Dolphin ‘psychotherapists’ treat severe trauma
Israeli film shows how sea mammals helped victim of violence learn to speak again, make peace with past.
Dolphin therapy Photo: Amos Nachoum
There are extreme cases when psychotherapy and medication are not enough; it
takes a sea mammal with a perpetual smile and a caring personality to defeat
trauma and bring a patient back to life. Just such a scenario played out over a
period of five years at Eilat’s Dolphin Reef, thanks to the staff and to
just-retired Meir Medical Center psychiatrist Dr. Ilan Kutz, who initiated and
supervised the unusual treatment and rehabilitation as a desperate last
The patient was Morad, in late 2006 a 17-year-old boy from the
northern Arab town of Kalansuwa who had sent an innocent text message to a girl
in his class that was intercepted by her brother. After mistaking the message
for flirtation, he and three other local thugs “defended the family honor” by
kidnapping Morad and cruelly beating him up in a barn throughout the night. The
hemorrhaging boy was hospitalized in serious condition for 11 days in the
surgical department at the Kfar Saba hospital.
While Morad’s physical
injuries eventually healed, he suffered such emotional trauma from the
undeserved attack that he became mute, unable to communicate and unresponsive to
psychiatric treatment that Kutz gave him. It was as if his brain had completely
wiped out the past.
Kutz noted that there are psychotherapists who try to
help patients with horses and dogs. He had tried dolphin therapy once in the
past, but Morad’s case was much more serious.
“The idea was to teach him
to communicate because he wasn’t communicating with anyone, so I wanted to try
something that was nonverbal,” said Kutz.
It is not considered a magical
cure for all ills, but it has been known to alleviate symptoms
Dolphins are very intelligent animals and have a
“language” of clicks and physical movements. They even seem to enjoy
communicating with humans, according to research. They also like to be touched,
petted and cuddled.
Dolphin therapy was first used about 40 years ago to
treat children with autism, cerebral palsy and even cancer, as well as trauma
victims. It received a boost in the 1970s when an anthropologist trying to help
her disabled sibling found dolphins had a good effect on him.
Morad’s determined, dedicated and intelligent father Asad that “dolphin therapy”
was the only possible hope for recovery. The boy’s father sold much of his
property to finance the stay and therapy at the reef, where dolphins no longer
perform tricks; instead they are used to interact with children and adults with
The true story was turned into a striking and
moving documentary film by diving teacher and photographer Yonatan Nir, along
with co-producers Dani Menkin and Judith Manassan Ramon.
arrived in Eilat, Nir was working as an underwater photographer who hoped
himself to benefit from the dolphins after being hurt in the second Lebanon war.
Kutz insisted that the filming and interviews be conducted, and the movie made
public, only with Morad’s full approval.
The 73-minute, prize-winning
film was shown recently at the Jerusalem Cinematheque to benefit Herzog
Hospital’s Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma headed by Prof. Danny
Brom, whom Kutz has often consulted about his specialty.
will help the Jerusalem center’s many projects including psychological treatment
of victims of war, terror and disease; frontline soldiers and immigrants from
The capital’s Mayor Nir Barkat, who came specially to greet the
audience, said he himself has survived traumatic events, such as seeing fellow
soldiers die next to him in war, as well as terror attacks in Jerusalem, and
that he knew the value of the psychotrauma center’s work.
degree of giving is not anonymous charity but helping another person to realize
his potential so he no longer needs help.
That is what the psychotrauma
Brom presented the surprise of the evening when he welcomed
both Kutz and Morad on stage. The latter was fit, smiling, completely fluent in
Hebrew and full of life. The young man, now almost 22, lives with his family in
Kalansuwa, studies hydrotherapy in a Safed college and works as a
The mysterious connection between man and dolphin quickly
became apparent after Morad’s arrival at the reef, when his eyes were unfocused.
The mammals do not react to everyone, the trainers said in the movie. Only if
they feel a connection to the person will they come near and give unconditional
love. And they quickly initiated contact with Morad, who showed interest by
putting his hands in the water but did not speak until after five full months of
patient dolphin therapy. They actually seemed to want to help him.
weeks, Morad’s eyes became more focused. He was looking for contact, and when he
saw the dolphins, his eyes turned sharper, but when he went to his room, the old
“When he sees the dolphins,” said his father Asad, “Morad
When he doesn’t, it is as if he were dead. He is like a
two-year-old. After two months of treatment, he was still not speaking, but I
felt he understood me.”
Morad’s swimming skills greatly improved by
copying the dolphins.
