Ivan Golubev was a hyperactive child until his school in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine was attacked by gunfire. The trauma left him unable to to speak.
A few months later he was on holiday in Odessa and his mother, Anna, decided to try dolphin therapy. “By the end of the first session he started talking again, and I just couldn’t stop crying,” she says, as her son splashes round in the pool as part of his follow-up treatment.
The therapy is one of the many dolphin-related attractions in the Black Sea port city, marketed at children with learning difficulties, pregnant women and more recently soldiers injured in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Staff at the Nemo centre, who include five psychologists, says there is 1,000-year old evidence that animals can help aid mental and physical rehabilitation, but some clinical experts dispute the benefits while others question whether it is ethical to use wild animals in this way.
As well as resulting in about 10,000 deaths, the war between pro-Russia separatists and the Ukrainian army has left many thousands more with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition not widely recognised in Ukraine.
In September a group of soldiers diagnosed with PTSD came to Odessa to test whether sea mammals could help their rehabilitation.
It’s not a “magic stick” but it can contribute to recovery, claims dolphin trainer and counsellor Yuri Mishkurov, who worked with the servicemen. And while he can’t say how many of the 15 veterans who took part in the programme made a full recovery, he claims that “it’s an effective experience because after the therapy they feel positive emotions”.
“It doesn’t matter whether you are an adult or a child – if you spend time in the pool with this big and friendly animal you will feel better,” adds Bogdan Popovski, who has run the therapy programme for 10 years.
From cats and dogs aiding palliative care to horses helping children with attention deficit disorders, there are animal-assisted therapies on offer around the world. However, some clinical experts argue that there is not enough evidence to show the programmes actually help people with psychological illnesses.
Writing in Psychology Today Hal Herzog, who has studied animal and human interaction for 20 years, says claims about dolphin-based therapies remain the most over-hyped of the lot. He concludes that “placebo effects, wishful thinking, and simply having a new experience … are more plausible explanations for the supposed improvements”.
Mishkurov, who has worked at Nemo for four years, says that the most positive impact he had witnessed is on children such as Ivan who start talking again, or become more comfortable socialising. But there has never been any qualitative research on the 1,000 or so children that visit the centre every year.
Ukraine, Russia and Spain are the only European countries to still keep dolphins or whales in captivity, according to animal rights NGO Born Free, which warns that “direct contact between the public and captive cetaceans places both parties at significant risk of disease and injury”.