Researchers have warned people suffering from chronic mental or physical disabilities that they should not opt for a dolphin "healing" experience.
Lori Marino, senior lecturer in the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Program, and Scott Lilienfeld, professor in the Department of Psychology, has launched an educational campaign against claims made by supporters of what is known as dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT).
"Dolphin-assisted therapy is not a valid treatment for any disorder," said Marino, a leading dolphin and whale researcher.
She added: "We want to get the word out that it's a lose-lose situation for people and for dolphins."
Marino said that swimming with dolphins may be fun and a novel experience but any scientific evidence does not exist for a long-term benefit from DAT.
She further said that people spending thousands of dollars for DAT not just lose out financially but they put themselves, and the dolphin, at risk of injury or infection.
And in way they are supporting an industry taking dolphins from the wild in a cruel process, often leaving several dolphins dead for every surviving captive.
After reviewing five studies published during the past eight years, the researchers found that the claims for DAT's efficacy were invalid.
"We found that all five studies were methodologically flawed and plagued by several threats to both internal and construct validity," said Marino and Lilienfeld,
They added: "We conclude that nearly a decade following our initial review, there remains no compelling evidence that DAT is a legitimate therapy, or that it affords any more than fleeting improvements in mood."
Lilienfeld also said: "We want to reach psychologists with this message, because DAT is increasingly being applied to children with developmental disabilities, although there is no good evidence that it works."
"It's hard to imagine the rationale for a technique that, at best, makes a child feel good in the short run, but could put the child at risk of harm."
The Emory scientists campaign has been timed to coincide with a recent call by two UK-based non-profits (the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and Research Autism) to ban the practice of DAT.
However, Marino is not in favor of taking dolphins from the wild and holding them captive for any purpose, she finds DAT especially egregious, as the people being exploited are at risk the most.
This includes desperate parents willing to try anything to help a child with a disability.
There are many people under the impression that dolphins would never harm a human.
"In reality, injury is a very real possibility when you place a child in a tank with a 400-pound wild animal that may be traumatized from being captured," said Marino.
In U.S. marine parks, dolphins are bred in captivity, but in other countries they are often taken from the wild.
Referring to an annual "dolphin drive" in Japan, Marino said, "If people knew how these animals were captured, I don't think they would want to swim with them in a tank or participate in DAT."
She added: "During the dolphin drives hundreds of animals are killed, or panicked and die of heart attacks, in water that's red with their blood, while trainers from facilities around the world pick out young animals for their marine parks. They hoist them out of the water, sometimes by their tail flukes, and take them away."
According to Marino, each live dolphin can bring a fisherman 50,000 dollars or even more.
"The marine parks make millions off of dolphins, so that's a drop in the bucket. It's an irony that dolphins are among the most beloved, and the most exploited, animals in the world," said Marino.
These conclusions were published recently in Anthrozošs, the journal of the International Society for Anthrozoology, in a paper entitled "Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: More Flawed Data and More Flawed Conclusions."
An upcoming issue of the newsletter of the American Psychological Association's Division of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities will feature another article by Marino and Lilienfeld, entitled "Dolphin-Assisted Therapy for Autism and Other Developmental Disorders: A Dangerous Fad."