Whole Living
It goes way beyond an affinity for cuddling. Experts at hospitals, detention centers, nursing homes, and schools are finding that not only dogs, but also donkeys and camels‑even pigs and chickens‑can have a profound effect on people in distress.
January/February 2013
Elizabeth Hess
Mary Ellen Mark

The Veteran
He's mostly retired from nursing-home duty, but 25-year-old Billy Boy regularly works with visitors at Blue Rider Stables, his home in South Egremont, Massachusetts.

Several years ago, my friend Robin Parow, a therapeutic riding instructor, invited me to accompany her donkey, named Billy Boy, on his rounds at a local nursing home in rural Massachusetts. Her enthusiasm led me to believe that Billy Boy's celebrity at this facility was unrivaled by the various golden retrievers and doodles playing the same circuit. I wasn't sure how her claim could be substantiated, but hyperbole or not, an invitation to do a therapy visit with a donkey could not be turned down. Dogs, or at least some dogs, are ideally suited to social work. But I wondered what a donkey might bring to the bedside that a canine couldn't.

When we arrived at the nursing home with Billy, a 35 inch high Sicilian donkey with large brown eyes and a set of seriously oversized ears, Parow had him on a lead and toted a satchel of bagel chips, apparently enough bait for an hour's work. The donkey descended from the van and made a beeline for the entrance of the building, as if he'd been visiting relatives in the place for years.

With obvious confidence, Billy walked through the front door and clopped across the linoleum floor to the Day Room, where his audience, mostly in wheelchairs, welcomed him with smiling faces and nods of recognition. It wasn't an ambulatory crowd, so no one stood up to rush him. Instead, Billy walked around the room, greeting folks one by one, offering them the chance to stroke his soft, pearly nose. Feeding him chips as they chatted with Parow, the residents became visibly more animated. When there's a donkey in the room, it's virtually impossible to be gloomy.

The Flirt
Sherman, a Vietnamese potbellied pig, isn't shy about smooching with his owner, Priscilla Merta, or with any of the residents at Broadway House, a treatment center for HIV/AIDS patients in Newark, New Jersey.

Here's the moment I remember best: After spending some time with this group, Billy went on to make bedside visits. I watched him stop at one bed, lift his head over a hospital rail to greet a sleeping woman, and then snort, as if to wake her up. Instead of having a heart attack, which I half-expected, the woman sat bolt upright, her long gray hair flowing around her ancient face, her eyes wide open with delight. She began to scratch the donkey's neck in exactly the right place, and Billy turned to mush in her hands. After Billy and Parow had left the room, I remained a few minutes to chat. "You know donkeys," I suggested. The woman began to tear up. "My husband was a veterinarian, and we had a few," she said. "They were always my favorites in the barn.” She had not seen one, let alone touched one, in the 15 years since she'd sold the place after her husband's death. Together, we laughed about Billy's sweet, barnyard smell, a trace of which he had left behind.

I don't know exactly what happened at the nursing home that day, but I do know that something quite out of the ordinary‑and wonderful‑occurred. "I'm just the conduit," Parow told me. "I hold the rope and Billy works the room.”

Billy is not just any donkey. Originally acquired at 5 years old (for $500 at an auction in Massachusetts), he immediately demonstrated his genuine affection for people. In 1997 he became the first equine to be registered by the Delta Society (now called Pet Partners) for pet therapy. Parow believes that his trainability and love for humans made him an ideal candidate for therapy work. The two of them trained together for a year before Billy passed a daunting test to become Parow's certified partner. Pet Partners, unique among national therapy organizations, recognizes the ability and value of multiple species, not just dogs, in this growing field. To qualify, Billy had to walk through a crowd of strangers, respond appropriately to commands such as "come" and "stay," and remain calm if someone tried to mount him or push him around. He aced the test and worked with Parow for more than two years. (Pet Partners retests each human-animal team every two years‑and offers them liability insurance.) Today, at the ripe old age of 25, Billy no longer makes therapy visits, but he enjoys life at Blue Rider Stables, in South Egremont, Massachusetts, where he works with his owner, Christine Sierau, to welcome visitors of all ages for therapy sessions. My guess is that he likes the occasional work.

