Monday, 29 October 2012

Research at the Curacao Dolphin Therapy Center

The lagoons in the upper right, surrounded by walls, are where the CDTC conducts its therapy program. With wave-washed enclosures, fish freely swimming among the dolphins, and dolphins who only do therapy, added to an excellent application of widely-accepted therapeutic techniques, the CDTC stands out as one of the best in the world.

My Research at the Curacao Dolphin Therapy Center

I arrived on Curacao in late June of 2011 to begin two weeks of research. It was a wonderful experience, and has added immeasurably to my efforts to bring clarity to the understanding of Dolphin-Assisted Therapy (DAT).

As a long-time researcher on the topic of DAT (I delivered the keynote address at the 2nd International Symposium on Dolphin Assisted Therapy and Research, in Cancun, 1996), I have paid close attention to the developments of this important form of therapy. When I began my PhD research in 2010, as a Geographer studying how animals and humans share the world, my thesis topic was easy to choose: it focuses on how DAT is understood. My research aims to contribute to what often are contested ideas about what it is, how it is done, how it ought to be done, and whether it ought to be done at all. Critics of DAT have made exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims, while some DAT programs have also made claims with no basis in fact. Research into DAT has been kept to a minimum, as the critics marshal  ‘experts’ to produce unbalanced reviews of any research done. Facilities for DAT have been driven from places where they are close to large populations of potential patients, by fierce animal protectionist campaigns, while dolphin facilities continue to be established where few regulations over their performance exists. It is to the debates over the realities of DAT that my research aims to contribute, by closely examining the various positions that support and oppose DAT.

My research project is located in the social sciences. It does not evaluate the effectiveness of DAT, nor does it critically engage with the many different styles of DAT. It does aim to develop a way of understanding the differences in DAT programs, and to understand the many ways that DAT impacts the social experience of the people involved. To this end, I negotiated with the Curacao Dolphin Therapy Center (CDTC) for a two-week visit, to interview the therapists, the trainers, and the families who had brought their children for therapy. My research seeks to understand how DAT affects the lives of those involved, so my interview questions were about the life experiences, the challenges faced, the best and worst parts of the experience of being involved in DAT.

As I was searching for a place to do my research, I found an unexpected resistance among programs I had expected to be supportive. In Florida, several programs that had indicated a willingness to cooperate with my research chose to deny me access. When I approached CDTC, Marco, the Head Therapist and onsite manager was very receptive, encouraging me to make clear to him just what I needed, but with an enthusiasm for my work that was heartwarming. I did not know that he was familiar with a book I had written about the relations between dolphins and humans, and DAT. I was unaware that he used part of my book when teaching his staff! We managed to arrange for a visit that coincided with the end of one series of sessions and the beginning of a new series, so that I might access as many families as possible.

In the end, I managed to conduct interviews with 13 families, 4 trainers, and 8 therapists, an exceptional number of excellent interviews.

Marco was a wonderful host for my work. He arranged for translation when I needed it; he helped me find good (and quiet) accommodations; he enthusiastically promoted my request for interviews to the families and staff; and he went out of his way to help me have a very successful research experience.
A typical session, with an intern (on the left, just out of sight) and a trainer on the floating platform, a patient supported by a therapist, and one of the wonderful dolphins at CDTC.

I came away from Curacao feeling that I had found, by good fortune, the most advanced DAT program anywhere. The standards to which it works, the quality of the staff and its training, the way in which the therapy is delivered (with one-hour sessions in the water, as a special factor), the physical environment, and the very excellent care of the dolphins (Rudolf is a key asset to the program with his wealth of experience), make CDTC stand out as the best facility I have ever seen. I now recommend it to any one who requests my opinion, which is not infrequently!

Thank you Marco, Ms Kirsten Kuhnert (whom I interviewed in Florida prior to my visit to Curacao), and the staff of the CDTC, for a rewarding experience. My thanks to the families also, who took time away from their powerful experiences to talk with an Australian researcher.

C. Scott Taylor, BSocSc (Hon)

Exec. Dir. Cetacean Studies Institute
Queensland, Australia
PhD candidate, University of the Sunshine Coast

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