Animal Partners–Healing People and Our World
by Carol Marriott
If you have ever found yourself loved by an animal, or have ever loved one, you have already experienced the ministry of animals. You may have also experienced that this love can be healing and redemptive—you may also have experienced it as painful and sad. But many of you reading can bear witness to the power of our relationships with animals, and how that power has transformed us, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
—Elizabeth Teal, Ministry of Animals
Animals are proven to have substantial, meaningful, and positive healing effects on people, and are engaged in a myriad of activities benefiting human emotional, spiritual, and physical health.
According to Dr. Allen Schoen, author of Kindred Spirits, if we combined all the benefits that we receive from animals in a pill, it would be the most powerful pill known to man!
I was visiting a friend in Manitoba one weekend and during a family gathering I met her elderly and very frail, wheelchair-bound father. He was a long-retired farmer—you know, the tough-as-nails type with an “animals are only worth anything if you can work them or eat them” kind of attitude. Understanding that this attitude can be the result of upbringing, culture, economic environment, or a fear of animals, I thought I would try an experiment! I picked up a tiny 6-week-old kitten from a family of cats living on the acreage where the party was being held and I brought this tiny ball of fur to my friend’s father. I showed him the kitten and he opened his arms to it, so I placed it gently on his lap as he sat in his wheelchair. The look on his face was pure joy. His eyes lit up brightly and tears sprang forth. This kitten touched a place in his heart so deeply hidden and protected that his emotional reaction took my friend and her family by surprise. Never before had they witnessed this soft place in his heart.
Today animals are playing an increasing and significant role in healing, counselling, coaching, and therapy. Animals are proven to have substantial, meaningful, and positive healing effects on people, and are engaged in a myriad of activities benefiting human emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Some of these ways include an array of animal-assisted therapies with dogs, cats, horses, and other animals; the use of service animals for people with disabilities; crisis intervention; education; grief support; complementary medicine; patient care; and companionship in care homes, hospices, and other assisted-living facilities. People dealing with depression, autism, anxiety, grief, and loneliness can all benefit enormously from the unconditional love, intuitive nature, and open hearts of animals.
A powerful, moving, and effective model of rehabilitation is growing in prisons and correction facilities world wide. In programs like A New Leash on Life, Pathways to Hope, Puppies Behind Bars, and Second Chance Partnership, inmates have an opportunity to learn new skills, to give and receive love and compassion, and to bear responsibility—qualities that can be developed from working with dogs, horses, and other companion animals, and attributes that will help them heal and integrate when released.
The payoff is reciprocal. The dog, cat, or horse becomes more adoptable. Some lucky person gets a chance to take in a companion animal who, under other circumstances, may have been one more sad story, unwanted, or unadoptable. Inmates are also contributing substantially to the vital training of service animals for people with disabilities.
In emergency response to Hurricane Katrina, The Humane Society of the United States was desperate to find new quarters for 160 dogs and 40 birds, the overflow from an increasingly crowded temporary shelter at Gonzalez, Louisiana. Thanks to the willingness of a warden at the Dixon Correctional Institute, the animals found comfortable shelter in a huge concrete dairy barn on the prison grounds. Inmate volunteers were trained by veterinarians and animal behaviourists in the care and handling of the refugee dogs and birds. Runs and cages were built and cleaned; sick and frightened animals were treated and calmed; the unexpected prison guests were fed, watered, and played with, and the spirits of animals and inmates rose!
The many stories of healing and positive changes in the hearts and attitudes of inmates involved in the various animal rehabilitation programs is profound. A female inmate at a prison in Jackson, Louisiana (that also provided shelter for rescued cats and kittens from the hurricane-affected areas) immediately connected with Scarlett, a kitten so traumatized she wouldn’t let anyone touch her. After months of love and patience, Scarlett began trusting her, and now the two often cuddle up together. “When I look at her, I see that after all this time, I’m not so wild anymore—and she’s not so wild anymore,” she said.
The following story suggests that the healing benefit of animal-assisted therapy can be so simple to implement, yet have incredibly powerful results.
Lim Hong-aun was severely depressed. A schizophrenic in his mid-40s, he had spent almost half his life in mental hostels in Singapore and Malaysia. Living in a hostel in Ipoh, he barely spoke to anyone and spent long periods lying in his room.
Then Dr. M. Mahadevan, newly appointed head of Lim’s hostel, decided that many of his patients would benefit from visiting his neighbouring horse farm. Caring for horses, the doctor reasoned, might help long-institutionalized patients open up and interact with the outside world.
Lim was initially reluctant to leave the hostel, let alone go near horses. But with encouragement from the hostel staff he began grooming, watering, and walking the animals. Before long, Lim started talking to the horses, telling them his troubles. He would smile when a horse nudged him for more food or acknowledged his presence with a whinny. Gradually, the contact with the animals encouraged Lim to open up to people. For the first time he started talking to staff at the hostel.
Lim eventually moved to a nearby halfway house, where he continued to receive care but was free to come and go, then took a job helping to run Mahadevan’s home in Kuala Lumpur. “Hong-aun’s life has improved dramatically,” Mahadevan says. “There’s no question the horses brought him out of his withdrawn state.”
The deep resonance we experience in nature and with animals can comfort and heal our despair, open our hearts to compassion, and lead us on a path towards balance and wholeness in our world.
Well-known author, veterinarian, and animal advocate, Dr. Michael Fox says that “Each of us can be a part of the healing of humanity’s relationship with animals. Every time we feel an outpouring of love for an animal, or perform some small kindness toward them, we can offer up that love and kindness to the spirit of all animals. When we catch a glimpse of a beautiful wild creature, we can take time to thank it for its magnificence and for gracing our life in that moment. Our thanks will be received by the animal and our love transmitted to all others of its species and the entire over-soul of animals, as well. Each day we can offer deep appreciation to our own animal companions for their presence in our lives.”
Carol Marriott is a Certified Equine-Assisted Learning facilitator and the “Herd Boss” at Ravenheart Farms Equine-Assisted Learning & Retreat Centre near Humboldt, SK. Her background includes a life-long passion for horses, organizational leadership, human resources, management, and program development. Her vision is to inspire people to realize their greatness, connect with their hearts, guide them in discovery of their true nature, and provide a place of healing, play, and spiritual awakening through horse wisdom, creativity, and nature. For more information, additional workshop dates and/or private sessions, and registration call (306) 682-4641, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.ravenheartfarms.com, and also see the colour display ad on page 43 of the 14.3 September/October issue of the WHOLifE Journal.