their behavior is difficult to predict or control, says Toni Frohoff, who is also affiliated with the Whale Sanctuary Project. “Even Asian elephants who have been in servitude for generations to humans are not considered domesticated,” she says. “Domestication is a very deliberate and selective process of breeding, and there are currently no domestic dolphins in existence.”

Why not use safer, domesticated animals instead? says Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, in Washington, D.C. “Anything the child thinks is unusual might work. That’s why goats and sheep might work,” she says.

Dolphins at work

Frohoff says that even when it appears that dolphins seem to enjoy being with people, their participation hinges on fear of punishment. If dolphins resist performing or interacting with people, Frohoff says, they’re typically sequestered alone. It’s not necessarily punitive—their caretakers could be worried that the animals are sick—but to these highly intelligent creatures, isolation could be perceived as punishment, she says.

Living in tanks or small enclosures can lead to repetitive behaviors, such as constant swimming in small circles, indicating mental distress. Stress can also weaken immune systems. That’s especially problematic for animals such as dolphins that regularly interact with humans and are vulnerable to many of the same upper respiratory infections.

In some therapy programs, it appears that dolphins are taught to engage with humans in ways that contradict their natural behaviors. Such mixed signals heighten the chances of potential miscommunications and violence.

For example, a promotional video for Sealanya Seapark and Dolphinpark, a facility in Turkey, shows an open-mouthed dolphin and a boy on the autism spectrum stroking its teeth and tongue in an apparent anatomy lesson.

Generally, when a dolphin opens its mouth like that, it would be to signal anger and aggression—akin to a man balling up his fist, says Rose, who reviewed the video for National Geographic. If the animal had spontaneously opened its mouth, the trainer probably would’ve moved the child away to minimize the risk of injury, she says. But, instead, in the video, a trainer at knee-level prompts the dolphin to open its mouth and hold it open—transforming a behavior that normally means back off into a “friendly” trick. (Sealanya did not respond to a request for comment.) 

Most dolphin therapy programs rely on captive dolphins, but a small number bring clients to swim with the animals in the wild. Yet dolphins in the wild acculturated to spending time with humans also face dangers. If they swim close to boats expecting to be given snacks and don’t get them, they may become aggressive, biting or ramming people in the water, causing retaliatory attacks. Moreover, feeding dolphins heightens the chances that calves will learn to expect it rather than learn how to hunt.

In the U.S., under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, harassing, harming, killing, or feeding wild dolphins is prohibited and can lead to fines or jail time.

A source of hope and belief

Deena Hoagland, the owner of Island Dolphin Care, a facility based in Key Largo, Florida, readily admits that no scientific studies give credence to dolphin-assisted therapy. Yet she points to her own son, Joe—the reason she founded Island Dolphin Care—as an example of what exposure to dolphins can do.

As a young child, Joe suffered a massive stroke that severely limited his capabilities. She was told he’d never sit up or walk on his own. But after years of interacting with dolphins in programs she devised, she says, he improved beyond all expectations. “I will never give false hope, but I always say never say never, because I was told never,” she says.

“My son’s hand was a fist, and he couldn’t isolate his fingers, so I told him if he could open his hand and rotate his wrist, I would put a fish in it, and he would get to feed the dolphin.” That was “so motivating to him,” she says.

Joe is now in his 30s, married, and working as an animal trainer at Island Dolphin Care, closed because of the pandemic. “We are committed to keeping our dolphins and staff safe from the virus while also not contributing to its spread,” Hoagland says. 

After Bode and Pope returned from their 2019 Bahamas trip, the family immediately started saving money for future dolphin sessions for Zachary, but the pandemic derailed their plans to return in 2020. Integrative Intentions offered sessions this summer, but Bode said the risk, at least for their family, is just too great.  

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.

Read This Next

An icy world is in meltdown, amid penguin population shifts
This sacred valley could become the next national monument
This 50-year project is tracking the Cascades' melting glaciers

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet