Dolphin-assisted therapy helps disabled children
A 350-pound dolphin named Matteo tickles a toddler with his snout, sparking a burst of giggles.
The disabled child hitches a ride on Matteo’s belly while gleeful parents snap photos. The dolphin expels water through its blowhole and rests its head gently on the girl’s shoulder while her parents silently plead for results.
It’s a scene Kirsten “Kiki” Kuhnert has watched thousands of times. She used to be one of those moms who prayed for miracles at the side of a dolphin therapy center pool, thinking: Maybe this will make my child talk. Maybe some day he’ll walk.
“I have seen kids speak their first word, mothers cry because their autistic son looked at her in the eye or kissed her,” Kuhnert said. “Every day a little miracle.
“How big a miracle is in the eye of the beholder.”
Kuhnert, a single mom from Key Biscayne, Fla., has dedicated the past 15 years of her life to raising funds for dolphin-assisted therapy, a controversial behavior-modification treatment for severely disabled children. Struck by tragedy as a young mother of a 2-year-old, the Germany native turned her heartbreak into a calling.
Convinced that swimming with the animals paired with intensive speech or physical therapy helps with autism, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy and other debilitating ailments, Kuhnert spends her days snapping orders at therapists and trouble-shooting emergencies at a therapy center at the Seaquarium in Willemstad, Curacao. She makes phone call after phone call raising money to get children to treatment, at $7,000 or more for just two weeks of care.
But, these days, she is hardly ever by the pool, rarely with the children. The memories of the son she lost sting too much.
A MOM’S MISSION
It was June 18, 1994. Kuhnert was the married mother of two kids from an upper-class family in Germany who made her living in sports event marketing.
That June day, the family had gathered at the country club to celebrate her infant daughter Kira’s christening, when suddenly they realized they had lost sight of Tim, Kuhnert’s 2-year-old.
“We looked for 15 minutes,” she remembers. “He was 15 yards away behind a hedge, in an unsecured swimming pool. This is where they found him. He was lifeless.”