He dove 20 meters or more, not needing to inhale
for long periods.
He even learned to release air bubbles through his eyes
like a bottlenose dolphin.
Perhaps, said a trainer, people feel
comfortable with dolphins in the water, like a fetus in the womb.
have to bring him back to the land. I’ve never seen Morad laugh before. But now,
after five months, he says ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and asks me questions. There is a
Kutz traveled south to Eilat to see for
“Morad identifies all the dolphins and knows them by name,” Kutz
recalled, “but he doesn’t remember where he was born or that he was in Meir
Medical Center after the attack on him.”
“You were in a different world.
You didn’t say a single word,” Kutz told his patient.
Morad wanted to
remain in Eilat.
He was speaking again, but there was a new problem,
Kurtz explained in the film.
“He has completely erased his
He was a dolphin-boy raised in Eilat.
It’s a very unusual
case. It’s an extreme case in the medical literature of a person who has erased
his memory so he doesn’t have to relive what he went through. Now he rejects his
mother and doesn’t want to return to Kalansuwa.”
“I had a dream that
Morad has come home,” said Asad. “If he does, I will proudly ride with in
through the entrance to Kalansuwa. I want everybody to see he is healthy – that
he did nothing wrong.”
“One day, I found myself at the reef, with
dolphins all around,” said Morad. “That was the first day of my
Nine months later, Kutz tried to reunite Morad with his
traditionally dressed mother, who came to Eilat.
“She rubbed and massaged
him with oil. Then he hugged her,” says a narrator.
“He spoke to me for
the first time, and milk came out of my breast as if he were a baby,” the mother
said with an embarrassed laugh.
“He has accepted his mother again, but he
refuses to go back to the village. He is terrified of memories,” viewers were
After a year in Eilat, Morad – speaking faultless, Israeli-accented
Hebrew, became friendly with a dolphin caretaker named Shani. He became friendly
with her, and after a while started to live with her.
taught me to communicate.
Slowly, I began to rely on them,” Morad told
Shani. “I feel like a dolphin. Eilat is my place – of sun, sea, people and
freedom. I became really strong. The place gives me a source of energy, of life.
Some good things happened, all these good things make up for the bad things that
happened. They help cover the bad things, but they won’t heal them. If they
cured me, I’d be able to sleep like you at night.”
The four Kalansuwa
thugs who attacked him have been arrested, but they won’t go to jail unless
Morad testifies against them.
“But I don’t want to pressure him,” Asad
“The bad memories of what happened to me always want to come back,”
Morad recalled. “Sometimes I feel real pain, and it’s hard to breathe, but no
tears come out. I want very much to cry. I have oceans of tears inside
The young man became a staffer at the Dolphin Reef, and he made good
friends. But he had flashbacks, and after a few years, he still didn’t want to
Kutz tried to hypnotize Morad in several sessions, but
flashbacks and nightmares continued.
“It’s like a short circuit,” he told
his patient. “There is one thing I want to try, an experimental treatment with
Fortunately, it helped.
“Morad is able to
talk about the trauma without shame or guilt,” said Kutz.
after his arrival, there was more improvement. But Morad, more aware of his
identify, and his Jewish girlfriend decided to break up. He still felt Eilat was
his home, but he knew he must return to Kalansuwa, Kutz said.
the age of 21, Morad was able to connect between his past and present. He
decided to go home, 500 kilometers north.
“I will never forget this
place,” he said at the reef, finally breaking down in tears. “But I want Dad to
be proud of me.”
He became able to testify against his attackers, and
they were found guilty and sent to jail. Even now, Kutz continues to treat (at
no cost) Morad’s residual flashbacks and nightmares.
As the film draws to
a close and Kutz and Morad appear on the stage, Brom said: “It is Ilan’s tender
touch, his depth and courage that brought about a happy end. When he has a
trauma patient, he never gives up.”
Kutz, putting his arm around the
young man from Kalansuwa, noted that Morad is now completing his matriculation
exams while living at home.
“He is no longer taking medications that made
him gain weight. He took medical marijuana. Now he is fit.”
after leaving the reef, Morad returned for a visit to Eilat. The dolphins
remembered him, Kutz said.
“Just think of the biblical story of Joseph.
There are similarities here. Jacob’s favored son was kidnapped too, by
his brothers, but Joseph had to go to a strange land without his father. Joseph
lost his past. Morad developed a second personality in Eilat. He could have
remained stuck. Joseph could have become an Egyptian, but when his
brothers appeared before him, he was brought back. Asad brought his own