I recall a moment when I felt challenged to reflect on what it truly meant to be a ‘pet lover’ versus an ‘animal lover’ and whether the two were mutually exclusive. While I and many of my ANZO colleagues are on a personal journey, trying to reconcile the complex and often-conflicted relationships humans have with other animals, I decided to forgo the possibility of creating the Anthrozoological equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru. Instead, I choose to focus on the opportunity that companion animals offer humanity, should we choose to see it. Through their unique position in our society, “companion animals can open minds and hearts, as evidenced by the extraordinary number of fact-based accounts and fiction-based works…to increase awareness of the benefits of living in the presence of these animals” (Waldau, 2013, p. 29). This speaks to the capacity of the nonhuman animals with which we most closely share our lives to become conduits for a deeper understanding about the realities of all animals.
A while ago, I was leafing through Eckhart Tolle’s book, Guardians of Being (2009), a refreshingly uncomplicated work that pairs his spiritual insights with sweet illustrations by MUTTs cartoonist Patrick McDonnell in which he writes: “Millions of people who otherwise would be completely lost in their minds and in endless past and future concerns are taken back by their dog or cat into the present moment, again and again, and reminded of the joy of Being.” Perhaps this is why they have the ability to serve as powerful therapeutic partners. Such was my realization a few years ago when I brought our dog, Zoe, who was then just over a year old, along on a Mother’s Day visit. At 86 years old, my mother, who had battled depression and anxiety most of her adult life, had been experiencing a steady cognitive decline since the previous year, most noticeably after the sudden death of my brother. She never seemed to be able to make sense of losing her eldest son and slowly sank into a profound depression leaving her more and more confused. Along with the cognitive changes, she began to lose her mobility and was ultimately confined to either a wheelchair or her bed. Andre and I decided to bring Zoe with us that day rather than leave her crated in our absence. We had recently adopted her through a local rescue after she had been found at large and then spent nearly 2 months of her short life in a shelter. She was a young, smart, sweet girl who was still learning her manners, but loved nothing more than to be with us.
My mother had historically been the tough opponent to bringing pets into the house growing up, a practice that was virtually foreign to her having grown up in a small town in Italy, but I had managed to plead my way to having a couple of cats and budgies, despite her initial protests. She did, however eventually come to love our collie, Charlie, who, in his lifetime, had been a great companion to her through her bouts of depression over the years and who was instrumental in changing the way she viewed other animals forever. I didn’t know how my mother would react to Zoe’s presence, so we kept her leashed initially but since her energy was uncharacteristically quiet for the visit, we decided to remove it. Without prompting, she jumped up on my mother’s bed and curled into a comfortable ball with her back against my mother’s hip. My mother, who years ago would have howled in protest about having a dog on the bed, reached out and touched her, spoke softly to her and smiled. It was surreal. In that moment, they had openly connected on some level and accepted each other’s presence completely. It was really beautiful.
There continues to be scientific debate as to the efficacy (and ethics) of partnering with nonhuman animals such as chickens, horses or dogs for the therapeutic benefit of humans. Are there real, measurable benefits for the human? Is there any harm to the nonhuman? Is it ethical for us to “use” other animals as participants when they are unable to give or refuse consent to participate and are often unable to choose to end the session if they wish? Perhaps in response to some of these issues, Swedish healthcare researchers have even developed a robotic cat to “provide peace, be soothing and work as a tool for increased interaction and communication, complementing the care of people with dementia”. Despite assertions to the contrary, it is difficult to refute the emerging evidence that seems to suggest a potential role for Animal Assisted Therapies in the management of dementia in the elderly, particularly in the improvement of Quality of Life indicators. Partnering with nonhuman therapists, however, requires not only further research into how the interactions affect the human patient but also a willingness to develop strategies that allow the freedom for both participants to choose whether they wish to take part.
[And, yes, the photo above was taken the day we brought Zoe to see my mom for the first time 🙂 ]