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Last Updated:  Saturday, 22 February, 2003, 00:24 GMT
Dolphins helped my child
By Tory Milne
BBC News Online Staff

Emily Chicken at Dolphin Cove
Emily enjoyed her interaction with dolphins
The diagnosis of a disabled child often leads parents to want to do something - anything - to improve their child's quality of life. One option available to them is dolphin therapy. But is it simply a pleasant experience, or a miracle cure?

Seven-year-old Emily Chicken has been diagnosed with Rett Syndrome.

In recent years she has started to hyperventilate, and has developed epilepsy.

She wrings her hands constantly and cannot speak.

For Sara and her husband Neil, and their other daughter Laura, 9, Emily's diagnosis has come as a huge blow.

Dolphin therapy
Aims to increase attention span
Costs about 5000 for two weeks
Started in the 1970s
"Some days it's bad, some days it's OK," says Sara, who tells me that today is a bad one.

"She's changing - there are lots of emotional things to deal with. It's getting harder."

Like many parents facing such an uncertain future, Sara and Neil are desperate to try to improve their daughter's prospects.

This desire led to Sara's interest in dolphin therapy - and the family's decision to take her to Dolphin Cove in Florida.


The team there use swimming with dolphins as a reward for a child having physiotherapy and speech therapy at the pool side.

Rett Syndrome
Is a genetic neurological disorder
There is no known cure
Mainly affects girls
It is thought the environment - the warm water, the texture of the dolphin's skin, and the movement involved - is so engaging that their ability to interact and learn is increased.

Sara says Emily's reaction to the therapy was initially impressive.

"When she got back to school, they couldn't get over the difference - she just seemed so bright."

However, the results did not last. "It did seem to last a while" says Sara, "but after about three months I saw her going backwards."

Dr David Nathanson, the President of Dolphin Human Therapy in Florida, says this is to be expected. "Our programme is a rehabilitation programme - it needs continual reinforcement."

Expensive option

Dolphin Human Therapy at Dolphin Cove costs about 5,000 for two weeks of sessions, plus flights and accommodation.

However Dr Nathanson says the cost is justified by the quality of care the professional staff provide, and the cost of leasing the dolphin facility. "When all costs and benefits are considered, it's actually pretty cheap," he says.

The effect seen in Emily after her first visit was enough to convince Sara and Neil to raise the money to take her again. Months of local fundraising ensued, with the promise of only a few months improvement in Emily in prospect.

It is this aspect of the therapy - the benefit versus the cost - that has caused many people to question its value.

Richard Parnell from disability charity Scope is concerned that some centres may be taking advantage of vulnerable parents.

"They have to be very careful - parents might well be better off spending their money on better things, and perhaps ensuring instead that their child spends more time in education."


There are other concerns.

Many animal welfare organisations argue that the capturing and keeping of dolphins in captivity is cruel.

Richard O' Barry is the World Society for the Protection of Animals' marine mammal specialist.

He has worked with dolphins for more than 40 years - but for the first ten years worked for the captivity industry, capturing and training dolphins, including 'Flipper', who achieved world wide fame through a popular TV series.

He made a lot of money from his work - but Richard changed his mind, and now spends his time rescuing dolphins and releasing them in to the wild.

"It's hypocritical to capture these dolphins and destroy their quality of life to enhance ours," he says.

"You can experience the same thing with a puppy. These are very vulnerable dolphins - but must vulnerable are the parents of these children. In my opinion, dolphin therapy is bogus. There's no scientific evidence to support it."

But despite all arguments against dolphin therapy, Sara's still determined to take Emily out to Florida for a third time.

"It's no miracle cure - but the experiences we have had are unbelievable. She's so well when we're out there".



Disabled boy's dolphin dream
21 Sep 02 |  Scotland
Dolphins combat child deafness
03 Aug 00 |  Europe

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