Conflict over Dolphin Assisted Therapy

By Michael D. SellersI hesitated to put this up because it’s a bit arcane and frankly I wouldn’t have put as much time into it as I did had it not come up over the weekend. But on reflection I think it’s interesting enough to warrant posting about.  It is something that has significance for Way of the Dolphin– and thus for MovieBank and Quantum Entertainment.  It gives an idea of what studios go through in developing their films. I am in touch with Veronica Cuccurrullo, the head dolphin trainer at UNEXSO, our facility in the Bahamas, regarding the script for WOD and I had sent her the same first 25 pages that I posted here. Over the weekend she basically said that it all looks fine — but alerted me to the fact that if we are going to show any Dolphin Assisted Therapy we will get caught up in the middle of a rather large dispute that is currently going on between proponents of DAT, as it is known, and those who object to it — the latter including the main trade and professional organization of the dolphin industry.So to start with — here are two files that make for pretty interesting reading. One is a brief brochure and the other is a full length paper, both taking the position that DAT is a bad thing.Brochure:Download DATLEAFLET.pdfReport:Download DATCampaignReport.pdfAnyway — following is an email I sent back to Veronica discussing this. (And FYI, we weren’t really planning tho show DAT in the movie but we were, and are, going to explore some of the things that cause DAT to be considered a meaningful kind of therapy — so we do need to work through this.)Veronica,I’ve had a chance to review both the small brochure and the longer DAT study. I’m interested in learning more about both the politics and the scientific data. As I mentioned on the phone, the reference in the script to Aquathought Foundation’s sonophoresis model (you can read Aquathought’s entire presentation here: didn’t have much to do with DAT per se — but rather was setting up the possibility that dolphin sonar might, much like ultrasound does, under certain circumstances, have a physiological effect on humans. So my initial thought was that we don’t have too much of a conflict with theanti-DAT forces since we weren’t planning to “go there” in terms of DAT. But as I read the full report, it began to seem to me that perhaps we do have a problem in that anyone imputing special or unique capabilities to dolphins relating to their sonar will end up having some conflict with those who feel that projecting such attributes onto dolphins are at least indirectly providing support to DAT. So … all of this bears some additional thought and study.In reading the material, it seemed to me that the argument goes pretty much as follows:1) There is no physiological evidence that DAT does anything that isn’t achievable with a safer domesticated animal, or a clown for that matter.2) Dolphins are wild animals and unpredictable in comparison to domestic animals; thus there is danger to the subject.3) There is a potential for disease transmission.4) The dolphins are captive wild animals and the anti-DAT proponents are, by their literature, generally anti-captivity. DAT, because of its popularity, is creating more demand for captive dolphins and that’s bad.It’s interesting … I’m not a proponent of DAT nor am I particularly opposed to it. My interest is in trying to create a plausible science-based work of speculative fiction that explores the nature of the human/dolphin relationship — a relationship that has fascinated a lot of interesting writers and thinkers going all the way back to Aristotle. When I was reading some of the pro-DAT writings, most of what I read was not particularly compelling in terms of convincing me that DAT has an affect that other types of animal assisted therapy does not. Even Cole/Aquathought’s depiction of the difference in pre-DAT and post-DAT brain scans still didn’t show me anything that would convince me that this was anything more than a release of endorphins that could happen with Dog-assisted or, for that matter, hot-fudge-sundae assisted therapy. But, having said that, I did find the “sonophoresis” argument a little bit more compelling than the others. This argument basically makes the case that there are observable changes at the cellular boundaries that are traceable to the sonar. I don’t buy this argument hook line and sinker — but I do find it interesting and worthy of followup and that’s why I chose this as the reference that you read in the first part of the script. The bottom line is that I find it interesting and more compelling than the other, more general arguments, but remain reasonably skeptical and need to see more data before I’m going to know whether much can be done with this even in a fictional context.So I haven’t seen enough from the pro-DAT people to convince me of anything other than this one point, that dolphin sonar might have some abilityJust as I saw some gaps in the pro-DAT literature, I also felt there were some gaps in the arguments put forward by the