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Wild Dolphins Guide Addicts Through Rehab

One facility in Hawaii treats recovering addicts via unscripted ocean encounters with spinner dolphins.

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Native Hawaiian spinner dolphins help
patients get squeaky clean. Photo via

By Bryan Le

02/29/12

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The Hawaii Island Recovery rehab facility has a new and unorthodox approach: wild dolphin-assisted psychotherapy. It may seem unusual, but Eliza Wille, the animal-assisted psychotherapy specialist who brings patients to swim with the dolphins in their ocean home, says the marine mammals' complex emotions and community-oriented nature make them ideally suited for such therapies. “There are no other animals you can be put into nature with and necessarily expect them... to interact with you," she tells The Fix, presumably thinking mainly of survivable interactions. "If I were to go into the woods and try to sit with some birds, they would fly away.”

While captive dolphins have been used in therapies for autism and PTSD, Hawaii Island Recovery believes it's the wild element that makes this addiction treatment unique. Once a month, participants are taken out into open waters to meet an obliging pod of native Hawaiin spinner dolphins. The natural habitat is vital to the dynamic of the visit: dolphins in the wild, without trainers with fish in their hands, have no ulterior motive to interact with patients. And there's no knowing what they'll do. “Someone might use substances to feel a sense of control in the world, but now they are in a big, uncontrollable ocean with lots of wild animals,” says Wille. “The emotions that come up are therapeutic. It's a way to begin to feel mastery over the world and find resources within yourself, drawing from whatever tools are available.” Wille adds that patients invariably love the therapy and benefit from it. “Peak experiences can flush you with a lot of feelings,” she says. “Tremendous joy, insight, peace and overcoming fears and obstacles encountered in rehab. Anything and everything can happen.”

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