For centuries, psychologists, physicians, and nurses, including Sigmund Freud and Florence Nightingale, have noted the healing effect of animals on humans. Never thoroughly explored or given much credence, their observations still have not made it into the annals of medical history. Today, however, the phrase therapy animal has made it into the vernacular, and it is widely recognized that animals, most commonly dogs, make people feel better in all kinds of subtle, difficult-to-prove ways. As a result, skeptics abound, and the task before advocates and practitioners of "animal therapy" is not only to clarify precisely what happens when a human and animal bond, but also to prove that whatever is happening benefits the patient and does not harm the animal.

Preliminary, small studies indicate that dogs can lower our blood pressure, decrease stress, calm victims of trauma, elevate mood, increase self-esteem, and decrease antisocial behavior. Several studies on adolescents argue for placing dogs in the classroom, where they have been shown to decrease the amount of aggression displayed by the children and subsequently the number of behavioral problems. Dogs, rather than donkeys, have become the therapy animal of choice largely because there are approximately 70 million of them in our homes‑and the vast majority are willing participants in almost any activity. But the pioneering work in animal therapy is hardly exclusive to man's best friend.

"As we get specific about what the client needs, that's when we should begin to search for an appropriate animal," says Stephanie LaFarge, a psychologist with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and a member of the Pet Partners board. "Any institution involved in healing, theoretically, should have a range of types of animals available to match up with the client." We are a long way from hospitals offering a choice of a dog or cat to keep us company when we wake up from surgery, but the 11,000 human‑animal teams registered to work by Pet Partners include a stunning variety of critters, most of whom the majority of people would assume belong in barns or up in trees‑not in hospitals. Billy Boy opened my mind to other species, but when I heard about a potbellied pig making rounds at a residence for people with HIV and AIDS, I thought I should meet that pig. Pigs might be as smart as dogs, but they're still pigs. This, I had to see.

Sherman is a stout Vietnamese potbellied pig who weighs 110 pounds and is 10 years old. He is about 18 inches tall and has a wiry coat that feels just a little softer than a Brillo pad. At one point during the 1990s, pigs had become such popular pets that they began showing up in animal shelters, placed in kennels right next to the dogs. People brought home cute little piglets, about the size of pugs, who eventually grew to be large pigs and were subsequently discarded. But Vietnamese potbellied pigs in particular are known for their intelligence and willingness to bond with humans. Sherman lives in the suburbs of New Jersey with his owner and handler, Priscilla Merta. He is treated as a respected member of the family, and Merta's neighbors are used to seeing pigs, rather than children, playing in her yard before they go into the house for dinner. "I built him a ramp so he could climb into bed next to me,” she says with a laugh. For a while, she had two pigs in her bed at night, but Sammy, a gift from her late fiancé, recently died of old age.

Merta and Sherman have been visiting Newark's Broadway House, New Jersey's only residential treatment center for HIV/AIDS patients, for more than five years. This fact alone is a testimony to the success of their visits. As Dorothy Gooden, an extracurricular-activities assistant at Broadway House, tells me, "Sherman gets people here incredibly excited." As Merta puts it, "Meeting Sherman is a completely unique experience, and residents respond positively to his presence.”

I arrive at Broadway House just as Merta and Sherman are getting out of a truck. Merta is an attractive 40-year-old with an earthy, sunny demeanor. "Meet Sherman," she says, introducing me to a short, squat, round creature with a cute wet nose. "He's got to pee before we go inside," she adds with a look of slight desperation. Broadway House, originally a 19th‑century bank, is a splendid architectural structure surrounded by the disarray of a neighborhood in decline. A few residents are hanging around the door, anticipating Sherman's arrival. "There's that pig,” shouts a young woman, maybe 30, alerting the others. "Love to put that pig on a grill today," says her buddy, as he rolls down a ramp in a wheelchair to greet Merta and Sherman. Merta, ready for anything, shouts, "He's too old! Not tender enough!" Then she walks up to the fellow so he can give Sherman a pat on the head and a handful of animal crackers, which Merta provides. The gentleman feeds Sherman a few, and then eats the rest himself.

