Island Dolphin Care, in Key Largo, is the world’s oldest freestanding nonprofit center that offers dolphin-assisted therapy. It’s been giving children with special needs the chance to become friends with dolphins for the past 15 years.
When Peter Hoagland and his wife, Deena, moved to Key Largo in 1990, their 3-year-old son, Joe, had just had one of several open-heart surgeries. A stroke left the boy paralyzed on the left side of his body. And traditional therapy didn’t seem to be helping him regain his body function.
One day, Deena called a place she found in the phonebook that advertised swimming with dolphins. Her husband, Peter, says, there wasn’t a public pool in Key Largo at the time, so she asked the owners if Joe could just use the water, because, he says, the family couldn’t afford the dolphin part.
“And they took Joe on one of the floating docks here and this amazing dolphin named Fonzi popped up in front of Joe and did his dolphin thing, and Joe laughed and giggled for what seemed like the first time in forever," Peter Hoagland said.
Deena, herself a therapist, started bringing Joe back to see Fonzi three or four times a week.
"Even though Joe’s left arm was bent and tucked up to his chest, and his hand was fisted, paralyzed, my wife would say things like, ‘Joe, if you want to feed Fonzi, you have to feed him with your left hand. He’s a left-handed dolphin.' And Joe would say, ‘Ok, mom.’ And then he’d look down at he’d go, ‘But I can’t.’ And she’d go, ‘Just keep trying.’ And it took weeks and months, but Joe finally could hold a fish and straighten out his arm and feed Fonzi," Hoagland said.
Seeing Joe’s success, Deena started offering her program of dolphin-assisted therapy to other families with special-needs children. Peter says, the free-standing Island Dolphin Care, next door to the original dolphin place, was born in 1997.
“We create opportunities for people all over the world and touch so many families’ lives on so many different levels that it’s just truly an honor and a privilege," he said.
The program serves about eight special-needs families every week. They meet with therapists in a classroom setting first before the children join the center’s seven dolphins in an outdoor grotto for their swim sessions.
Three years ago, the center also started offering dolphin therapy for wounded military veterans, like Vietnam War veteran Jack Parsons, of Fort Lauderdale. On a recent day, he’s watching the children swim while he waits for his turn in the water.
“Just look at this: upside-down dragging two kids!" he said. "They’re so big yet they’re so gentle! Have you ever seen anything like this? I never realized they were this huge.”
Parsons said, he jumped at the chance when the Miami VA hospital offered the dolphin program as a therapy option. He brought his 12-year-old son, Michael, along for the first swim session.
“They said, ‘Hey, you want to swim with dolphins?’ And I went, ‘Yes! I always wanted to swim with dolphins!,'" he said. "And I took my son out of school today because I thought this was as important as any classroom he could ever go to.”
Island Dolphin Care co-founder Peter Hoagland says the center has inspired several imitators over the years. And for the most part, he’s flattered. But, he says, he worries about some claims that other programs make.
“There’s no scientific evidence or proof that dolphins cure or heal anybody," he said. "But they’re certainly majestic, sensitive, intelligent creatures.”
Cure or not, the dolphins seem to be bringing joy to people like combat veteran Jack Parsons, who's laughing heartily as he watches a dolphin spin a child in a circle in the water.
"It’s the little things, my father always said, that were real important in life. And this is very important," he said.
Island Dolphin Care accepts applications through its website.