During World War II combat in New Guinea, Corporal William Wynne found an abandoned Yorkshire terrier who he named Smokey. Later, when the serviceman was ill in the hospital, his fellow soldiers brought Smokey to him, cheering Wynne up as well as the other injured soldiers in the hospital. One of the first known cases of animal therapy, Smokey brought joy to people in need for 12 more years. Stories like this and my own initial interactions with elephants, camels, bats and monkeys at the zoo inspired me to start my own animal therapy and activities program, where groups or individuals can interact with creatures of all different types up close and personal.
Smokey the terrier was not alone in his ability to heal; the effects that therapy animals have on people are truly remarkable and are well-documented. One day I brought in a kangaroo I had rescued to visit residents of the Rekai Center nursing home. Many excitedly awaited her arrival in the activities room and each was given a chance to feed, hold, stroke, and even kiss Gabby the “roo.” We even went from room to room so that residents who were bedridden were able to enjoy the interaction. Many years later, residents still fondly remember that day and smile as they point to pictures posted on the walls in their rooms. Gabby remembers that day too – after all she got her ears rubbed and ate three heads of broccoli and a carrot!
Interactions with animals open up new pathways in the brain and help reduce cortisol levels—a major stress hormone involved in almost every ailment. Providing simple things like laughter or a feeling of love through an animal brings warmth to individuals who need it more than ever. Often when visiting long-term care facilities, I’ve seen a simple song whistled to a resident by a friendly parrot bring tears to their eyes. I have seen residents who haven’t responded to stimuli in days or weeks begin to talk and interact with the animals – like an 80-year-old Chinese lady who spoke no English who wrapped an anaconda around her neck and motioned for me to take her picture.
Animal therapy can be used in other ways that don’t directly involve health-promotion. Introducing an animal to a child is a great way to teach empathy and educate them on the need to protect our world for future generations. In fact, when working with young adults with different backgrounds and abilities, animal therapy is an amazing way for them to open up and share past experiences. The animals offer an environment of non-judgment, allowing for freedom of expression and, of course, smiles.
While animal therapy is a wonderful thing for the people who get the chance to experience it, people often ask me if the same can be said for the animal. All of the animals I work with have been adopted and were not bred for me or snatched from the wild. I’m often asked whether they enjoy being taken from their flights or enclosures to be “ooohed” and “awwwed” at by strangers. They absolutely love it. I know this because all of my team is trained using positive reinforcement— cueing a trick and rewarding with a treat. When doing these sorts of programs we often don’t even crack open the treat bag because the animals love the interaction just as much as the client. Their positive reinforcement is the laughter and cheers of children, or the clapping of a group of young men or the tummy rubs given at the long-term care facilities – and of course the occasional peanut slipped to them by Miss Evalene at the Rekai Centre.