Sherman enters the building at a steady but slow pace. He suffers from arthritis, so Merta doesn't push him to hurry. His short legs carry a heavy load as he chugs along, sniffing and snorting, giving kisses to anyone who wants one. Like E.B. White's Wilbur, Sherman is "some pig."

Residents stream out of their rooms and gather in the hallway to see him march by, as Merta steers, cajoles, and humors her colleague by feeding him mouthfuls of motivating treats. But food seems way beside the point. Sherman is overtly sensitive to the scene, navigating his way through a maze of sick, depressed people, avoiding some and approaching others. He even makes a wide circle around one man who gives off a slightly threatening vibe. "He's intuitive about people," Merta says quietly to me.

Like Billy, Sherman is trained to visit bedridden residents in their rooms, but he's so short that people have to get out of bed to get close enough to touch him. When they do, the staff is genuinely pleased. Merta continually instructs Sherman to offer kisses, and when he gets the chance to deliver, observers launch into laughter, applause, and shouts of "You kissed a pig!"

This is the routine, and it works well enough to get a good percentage of the residents out of bed and out of their rooms. Like a carny trying to attract people to a show, Merta enters an empty, cavernous hall and shouts, "Come on out and see Sherman! Or he'll be disappointed!" A few come around to pat the pig and set off a new round of barbecue jokes. Merta, with the patience of a saint, laughs them off, supplying her own one‑liners: "If you've got the eggs, I've got the ham." A contagious laughter lights up the dim halls.

The line between therapy and entertainment is thin and occasionally hard to see at all. But there's no denying that animal-human teams around the country are doing "therapy"; that is, they are helping people feel better. "It's called therapy if there's a therapist with a treatment program in the room," says the ASPCA's LaFarge, who believes that it is invariably the animal, not the therapist, who is the key player. Others disagree. Tanya Bailey, a social worker who teaches at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, argues that the public is confused about who is a therapist and who is not. She fears that "the term therapy animal is misleading." It does suggest that the animals themselves are doing therapy. On the face of it, that sounds crazy. But after making rounds with Sherman, I'm not so sure.

In an attempt to inform the public, Pet Partners tries to distinguish the work done by ordinary folks from the work done by professionals. "Animal-assisted activities" (AAA) are those performed by anyone with a trained, tested, and registered animal. "Animal-assisted therapy" (AAT) is a term for professionals who are integrating animals into their treatment practices. LaFarge believes that the future success of both AAA and AAT will be determined by hard data collected during these visits. Regardless of who handles the animal, she insists, empirical evidence will be "the only way to accurately measure success."

"The work we are all doing with animals is, on some level, therapeutic," says Bailey. "But not always is it therapy." She works with adults and adolescents, who are especially responsive to AAI, or "animal‑assisted interactions," as they are called by Bailey and the university, and she integrates a variety of species into her practice, depending on the needs of her clients. Bailey has chickens, llamas, goats, and horses at her disposal, all of whom she believes can bring withdrawn, closed-down teenagers out of themselves. A stickler for language, Bailey clarifies, "I don't use animals. They are my partners."

One of her current partners is a chicken - a Silkie, to be precise, named Woodstock. According to Bailey, Woodstock is uniquely suited to work with teenage clients, but Bailey determines her schedule based on Woodstock's behavior and attitude. At first, I had no idea what to think about Woodstock. Why would any client want to get close to a chicken when more fuzzy alternatives abound? Turns out, I had a lot to learn about chickens.

Bailey discovered Woodstock's sensitivity to humans serendipitously, which is how their partnership began. Hatched at Bailey's home with a number of other chicks, Woodstock chose to bond with her owner by following Bailey around the yard, not unlike a new puppy. "I have two or three other chickens who are curious about me as a human being because I feed them," Bailey explains. "But they have no interest in hanging out with me or accompanying me to AAI sessions." Woodstock, on the other hand, began separating herself from the rest of the flock to spend time with Bailey. “At the end of the day, Woodstock is a chicken," Bailey points out. She sleeps in the coop, not in Bailey's bed. But from the beginning, Woodstock was so outgoing with people that Bailey began clicker-training her for potential therapy work. Woodstock comes when called, jumps onto chairs, climbs into a basket, and will ring a bell on command. "I could have trained her to do all kinds of tricks," the therapist admits, "but I don't want her to be entertainment. She's a sentient being, with her own preferences."

