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Healing dolphins? Cognitive and perceptual criticisms in Dolphin-Assisted Therapy

By Cinzia Chiandetti

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Since the '70s new therapeutic practices have been developed, involving the interaction between humans and dolphins - Tursiops truncatus in particular. Such practices are known as Dolphin-Assisted Therapies (DAT), a specific case of a more heterogeneous set of experiences with cetaceans called Dolphin-Assisted Activities (DAA). These include programs of dolphin watching and swimming in high seas, and shows in dolphinariums and marine parks. Although the promoters of this type of practices highlight the physiological, psychological and cognitive benefits on human participants, such putative positive effects have not been experimentally validated yet [1]. Studies supporting DAT seriously suffer from theoretical and methodological flaws, such as the small sample size, the lack of control on effects of exercising in aquatic environment and of control groups, the absence of a randomization of participants [2,3]. Human-dolphin interactions are characterized by two sets of perceptual and cognitive misinterpretations. On one side, humans are neglecting the animal’s psycho-physiological dimension [4]. DAT causes suffering on several levels: physical (respiratory, peptic and vision diseases, stress-related disorders), behavioral (aberrant, hyper-sexual and stereotyped behaviors, unresponsiveness, self-inflicted trauma, excessive aggressiveness) and social (alteration of hierarchies, limitations of sexual partners) [4-5]. Even in the open water, cetaceans followed by the boats and approached by swimmers are disturbed by noises and human inappropriate behaviors [6]. On the other side, humans have a mislead interpretation of the dolphins’ nature [8]. Several behaviours exhibited by dolphins are naively associated with playful and sociable attitudes. However, ethological observations have shown that surfing, breaching, leaping are behaviours linked to specific physiological (sometimes social) functions that have nothing to do with playful patterns. The “smile” on their faces is not a joyful sign, rather an anthropomorphic projection of it [7]. These types of perceptual and cognitive misinterpretations in the human-animal interaction expose non-human species, here represented by vulnerable dolphins, to activities that highly impact on animal welfare


Mason N McLary

HABRI Central

Date 2015
Pages 4
Publisher Università degli studi di Trieste
Location of Publication Trieste, Italy
Conference Title Trieste Symposium on Perception and Cognition
Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal-assisted activities
  2. Animal-assisted therapies
  3. Animal roles
  4. Animals in culture
  5. Dolphins
  6. Health
  7. Mammals
  8. Nature
  9. oceans
  10. Physical environment
  11. Service animals
  12. swimming
  13. therapy
  14. therapy animals