Dolphin therapy soon come

The doctor behind a new
dolphin-assisted therapy centre says that it will bring economic as well as
therapeutic benefits to Cayman.

Dr. David Nathanson is the founder
and president of Dolphin Human Therapy. He has more than 30 years’ experience
working with special-needs children and dolphins and this summer will begin
offering dolphin-assisted therapy programmes at Dolphin Cove.

He said that he intends to bring
the facility to Grand Cayman rather than anywhere else because of the
infrastructure support that exists on the Island.

“I toured the Cayman General Hospital
and met with the folks in the paediatric wing, the assistant general director
and the rehab wing. We wanted to be assured that should there be a medical emergency
the staff are qualified, experienced and competent to deal with it,” he said.


Another driving factor behind the
decision to set up in Cayman was the quality of the supermarkets including
Foster’s Food Store, which Mr. Nathanson said would be an excellent facility
for parents who would accompany the children on their programmes, that last for
three or four weeks.

“When they stay in the lodgings
that are going to be arranged for them they will be wanting to cook rather than
go out every night. It’s reassuring for families.”
“The standards in Cayman are very good compared to the rest of the Caribbean
and travel is relatively easy to Cayman – it’s a short distance to Miami, there’s a direct flight from London. Access is very important.”

Mr. Nathanson explained that a
typical number of people visiting along with the patient was six people,
including parents, the child, siblings, grandparents and physicians or
therapists who are working with the patient.

“We’ll be bringing a large number
of people to Cayman which has significant economic benefits.”

Neil Burrowes of Dolphin Cove said
there were discussions going on between the facility and local businesses to
accommodate an influx of visitors.

“We’re negotiating with hotels low,
medium and high so we can block out large amounts of hotel rooms – we
anticipate 60 a week plus renting cars et cetera.

“It will add something to tourism
and put Cayman on the map for something aside from tax evading. It may very
well be also known for having the world’s best therapy centre. A lot of other
places don’t have the science and evidence-based research to support it.”


The concept of interacting with
captive dolphins in any manner has come under criticism from environmental and
animal welfare groups over the years. Mr. Naomi Rose is a senior scientist with
Humane Society International. She told the Compass that she had been working on
the issue of dolphin-assisted therapy for a number of years and noted that a
similar effect was observed with children interacting with household pets.

“There’s nothing special about
dolphins as used in therapy as compared to puppies, kittens or, as Mr. Nathanson
found out, robot dolphins. He used an animatronics dolphin in a study which
showed that the benefits, whatever they may be, from interacting in the water
are just as effective.

“As a biologist concerned with
animal welfare and if the benefits to people are as good with puppies or
kittens why are you putting dolphins in captivity and charging them an enormous
money and making them travel to Cayman Islands? People could go to a local
therapist and get the same benefit from puppies and kittens, which are meant to
be interacting with people, whereas dolphins are wild animals which have to be
captured,” she said.

Mr. Rose, a marine mammal biologist
said that it was a question of money as dolphin-assisted therapy was a very
lucrative business.

“For parents that are desperate to
help their children that’s fairly disturbing exploitation, which is distasteful
to me.”


Mr. Nathanson told the Caymanian
Compass that the dolphin interaction is a reward for progress rather than a
therapeutic technique in itself.

The licensed psychologist noted
that the therapists working with the children were highly experienced and
credentialed experts from the fields of physical therapy, occupational therapy,
speech language pathology and special education.

 “I would match up the quality of my staff that
I had in my long-term programme in the Florida Keys
against the best rehab programmes anywhere in the world. The fact that I was in
a bathing suit most of the time makes it different from a hospital setting.

“My staff have to have the
professional credentials and experience necessary to be hired in any professional
rehab setting, hospital or special school anywhere. We’re not about walking in
off the street and jumping in with the dolphins.

“The second quality they have to
have is caring about the children and the families. You can’t learn that at
university – you either have that as part of your personality or you don’t.
It’s a professional programme in every sense of the word,” said the doctor.


Mr. Nathanson said that the
methodology behind dolphin-assisted therapy is solid. There is nothing ‘magic’
about it, he said, but studies that were  quantative and blind peer-reviewed at a
professional level to match up with any other techniques.

“If you actually look at what
appears to be criticism it’s people who’ve never worked with kids, never worked
with dolphins. It’s easy to be a critic but quite another thing to hold a child
in your arms and get that child to speak for the first time, which we do often.

“My view is that the motivation
behind much of the criticism is nothing to do with what I do but the issue of
dolphins in captivity,” noted Mr. Nathanson.

He added that as well as the
therapy sessions there would be ‘innovative research’ into human-animal
behaviour, human behaviour and dolphin behaviour itself. The hopes for the programme
is that it would become a highly sought-after one worldwide for its quality and

“Serendipitously, our programme
will do much to raise the consciousness of people of the need to protect the
environment because we’re showing that dolphins under appropriate conditions
can help people.”

Mr. Rose of Humane Society
International concluded that in her opinion there are underlying financial aspects
underpinning the project.

“When you want to have a dolphin
swim-with facility and just charge tourists that’s easier to call exploitation,
but when you say you’re going to help autistic children you start to look like
you’re doing something humanitarian. But they’re charging a lot of money.

“It’s a real challenge to get the
other side of the debate out there because dolphins are so charismatic – I
know, I study them.”

Mr. Burrowes of Dolphin Cove
invited anybody who expressed an interest in the subject to visit him at the
cove where he said discussions would be educational and informative.

“I don’t pay much attention to
anonymous critics who seem to be full of scorn, bitterness and prejudice.
People need to educate themselves before they make a judgement.

“I think everybody should be
super-excited about this. It’s a real feel good industry and when we have a
Caymanian disabled child who has made large advances then that parent can
testify to the pros and cons of what we’re doing. It is important for time to
pass before we can do that.”


Therapists introduce their patients to the water and the dolphins at Delfinario Sonara in Mexico under the supervision of Dr. David Nathanson.
Photo: File