Sorry: Dolphins Aren’t Smiling

A dolphin's "smile" is actually an illusion. So is our belief that these animals can heal.

By Lori Marino from Aeon Magazine
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine February 2014

man child dophinsJeffrey L. Rotman/Corbis
Dubious Benefits
Dolphin-assisted therapy typically involves several sessions of customers swimming or interacting with captive dolphins, along with performing more conventional therapeutic tasks such as puzzle solving and motor-skills exercises. The standard price of DAT sessions, whose practitioners are not required by law to receive any special training or certification, is steep, reaching into the thousands of dollars. It’s now a highly profitable business both inside and outside the United States, with facilities in countries including Mexico, Israel, Russia, Japan, China, and the Bahamas. DAT practitioners say that the sessions are particularly successful in treating depression and motor disorders in addition to childhood autism. But DAT can sometimes be less scrupulously advertised as being an effective treatment for everything from cancer to infections and developmental delays.

Even when they don’t promise an outright cure, DAT facilities market themselves as offering real therapy. They often use technology, like EEG to measure brain wave patterns, which suggests scientific legitimacy. But true therapy must have a relationship to a specific condition and result in quantifiable effects. While there are some published studies claiming to demonstrate positive results from DAT, few include a control group, which would help measure whether general, short-term results are due to interacting with the dolphins or caused by other factors, like being in the water, being given tasks, receiving increased attention from other people, or, of course, the placebo effect. Proponents of DAT cite anecdotal evidence and offer many reasons for its efficacy, from brain wave changes to the physiological effects of echolocation (dolphin sonar) on the human body.

The loved ones of children with autism and other people who appear to benefit from DAT tend to accept these explanations as scientifically plausible. And even those skeptical of DAT’s therapeutic abilities may shrug and ask, “What’s the harm if a child who typically experiences little enjoyment and accomplishment finds some happiness and connection with dolphins?” But the question usually left out is “What about the dolphins?”

Out of Their Depths
Decades of scientific research have confirmed that the mammals possess large, highly elaborate brains and prodigious cognitive capacities and engage in complex societies and even cultural traditions. Dolphins also have a level of self-awareness not unlike our own: They’re able to recognize themselves in a mirror, something only humans and primates are also able to do.

Hidden behind their “smiles,” however, captive dolphins spend their lives under tremendous stress, as they struggle to adapt to environments that—physically, socially, and psychologically—are different from the wild. In their natural habitats, dolphins may swim up to 100 miles a day and dive several hundred feet. They spend 80 to 90 percent of their time traveling below the surface. Contrast this with the shallow tanks—pools that may be only six feet deep and 24 feet long—filled with chlorinated water and devoid of plants, sand, and aquatic life that captive dolphins occupy.

The outcome of this treatment is devastating. Dolphins in the wild can live 30 to 50 years. According to a 2004 Sun Sentinel analysis of a few decades’ worth of federal documents of marine animals in captivity in the United States, more than half of the bottlenose dolphins that died during that period (and whose age was known) never reached the age of ten. Of the dolphins that are born into captivity in the United States, an estimated 60 percent pass away before their first birthday. Scientists have observed captive dolphins ramming into the sides of their tanks and chewing on the concrete until they’ve worn through their teeth. Often they die from gastric ulcers, infections, and other stress- and immune-related diseases.

The public is largely unaware of the consequences because aggressive or dying animals are often quietly replaced. (The original orca Shamu, for instance, spent just six years in captivity in SeaWorld in San Diego—in the wild, killer whales live 50 to 80 years—before dying in 1971. But 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, enjoying his captivity.)

Dolphins aren’t the only ones harmed by dolphin-human contact. Because of their “smiles,” we forget that dolphins are predators and that they can be extremely aggressive. In the wild, they’ve been known to participate in brutal attacks on porpoises and, sometimes, their own young. 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 injury and disease—in a tank with a dolphin. According to a National Marine Fisheries Service study of dolphin attractions, people have come out of their encounters with broken bones and lacerations. In December 2012, a dolphin in an SWD program in Cancún bit three people: a couple on their honeymoon and a middle-aged woman. The male victim compared it to a scene from Jaws, except with a dolphin.

Meanwhile, many parents bring their children with autism home after their DAT sessions and are disappointed when the kids withdraw again. At first, the fathers and mothers don’t want to consider that they could have wasted their time and money. But later they may acknowledge that not much has changed and that the benefits were due to the excitement of the trip and the attention their child received. Anthropologist Betsy Smith, who has been credited with creating dolphin therapy in the 1970s, stopped doing it in the 1990s and now calls it “the exploitation of vulnerable people and vulnerable dolphins.”

So what can be done? Several nations, like the United Kingdom, Australia, and India, prohibit keeping dolphins in captivity. Short of a ban, the public can campaign for the end of SWD programs (in the United States, swimming with dolphins in the wild is already illegal) and for a significant reduction in the number of dolphins in parks and other facilities. Dolphin therapy programs should be required to make their long-term results public so that families are able to decide—based on the statistics—whether to participate. Even with evidence debunking DAT, it’s understandable that desperate people will continue to turn to dolphins to find some help for their children. But they should know that the dolphins are suffering too.

Lori Marino is a neuroscientist at Emory University. She has been studying dolphins and whales for 25 years.