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Island Dolphin Care Makes a Splash with Animal-Assisted Therapy

Many relocate to Florida for retirement; but for Deena and Peter Hoagland, the sunshine state offered a brighter future for work and wellness. Their son, Joe, was born with truncus arteriosus, a rare and often fatal congenital heart disease requiring multiple heart surgeries. “I moved my family to Key Largo in 1990 to take a job at a fish farm at the tip of the Everglades because we were desperate for a paycheck and insurance. Joe was born in Colorado, and after his open heart surgery we had to move to sea level [as high altitudes can strain the lungs and heart] and we choose Florida,” Peter explained.

During a surgery, Joe suffered a devastating stroke. The Hoagland’s were told that their 3-year-old son would never recuperate. However, Deena, a licensed clinical social worker, was determined to enhance Joe’s recovery and quality of life. Joe wasn’t responding to traditional therapies and so, because he loved the water, Deenatook him to Dolphins Plus, a recreational marine mammal encounter facility. “A dolphin named Fonzie popped up in front of Joe and he laughed for the first time since his stroke,” Peter recalls. Thanks to that miraculous moment, Dolphins Plus allowed Deena to use their facility for Joe’s aquatic and dolphin-assisted therapies which quickly proved to be effective. She expanded her effort to other children with special needs and eventually, in 1997, founded Island Dolphin Care. Deena serves as Executive Director and Peter as Program Manager, along with a team of zoological experts, veterinarians, therapists and educators.

Island Dolphin Care is a nonprofit providing uniquely motivational dolphin-assisted therapy programs for hundreds of children and adults with diverse special needs or illnesses and their families. “When you come close to these animals, you know you are close to something amazing and something extraordinary,” Deena said. The Autism Society says that animal therapy, including swimming with dolphins, can “provide soothing sensory stimulation, a point of focus and opportunities to learn about behavior and communication.” The Autism Society says dolphin therapy was first used in the 1970s by psychologist David Nathanson, who believed interactions with dolphins improved a child’s attention and cognition. Island Dolphin Care does not claim to have cure-all dolphins but rather trained therapists working with eight dolphins that enhance opportunities for positive communication and self-esteem through fun and motivating experiences.

“When you come close to these animals, you know you are close tosomething amazing and something extraordinary.” – Deena Hoagland

Island Dolphin Care offers individual/family programs and group programs in partnership with area hospitals. Customized sessions include a dedicated therapist for structured water play, classroom activities using adaptive tools and technologies, and other enjoyment (aquarium, picnic, etc.). “Our program is different than others because it includes the whole family in the process. That’s a large part of our success whereas most therapies ─ like speech, physical and occupational ─ have the child or veteran dropped off for [solo] services,” Peter said.

During an interview with the Today Show, Joe explained: “I know I can just jump in the water and they [the dolphins] will just accept me.” Realizing such a self-esteem boost could benefit many more individuals, Island Dolphin Care launched its Veteran’s Program in 2009 to present therapeutic experiences for wounded warriors and those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “A veteran and his family may not recognize each other because they are changed people [following combat]. So, when you are in this environment, everything troubling you tends to go to the back of your brain if you will. You exist in the moment because you have a 500-lb. dolphin in your face! Often a family finally sees their veteran laughing for the first time in years,” Peter describes.“If you can control your perspective, you can make a choice to regulate terrible memories to live more in the moment. It’s the most remarkable outcome that I never predicted when we started this company [in honor of my son].”

Now 30 years old, Joe is a happy, independent adult who, for years, worked with Peter on facility operations and maintenance. Recently, Joe took a job alongside the Zoological Director. “He started as a dolphin training trainee. I think he’s found his niche with a new career track,” shared Peter, who claims his son is a walking medical miracle following five open heart surgeries and countless cardiac catheterizations. “He is a hero and inspiration to us and hundreds of kids and families around the world!”

Thanks to contributions, Island Dolphin Care offers financial assistance and discounts to participating families. In September, the facility was significantly damaged by Hurricane Irma and, now more than ever, needs support. To aid the mission of Island Dolphin Care, attend the “I Do Care” fundraising gala on November 18, 2017; or donate at or (305) 451-5884.

Nancy DeVault
Nancy is the managing editor of AmeriDisability. She is an award-winning storyteller passionate about health and happiness.

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