The Stalwart
Samantha the pit bull gets cozy with Xander Pattison and Emma Edgar, students at the Glenmont School, in upstate New York.

Over the course of their therapy, Bailey's clients have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the whole flock in the coop. "They learn about pecking order, group dynamics, conflict resolution in the flock,” she says. "These are lessons that are not lost on kids with family issues and disruptive childhoods.” But forging a physical relationship with any hen requires trust on both sides; if Woodstock senses something's wrong and becomes frightened, it's over. Bailey is always present and vigilant, watching out for Woodstock as well as her clients. Those who choose to become involved with Woodstock go through an elaborate, step-by-step process to learn about chickens, how to handle them and how to communicate with them. (According to Bailey, most kids have no idea where eggs come from exactly, and they are shocked when they find out.) "When the clients are respectful, Woodstock gets comfortable, and they earn the privilege of holding her in her basket," Bailey explains. In the end, learning about and negotiating Woodstock's routine offers Bailey's clients a chance to set boundaries and construct a positive relationship, with clear rules and rewards. Winning over Woodstock offers a personal sense of accomplishment as well. "They're really pleased,” says Bailey. "They've done here exactly what they need to do in the outside world."

Occasionally the therapeutic process is not a smooth one. One afternoon, a client of Bailey's slowly put her hands around Woodstock's neck and asked the therapist what she would do if she were to strangle the bird. "It was all I could do not to react in a quick manner,” says Bailey, who remained calm, kept eye contact with the client, and replied, "I hear the question, and it's not a discussion we are going to have.” Then she slowly took the basket holding Woodstock away from the client, and no harm was done. But Bailey never gave that client access to an animal again because "she had crossed a line of safety that was non-negotiable." Lines must be drawn to protect the pet partners, of course, but given that young people have a natural affinity for animals, AAA and AAT seem particularly well-suited to their needs. The therapeutic effect of deeply knowing an animal - an uncharted relationship that we are only beginning to understand - is the cornerstone of a unique curriculum at Green Chimneys, a school, farm, and wildlife center in Brewster, New York, for a range of troubled children. The founder and original headmaster, Samuel Ross, who also served as executive director for 50 years, believes that by immersing children in nature, he can help to assuage their traumas while also providing a good education. A pioneer in this field, Ross wants the kids to identify with the animals who live at Green Chimneys. "They don't just learn about animals here," he tells me. "They live with them. The animals are part of the environment." Some of the staff will also occasionally bring their dogs to work. "The students love it," says Kate Bernstein, a social worker on staff. But her autistic students aren't just interested in the dogs; they want to spend time with the horses and ponies, too. Bernstein often holds sessions in the barn, where her students can interact with the various equines in residence. "The autistic children read the horses' body language and vice versa," she says. Eventually, the child might learn to ride the horse, but a walk on a long lead, or time spent grooming the animal, can sometimes be enough. "They learn to empathize with the animal," Bernstein explains. This ability, she hopes, will translate to their fellow human beings.

The day I visit Green Chimneys, everyone is excited about two Bactrian camels, Sage and Phoenix, who have been given to the school and are to be integrated into the curriculum. Bactrian camels have two humps instead of one, unlike the more common dromedaries. But they're still camels, and they don't exactly fit into the school's barnyard. As it turns out, Michael Kaufmann, in charge of the school's menagerie, sought out these camels after attending a conference in Europe where he learned of their particular value to children with emotional needs. Camels, apparently, are unusually calm creatures who bond intensely with their keepers. "We have children who are reluctant to get involved in anything new," says Kaufmann. "Yet they are not put off by the camels, who sit quietly while they are approached and can be stroked and fed."

The Exotic
Trainer Samantha Hough confers with Phoenix, one of two recent humped additions to the Green Chimneys School, in Brewster,New York.

Not every camel would be so pleasantly manageable or able to adjust to life in New York State. Sage and Phoenix were born at Sacred Camel Gardens, a religious retreat north of San Francisco, where they were members of a small herd managed by a caretaker who transported the camels across the country himself, remained at the school for several days to acclimate them, and taught school staff how to care for the animals' specific needs. Sage and Phoenix were selected for Green Chimneys because, thus far, they are a gregarious, relaxed duo despite all the activity around them.

