Healing Touch of Animals

BlogArticlesHealing Touch of Animals

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R.I.P. Harvey, was our resident and first pet at Sobriety Home and a “cuddly member” of our Clinical Team for four years.

It has been long believed that animals have a healing effect upon humans. In recent years, this theory has been proven true as witnessed by those that receive comfort, calmness and sense of purpose from their pets. Several facilities across the country incorporate animals into their therapeutic regimens. This is the story of one place the Gentle Barn, located in Santa Clarita, California. The facility is successful in rescuing abused animals and letting them interact with young people with emotional or physical challenges. The effect is a simultaneous start of the healing process for the both young person and the animal.

One young lady felt life was not worth living before coming to the facility. She suffered from depression as well as eating disorders; which eventually led to an attempt on her own life. Today, at 21, she is a volunteer at Gentle Barn who loves to tell her story. She is especially fond of Sophie, a goat that the facility rescued from a petting zoo. The young lady reads books to Sophie a few days each week. She says Sophie prefers to hear best sellers such as The Hunger Games. Sophie indicates her preferences by trying to eat books she doesn’t like, such as Animal Liberation.  Sophie is credited with providing the hope that led to her recovery and the desire to live. She is quoted as saying that the love exchanged between she and the animal was the emotion that she felt had was missing in her life. In fact, she says that Sophie’s companionship is what has kept her alive.

The Gentle Barn is the realization of a childhood dream for the founder, Ellie Weiner. It was from her own abusive childhood that she learned firsthand the healing power animals can bring. Throughout this troubled time she would bring home animals that had no home or were injured. She credits the animals for saving and healing her. Soon she realized that animals could do the same for others. She opened the Gentle Barn in 1999 and began several programs for youth at risk that were referred by family and children’s services in the area. The pastoral setting is a place where troubled gang members and abused or drug addicted young people can participate in peaceful activities such as feeding or simply touching animals. Ms. Warner and her husband share the animals’ history of abuse and recovery with the youth before they meet the animals.

According to one Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services administrator, this part of the process is crucial in order to effectively reach troubled children. Hearing the stories about the recovery of animals that suffered horrific abuse teaches them to trust and love again. It provides hope for their own futures that people will love them. The administrator, Jamie Lynn Cantor, has brought foster children to the Gentle Barn for the past several years. She has seen firsthand how young people relate to the experiences of the animals and the lessons they learn. One miniature pony at the facility was rescued from brutal beatings by an alcoholic former owner. The pony, named Bonsai, shows a particular fondness for special needs children. Ms. Cantor has witnessed several children identify with the pony because of their own abusive experiences. However, they also get the message that the pony learned to trust again after a few years.

As opposed to traditional therapy, the facility does not employ rules or probing as a course of treatment. Ms. Cantor recalls an experience with a sexually abused boy who was very withdrawn. The boy became friends with Biscuit, an enormous pig at the facility. When he first saw the pig he began to open up and then lay next to Biscuit for two hours. During this time he hugged and talked to the pig. By the time he left he was smiling and had received a measure of healing. Ms. Cantor is in the processing of compiling a survey entitled “Healing Youth Through Animals”. The results of the survey thus far reflect that there is a significant improvement in the self esteem and happiness of youth that have one visit to the facility. Further, the visit results in a decrease in anger, hopelessness, anxiety, loneliness and depression after one visit.

Another example of the effect of animals on young people is provided by Don McCollister, a director at a facility in Woodland Hills, California that treats teenage males on probation. Most of the residents of the facility are gang members who are facing choices that have major consequences on their lives. Depending on their decisions, it is possible they can end up in prison for the rest of their lives. Mr. McCollister recognizes that the boys have faced many years of negative conditioning because they join gangs when they are very young. He brings the groups to the Gentle Barn to attempt to use the months they visit to reinforce positive behaviour.

Mr. McCollister relates the experience of a hardened gang member who silently listened to the story of a horse that had been repeatedly beaten. Later, it was revealed that the boy had suffered repeated broken arms as a result of beatings from his father. The boy was found later on in the stable crying and petting the horse on the head while reassuring it that that no one would hurt it. Mr. McCollister is convinced that a visit to the Gentle Barn demonstrates compassion and empathy. It also serves to reinforce to the child that their own life story is not fully written and that time and change can bring meaning and happiness.

Operating the Gentle Barn takes about $50,000 a month. Financing comes from individual and family donations through the website as well as corporate grants and foundations. Major donations have been received from Princess Cruises, Toyota, CBS, William Morris Endeavor and Ellen DeGeneres. The future of the Gentle Barn includes a reality television show with Ellen DeGeneres.

The goal of the founder is to open the doors to a Gentle Barn in every major city in the world. She says that she witnesses a miracle every day by watching young people touching, loving and interacting with animals and is convinced that all people are the same.

At Sobriety Home we also believe that pet therapy works and that it does promote emotional healing. We respect that it helps and incorporate it into a small part of our program. Activities include gardening therapy in which we grow our own vegetables. Our facility is in farming country and we do attempt to buy local farm fresh sustainable food. While not a major part of our program, we do have a pet pot bellied pig, dogs, cats and had rabbits and baby goats.

Healing Touch of Animals