Moments That Matter – Island Dolphin Care

The moment the nurse put the stethoscope on their newborn son’s chest, Deena and Peter Hoagland knew something was wrong. Three years and three open heart surgeries later, Joe lay on the hospital bed unresponsive.

During surgery, Joe had a complete right hemisphere stroke, and the doctors said he would never recover. But Joe’s parents refused to lose hope and took their son home. After making little progress with speech and physical therapy, Deena had an unorthodox idea that led her and Joe to a dock at a local dolphin center.

When a dolphin named Fonzie poked his head out of the water to look at Joe, something amazing happened. Joe giggled. “I was overwhelmed at that moment,” Deena says, “because I had not heard that giggle for a long time.”

The dolphin center didn’t have a therapy program, but after seeing Deena’s desperation, followed by her tears of joy, they opened the doors for her and Joe to visit whenever they could. That moment, and that dolphin, changed their lives forever. Joe made incredible progress with every visit, and the Hoaglands knew countless other lives could be changed for the better, too.

The Hoaglands used their experience to create a unique form of animal-assisted therapy and opened Island Dolphin Care in 1997. The not-for-profit organization has since grown and helped thousands of families, veterans, and other individuals facing challenges. Joe has also grown and is an active dolphin trainer at IDC to this day.

Island Dolphin Care offers multiple therapy programs for autism, developmental disabilities, veterans, and customized group and family programs. Their 5-day therapy program is the most popular, but all programs are designed to bring hope and a new outlook for the journey ahead of their clients.

Photo Credit: / Instagram – @nadajonesphotography

Deena recently retired, but her vision remains intact, and her passion is reflected in every team member’s dedication. Luke Bullen, previously the Director of Zoology, was voted in to take her place as Executive Director.

Like Joe, Luke experienced a life-changing moment over a decade ago that led him to the dolphins’ docks. Growing up outside of London, Luke had always been fascinated by dolphins but, due to geographic limitations, had turned to horses instead.

He became a competitive show jumper and had his own business, but bouts of mental health issues with him and his family took a toll. Then, a family member asked Luke a simple question that changed his life: “What do you want to do?”

In that moment, Luke knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to work with dolphins. So, he took a 3-month internship in Key Largo, expecting to reevaluate his life and return home as a changed man. He did reevaluate and did become a changed man, but he never returned home.

The dolphins improved his life and gave him hope, just like they do for all their clients. Yes, their clients, because dolphins carry the title of co-therapists at Island Dolphin Care.

Joe Hoagland left, Luke Bullen right Photo Credit: / Instagram – @nadajonesphotography

As co-therapists, the dolphins were aware of the changes the pandemic forced on IDC. Since many of their clients are immuno-compromised and many come from abroad, IDC had to stop their programs during the pandemic. They restarted this past summer, and the team and dolphins couldn’t be happier.

“We go to work with the intention of making a difference in the world,” Luke says, “and we can’t do that without our clients. It’s clear the dolphins feel the same way based on how noticeably excited they were when clients returned.”

Luke and the IDC team hope their programs are fully recovered by Spring, but they rely on grants and the generosity of donors and volunteers to make it happen. To learn how you can help, visit

-Jerrica Mah is a writer, Army wife, and freelance book editor who loves to travel vicariously through stories.

– Photo’s provided by: / Instagram – @nadajonesphotography


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