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 credit: Amos Nachoum)
Dolphin therapy
(photo credit: 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 resort.
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 significantly.
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.
Kutz told 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 various disabilities.
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.
When Morad 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.
The proceeds will help the Jerusalem center’s many projects including psychological treatment of victims of war, terror and disease; frontline soldiers and immigrants from Ethiopia.
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.
“The highest 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 center does.”
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 lifeguard.
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.
Within 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 look returned.
“When he sees the dolphins,” said his father Asad, “Morad is alive.
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.
“Now we 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 dramatic change.”
Kutz traveled south to Eilat to see for himself.
“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 past.
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 life.”
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 told.
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.
“The dolphins 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 said.
“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 me.”
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 go home.
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 electromagnetic waves.”
Fortunately, it helped.
“Morad is able to talk about the trauma without shame or guilt,” said Kutz.
Three years 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.
Finally, at 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.”
A year 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 son back.”