anti-DAT literature and I was wondering if there might be an opportunity to explore this a bit further. Perhaps there is data that just wasn’t contained in the report or brochure that would help me get a better feel for this.1) Physiological evidence: The report seems to cite a number of general studies that conclude there is nothing unique about post-DAT physiology but does not directly refute the “sonophoresis model” that Cole is promoting in his recent work. In other words, Cole is trying to make the case that sonar induced sonophoresis is observed and this is measurable. The critique of the physiological evidence seems to be quite a bit more general than this and doesn’t get too specific about this particular angle. Is there a scientific critique that specifically addresses the sonophoresis argument that Cole is putting forward? If so I would like to see it so I can study this further.2) Aggressive behavior: The report does a good job of establishing that aggressive behavior from captive dolphins toward humans is not that uncommon, which of course is true. But it does not cite any figures or even anecdotes describing aggressive behavior toward actual DAT participants. Are such figures available? Is there actually a track record of DAT participants being the object of aggressive behavior? Is there data?3) Disease transmission: The paper makes the argument that disease transmission is a concern since DAT is not regulated in the way that domestic animal (and presumably, human) innoculations are managed. It seems that given the large volume of DAT activities going on, wouldn’t there be such data if indeed this is a significant concern or problem? Are there actual case studies or other data showing examples of human/dolphin disease transmission via DAT?4) Captivity/Conservation Issues: This case is made that DAT is leading to new and additional dolphin captures, and thus is increasing the population of captive dolphins in general and in particular is causing new captures to take place that otherwise would not be taking place. This seems logical and is compelling. Still, no figures are cited. I would be very interested in seeing data that makes the case that DAT is contributing to an increase in the number of dolphin captures — as opposed to, for example, creating a path for “repurposing” of existing captive dolphins.In coming at this as a film-maker trying to make a compelling work of speculative but science-based fiction, I want to make sure that I do my homework and understand all of the issues to the maximum extent possible. But my perspective is clearly a little different from the proponents on either side of this, (or other) arguments. I’ll give you an example of how things look a little different to me. For example, Cole and others make the case that at least some dolphins seem to have an ability to spot a “patient” and treat that person differently than a regular swimmer. In debunking this, the report notes that “only one of five” dolphins observed at Dolphins Plus seem to have such an ability to spot “patients” and treat them differently. Now — while this argument is used to debunk the proponents of DAT, my immediate reaction is — what about that one dolphin that does have this capability? What’s the deal with him/her? Is there something there worth looking into?Another point that intrigues me — the report makes the point that there is a potential to use various types of “virtual reality” to create or re-create the DAT experience without actually having to use dolphins. Indeed, I found an article about Cole doing just that as far back as 1996 and it strikes me that depicting research geared toward eliminating the need for actual captive wild dolphins and replacing them with an enhanced kind of virtual reality dolphin would e a possible “way out of the forest” in which this sort of thing could be depicted and explored without antagonizing too many people.Finally — one last thought — when we make the movie we’ll be creating a theatrical release feature film, but for the DVD we will also be creating special features that explore the issues touched on in the film. I think a special feature which gives a clear depiction of DAT and gives equal time to both the pro and anti-DAT forces would be a good way of making sure that this is subject matter is treated responsibly.Anyway — that was a long email! Sorry about that — it’s Saturday morning so I have a little more time than normal. I hope the foregoing is helpful in establishing that we want to engage in a thoughtful process and are not going to plunge naively into areas that are fraught with discord and debate. If you can help me get in touch with any of the authors of the report and/or others who are strong voices in this, I would appreciate it, as this would help my research and make me more capable of handling this issue intelligently in the film. (Beyond that, I’m just interested in learning as much as I can about the issues.)Best,Michael


~ by Michael Sellers on December 4, 2007.

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