Animals Helping Humans, Part 4: Wildlife
21 May

Animals Helping Humans, Part 4: Wildlife


We have previously covered popular animals helping humans such as dogs, cats, and horses and the parts they play in animal assisted therapy and activity (AAT and AAA, respectively). Now we delve into more unconventional therapy animals: elephants, dolphins, parrots, and alpacas.

Elephants are widely revered for their intelligence and friendliness, so they are popular AAT animals in their native Africa. Psychologist Dr. Swanepoel works with elephants in South Africa and says they have remarkable emotional intelligence. “Elephants are gentle with their young, protective, and seem to sense when they are near a child or disabled individual,” he said. One of Dr. Swanepoel’s patients is Rentia, a 10-year-old girl born without eyes. When he first introduced her to Boelie the elephant, he noticed that Rentia liked the feel of Boelie’s rough skin and the sounds Boelie made. Dr. Swanepoel worked with Rentia in conventional therapy, and when Rentia reached a goal in conventional therapy, she would get to visit Boelie. Before visits with Boelie, Rentia did not have the confidence to learn Braille or dress herself, but after, Rentia felt confident in both of those daily activities as well as more adventurous activities such as camping. Dr. Swanepoel says that Boelie and other elephants are good therapy animals because of their patience and that their size is a “‘wow’ factor” with children. “Many children with disabilities need therapy and behavior interventions that may not be conventional,” says Dr. Swanepoel. “Animals work magic with these children. It is my hope that I will be able to share this success with other children who might benefit from Elephant Assisted Therapy.”

Dr. Swanepoel originally got his start in AAT programs featuring dolphins. Dolphins have emotional intelligence similar to elephants and have playful personalities that are accessible to children. Since dolphins are marine animals, dolphin AAT, called Dolphin Human Therapy, has a heavy focus on patients gaining the motor skills that come with swimming as well as social interaction with dolphins. Skeptics of dolphin human therapy ask what patients can get from it that they couldn’t from a land animal, but studies have shown that as with other AAT programs, interacting with dolphins has shown to increase relaxation chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin in the brain, but with dolphins there is also the added benefit of increased T-cells in the patient’s blood, which strengthens their immune system.

Parrots, the first non-mammal creature in this series, are also highly empathetic animals who are just as likely to ask you how you’re doing as they ask for crackers. In one famous case documented by the New York Times, a man with bipolar disorder named Jim Eggers has an African gray parrot named Sadie who talks him out of rage episodes by telling him, “It’s O.K., Jim. Calm down, Jim. You’re all right, Jim. I’m here, Jim.” He says she can tell when he’s about to have an episode before he can. Jim has a little backpack that he carries Sadie’s cage in when he goes out in public while Sadie rides on his shoulder. He cheekily calls this “giving people the bird.” Birds have also been beneficial in AAT programs that visit veterans, as reported on NPR, or go to nursing homes, such as the On A Wing and A Prayer program by Gifted Wings Ministry in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “In a nursing facility, one day runs into the next,” says program co-founder Maureen Horton-Legere “Sometimes, there isn’t a lot to look forward to. You go to the common area for mealtime or you go to your therapy, every day is the same. But every time they posted the announcement for our program, it brought so much hope and excitement. Word would get around that ‘the birds are coming!’ and with every visit there were more people.”

Finally, alpacas recently gained internet notoriety for how unusual of a choice they are for therapy animals. “The video is in German,” says a Guardian News article that shows a video of therapy alpacas working with German seniors, “but we all speak the language of squee, right?” And, though he’s not an alpaca, Rojo the Lama has a reputation for being the world’s most famous therapy llama. In addition to dressing up for parades in Portland, Oregon and visiting children in hospitals, Rojo runs a humorous social media feed. One of his recent tweets laments Reddit’s “discrimination” against llamas in why he couldn’t host a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). Proponents of alpaca and llama therapy say their emotional intelligence is on par with elephants and dolphins and praise their “gentle” natures. Science backs this up, saying that, despite the fact that alpacas and llamas are an unusual choice for therapy animal, their presence brings a sense of normalcy for patients.

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