Deena Hoagland: Island Dolphin Care

pete-and-deenaDeena and Peter Hoagland, originally from Colorado, relocated to Key Largo in 1990 for their son Joe. He was born with a heart condition that required several surgeries and the high altitude put too much stress on his lungs and heart. He had a stroke when he was just three years old that paralyzed his left side. He was having a really tough time and they knew the move was necessary if he was going to have any real hope for the future.
Peter found a job working at a fish farm just outside Florida City and Deena, who is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and teacher, took Joe to Dolphins Plus in Key Largo. He wasn’t responding to traditional therapy and she thought that doing some water activities might help.  Dolphins Plus offers the public a chance to swim with dolphins.
This is where Joe met Fonzie the dolphin and a great friendship began.

Fonzie motivated Joe to work his muscles and try new things.Joe recovered from his paralysis through a lot of hard work and inspiration from Fonzie.  When Deena saw how much the relationship between Joe and the dolphins helped him she thought this could also be done for others. That is how Island Dolphin Care came to be.

In 1997, Peter and Deena founded Island Dolphin Care, a not for profit  organization to assist children & adults with special needs, as well as veterans returning from war.
It provides special education, recreational programs and a marine science education to the general public. Their services reach individuals, families and students worldwide.
Island Dolphin Care is open Monday – Friday 8am -5pm. Deena explains, “We allow visitors to come by for a special tour  provided by Joe! We suggest calling in advance to make an appointment with him. Visitors can learn about our resident dolphins, learn from the many aquariums, educational and interactive exhibits in our lobby and stroll through our beautiful sensory garden. We are closed Saturdays and Sundays. We request all of our visitors to make a donation.

Island Dolphin Care is really a labor of love for her whole family and you can find all three of them there most of the time. The project became a family affair strangely enough because of a hurricane! Deena describes it best:
“Hurricane Andrew destroyed the fish farm where Pete was employed. He agreed to help me at IDC for a short period of time until he found another job that suited him.He agreed to help me for 6 months.Pete is still helping me today!  Island Dolphin Care has been a labor of love –. We do not own any part of IDC – we are employees and a board of Directors governs the organization. Pete manages the entire facility – this is a huge job caring for the grounds, and our student intern housing. Even though we work at the same place most days we do not see each other the entire day! We are both that busy!!

I am the director, fundraiser. People have referred to us as chief inspiration officers. I used to work in the water every day but since the economy has been a bit challenged I am working in the office more. I am always attempting to find the  funding needed. And in more recent years the funding challenge is greater than before. More families are also asking for our help!

Joe is now 25 years old. He is a miracle and our hero! He provides the best tour of island Dolphin Care! He knows so much about the dolphins! People love hearing his story and especially from him.”

“Joe helps us with every aspect of the daily operations of the organization. He is the happiest person I know!  Joe provides hope and encouragement to each and every one of our visitors.”

How can people help or get involved?

Island Dolphin Care depends on volunteers to assist us in providing tours, help during our marine science education programs, in the garden, gift shop and office. We have one big fundraiser each November. This year it is November 17th at Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill In Key Largo. Many volunteers help us with the fundraiser by collecting items and during the evening the night of the auction. Many local merchants and businesses donate items for our auction making it a huge success!  We would love for your readers to volunteer, donate items for the auction, and attend the auction in November. Tickets will be sold in the fall or can be purchased  in advance by calling our office. Of course we also are very grateful to accept monetary donations! All donations are tax deductible since we are a not for profit organization. I am hopeful that your readers will consider helping us so that we can continue to help others in need!
Most readers will know someone that needs our help. Recent reports released from the CDC indicate that one in 88 children are diagnosed with autism alone! This only accounts for one disability! I hope that your readers will learn about our great programs, go to our website for more information and refer their friends that need us.

Who was Fonzie?

Fonzie was a male adult dolphin. In 1990 he was the dolphin that assisted my son Joe in his recovery from a stroke that affected the left side of Joe’s body and his vision. It was through their extraordinary friendship (between Fonzie and Joe) that motivated and enabled Joe to find himself again . Through swimming and playing with Fonzie Joe regained his self esteem and use of the left side of his body. (More in depth info about Fonzie and Joe and the history of IDC can be found on their website, look for “Tribute to Fonzie”)After seeing the progress Joe was making, we founded Island Dolphin Care in order to help others like Joe and our family. It was through this relationship that we realized how Fonzie and the other dolphins might help others in similar situations. Being a clinical social worker and teacher, I utilized my professional education, the tools that I already had, and relationship with the dolphins to develop the unique program that exists today.Our dolphins have been providing recreational and educational programs since 1997. They work closely with therapists and their dolphin caregivers to provide motivational, recreational and educational programs to all program participants.” The staff at IDC currently care for six Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. You can find out their names and read about them on their dolphins page.

The science behind the therapy

“The techniques utilized in the therapy programs are all based on traditional methods utilized while teaching special education students. Traditional psychotherapeutic/counseling techniques are utilized to assist individuals while processing their personal challenges. We assist participants to increase the quality of spoken language or through the use of cutting edge assisted technology. Our programs assist individuals to increase the quality of familial relationships by providing more opportunities for positive communication, joy & fun experiences. Theoretically ones self-esteem will increase while participating in positive and joyful experiences. (for so many therapy is disheartening and not positive because it is so difficult and progress seems to take so long ) In contrast while at IDC participants forget they are at a therapy program because they are having so much fun! Thus opening the door to more opportunities for change. This new sense of motivation paired with the concepts of animal assisted therapy provides a unique and new way of therapy that addresses so many difficult issues in a fun and motivating way!”

How did the dolphins help Joe?

“Joe and Fonzie set the stage and example for this unique therapy. When I was able to see that he felt unconditionally accepted by the dolphins he was free to attempt new tasks with out the fear of judgment from people or the dolphins or his own sense of failure. This allowed Joe to stay motivated, to move his body, and while doing so increase his self esteem. He could experience success in performing new tasks (regaining the use of his left side) and each experience motivated him to try harder and to generalize his motivation to try to other settings outside of the water and with other people.”

“As a family the experience allowed us all to let go of our emotional response to his chronic and critical illness, – the burdens we felt and faced. We realized that therapy with Fonzie and his friends was fun, and that it enabled us all to feel a bit of joy again! When we began to laugh with the dolphins we also began to laugh more with each other. Experiencing the power of feeling fun again thus allowing us all to work harder at being a stronger family.

As editor of Island Jane and FishMonster Magazines it is my job to bring you the very best of the Florida Keys.
I am an avid diver, I love to kayak and paddleboard and I even like to fish a little bit 🙂
I love living in the Florida Keys and I hope I can share some of that with you.


  1. I would like to Email you (so you can attach a photograph and send it on to the Key Largo press corps) a press release about Deena Hoagland’s speaking to the Key Largo Book club on February 19 in the Community Room of the Key Largo Library at 7 p.m. Please send me Deena Hoagland’s Email address and I will send her the press release right away.

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