Bella, a 3-year-old heifer being raised as a pet in Pennsylvania, was sweet, but unaware of her own size. Rubbing her head on and jumping on people became a problem as she grew, and she was eventually donated to Green Chimneys Farm and Wildlife Center in Brewster, NY. Around the same time, a teenage student began at Green Chimneys educational program, and was testing boundaries constantly with adults and peers. He seemed to need a challenge, so Bella and the student were matched to work with each other. The student was coached about handling her gently but firmly. Bella pushed the student, the student learned how it feels to be tested, and the student learned to respond in a way that resulted in a more positive interaction with Bella.
“She was being who she is, he was being who he is, and together they came a long way as a team,” said Michael Kaufmann, director of Green Chimneys and the Sam and Myra Ross Institute.
Do our farm animals really have the potential to improve our lives, and even assist in reaching therapeutic goals? Those in the field of animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy say ‘yes’.
“Humans can’t make fundamental behavioral changes unless we feel safe,” said Gail Lilly of Farming Connections LLC, a nonprofit farm in Guilford, Vermont. “The safety that the animals create by giving us nonjudgmental feedback is a key component in making this therapy so powerful.”
Lilly explained that earning an animal’s trust is reinforcing, and the steps to earn that trust are arduous. She shared several stories of students with challenges like severe Autism. She’d offer some breathing techniques and basic guidelines and then observe what unfolds as a flock of chickens approaches and one eventually hops on the patient’s lap, or as a patient approaches a horse to ride for the first time. “First the animal meets you, then they size you up by your movements and the energy you are putting out. For a lot of us, anxiety is a huge issue, so calming is a wonderful skill to develop, and the positive animal response helps reinforce that.”
Kaufmann agrees that every animal, from a chicken to a horse, brings different opportunities for interaction. When the interactions are purposeful and well-planned, he says, there is a long list of potential psychological, physical and social benefits: Self control, empathy, self-worth, hand-eye coordination and sequencing, to name a few.
Animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy are not one and the same though. Animal-assisted activities can be anything that brings animals together with people on the farm or elsewhere. “Profound impact is possible, but the interaction is not goal directed,” said Kaufmann. But in order for the interaction to qualify as ‘therapy’, the person conducting the activity has to be an occupational therapist, a physical therapist or other such trained provider. “The therapist layers in contact with an animal with the overall medical plan and goals.”
Kaufmann grew up in Switzerland and, when he was a child, his parents would vacation at farms and guest farms all over Europe. His interest in agriculture and farm life and farm animals came from that. He became sure that farming environments open us up, and has since been exploring theories of biophylia (a hypothesis that suggests there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems) and ecopsychology (the study of the relationship between human beings and the natural world through ecological and psychological principles).
Therapeutic Cows and Chickens, Really?
Some question the validity of claims that interacting with animals can be therapeutic or otherwise beneficial. Such skepticism, practitioners say, is holding back the field, especially in terms of funding from insurance companies and donors. Kaufmann and others feel the time has come to do the research that takes the claimed benefits beyond anecdotes.
“We have had this farm and have had children visiting here since 1947, so we’ve gained a lot of experience,” says Kaufmann. “It is time to share and make our experience available to others, which is why [The Sam and Myra Ross Institute at Green Chimneys] was created. We provide a living laboratory, showing how what we do works.”
Researchers like Kaufmann are also partnering with universities and private foundations to develop quantifiable evidence. Many projects have explored how the three-dimensional movement of riding a horse can support therapeutic gains for people with physical disabilities. Others have looked at the long-term impacts of witnessing animal cruelty, while still others have researched the importance of animal companionship. There is a long way to go, but organizations like the Sam and Myra Ross Institute, as well as the Institute for Human-Animal Connection in Colorado and the Horses and Humans Research Foundation in Ohio are helping pave the way.
Where Do Animal Therapy and Animal Production Meet?
“The sustainable agriculture movement is a big theoretical support for getting folks interacting with farm animals,” said Kaufmann. “We have made the choice not to do animal production agriculture here [at Green Chimneys] because the children here require animal bonding, and it would be difficult to succeed in that bonding if they knew they’d be headed to slaughter.”
“But,” he adds, “it is possible to create educational programming with animals that introduces the animals in a production model. There is an honest way of educating the community about how you do animal production. You build a relationship, but it’s understood that the animal will be butchered at some point. The more honest you are and the clearer you are, the better it will resonate. It also will start growing an audience who appreciates how you do it. People want to know that they can eat their animals in good conscience, that the animals had good quality lives, social lives, healthy lives. Not enough farmers are trying to do that. Europe, for instance, has a model with a much more educated consumer.”
Lilly echoed her support for organic and sustainable farming operations getting involved in this type of work. “My kudos to folks for making an effort to be respectful,” she said. “I know it makes farming more difficult.”
Lilly suggests that if you don’t have a clinical background, it’s probably best to have help getting a therapeutic-focused program started on your farm. “Contact a clinician in your area. Make your animals available to them for a therapy session. Share your precious resource.”
Kaufmann says to remember that farm-based education includes all types of human service and educational outreach through farms and the farming environment, for those with or without special needs. “Farmers know they need relationships with their community. Being product-based is good, but educating urban communities and other groups as to why you do what you do will only help the long term success of your farm.”
Janet Wilkinson is executive director of NOFA-NH and has worked for organizations doing animal-assisted therapy. She still does some contract work for the Horses and Humans Research Foundation.