As to whether they are appropriate as therapy animals, I can only report that the children and their teachers are transfixed by their sweet natures and mysterious humps. Who wouldn't be? Incredibly beguiling with their wide grins, the camels offer lessons in geography, history, and animal welfare. In one class I observe, the children talk about the animals with the excitement of having discovered a new planet. The challenge of communicating with Sage and Phoenix is entirely new territory for Green Chimneys students, and the complex question of whether the animals belong in Central Asia, rather than in a barnyard (and of whether they've turned the Green Chimneys barnyard into a zoo), will likely inspire more discussion at the school.

Meanwhile, the addition of Sage and Phoenix to Green Chimneys can only deepen debates on the roles animals are assuming in education and therapy. Camels, more so than dogs - or even potbellied pigs - raise the question, Which animals are appropriate for therapy work? Pet Partners refuses to register exotic animals (lions, tigers, and bears, for example), but it does consider birds, small mammals, reptiles, and a variety of livestock.

Personally, should I ever be incarcerated, hospitalized, or stranded on a deserted island, I hope to be accompanied by a dog. The field of therapy animals is populated with thousands of exceptional dogs who pay back the human race with unstinting service. Therapy Dogs International (TDI), founded in England in 1977, lists 24,000 people who have trained their dogs for this work ‑ the largest such registry in the world. Its members include Bonnie Kelleher and her dog Samantha, a local canine star in upstate New York. Kelleher, a postal clerk in Albany, works the night shift, sorting mail; her days are spent training her dogs for agility championships and therapy visits.

Kelleher first saw Samantha five years ago in a shelter. Slightly withdrawn, Samantha is the kind of dog that is usually put on the fast track for euthanasia. A black pit bull, not too large, not too small, with a painterly white stripe down her nose, she has a generic look that renders her virtually invisible. It takes a dog lover - someone who registers the individuality of a dog - to even notice her in a room. Kelleher and Cydney Cross, president of Out of the Pits (OOTP), a rescue group in the Albany area, have been saving pit bulls for a combined 30 years. Cross picked up Samantha from death row and had her listed for adoption on the OOTP web page for more than a year. The dog was taken to adoption clinics; Kelleher handled Samantha and leash walked her whenever time allowed. But not one adopter ever expressed interest. Finally, Kelleher took her home. "I just couldn't watch her sitting in a kennel all alone any longer," she says.

Samantha is like a superb, undervalued wine. She opens up slowly, but when she does, her charm and energy can fill a room. After I watch her fly effortlessly through an agility trial one week, winning a blue ribbon, I follow her to a prison for juvenile offenders who have committed violent felonies. Kelleher and Samantha are regular visitors here, along with several other therapy dogs.

As we wait in the prison gym for the young women to arrive, Samantha sits quietly by Kelleher's side, getting ready to focus. Five handlers and their five registered therapy dogs, including Cydney Cross and her dog, Grace, a one-eared pit bull rescued from a Poughkeepsie drug raid, make frequent appearances in this prison. The girls come bursting into the gym to see "their" dogs, hug them, kiss them, and just be near them for one afternoon a month. Good behavior has earned them all, ages 11 to 21, the right to participate in this coveted canine activity. Kelleher instructs Samantha to run around the gym chasing a soccer ball, off leash, and several inmates leap to their feet to join in; Samantha, thin and muscular, retrieves the ball, over and over, leaps through a hoop to amuse the girls, and jogs with them, filling an hour with contagious doggy joy.

When Samantha takes a break to rest, Kelleher points her forefinger and thumb at the dog, mimicking a gun, and shouts, "Bang! You're dead!" To everyone's great amusement, Samantha falls down and rolls onto her side, immobile, until Kelleher brings her back to life. Laughter bounces off the gym walls.

When I ask Dominic Bucci, the enthusiastic young man in charge of recreation at the juvenile prison, what exactly these dogs do for the inmates, he looks at me like I'm a moron. Then he answers. "These girls build walls around themselves when they get here,” he says. "The dogs crack through. They bring the girls... home."

Once again, the animals transform the dreary space around them and make everyone in the room feel so much better. Explaining how they do this just doesn't feel necessary.