Yong Ai and Nick take their golden retriever, Murphy, to an Old Folks' Home
in Cheras, twice a week. The residents welcome Murphy with great delight.
His visit is at 5 p.m. but long before that hour, the residents ask to be
wheeled to the garden to wait for the dog. Treats from lunch have been
carefully saved for 'Murf", as the residents affectionately like to call
Murphy is a friendly and gentle dog. He weighs nearly 40 kg but
somehow, like all intelligent animals, he is instinctively gentle around old
folks. When playing with his owners, he often leaves bruises on their arms
and legs but he has yet to do that with any of the residents. Murphy is not
the only visitor. Other dogs, cats and hamsters are frequent visitors.
Murphy's visit is part of an experimental program called Zoo Therapy.
Zoo Therapy probably has its origins in the United States. It refers to
the use of animals in the care and rehabilitation of humans. It has been
found to be very effective with disturbed children and often is a success as
young children are naturally drawn to animals. The idea, when first
introduced in medical journals, got immediate support in countries like the
United States and Europe where people keep a lot of pets. So it is easy to
see that there is a strong bond between humans and many animals species.
Medical research shows that stroking a pet reduces blood pressure and
lowers pulse rates. Taking care of animals helps promote longevity in human
beings. In one case, a severely arthritic woman, Tania, was on her deathbed.
Her grandson brought his cat with him when he came to nurse her. the old
lady, who had never wanted pets, developed an interest in the animal. When
it was time for her grandson to leave, she persuaded him to leave his cat
behind. He returned with two kittens. In a matter of a week, Tania, who had
been bedridden, left her bed. She had a reason to live looking after her new
charges and survived another six years in relative good health.
But it is for emotionally disturbed patients that animals have shown
their greatest worth. In mental health clinics, cats and dogs are often used
to monitor the patient's condition and assist in their progress. A child
psychiatrist, Dr Aline, was treating a boy with severe autism -- a condition
where the patient does not respond to his environment. His parents thought
that Mark, who was six years old, was severely retarded and should have been
institutionalized. He could not speak. He showed no affection and often had
violent temper tantrums where he hurt himself and those around him. Dr Aline
suspected severe trauma but made no progress. The, one day, she left the
child alone to attend to an urgent matter. Her pet Labrador was in the room.
When she returned, she found Mark playing with her dog. It was the first
time she had seen him smile. he had shown affection instead of fear or
hostility. It was the beginning of a breakthrough for Mark and Dr Aline. She
had helped to prove that the use of therapeutic tools in the form of gentle
animals such as rabbits, cats and good-tempered dogs promoted the well-being
of mentally ill patients.
Zoo Therapy has also been successfully used in the rehabilitation of
hard-core prisoners. Wardens reported that many violent criminals became as
gentle as kittens in the presence of animals.
Monkeys, horses and fish have been used in Zoo Therapy. In Florida,
dolphins have been used to help severely handicapped people. Dolphins are
very useful in giving confidence to brain-damaged children during water
exercises. Many of these intelligent animals are very protective and gentle.
There is nothing like a good-natured animal to inspire people to come out of
a depression and enjoy life again.
Certain animals can be trained to be more than passive therapeutic tools.
Guide dogs are the best example. They serve their blind owners with amazing
dedication. These Seeing Eye dogs give their owners a chance to live close
to normal lives by making it possible to move outside their homes
independently. But they are not actual pets. They are working animals.
Although they are treated very well, owners are encouraged to be fair but
firm with them. when for some reason, their owners no longer need them, they
are often returned to the training schools to help others in need. It takes
a lot of time and money to train the Seeing Eye dogs.
There are also companion dogs for people with other handicaps apart from
blindness. Some dogs accompany their owners to school, carry their books and
even check out books at library counters their physically handicapped owners
cannot reach. Capuchin monkeys have proved very useful companions to
paraplegics. they can fetch and carry objects, open and close doors, push
buttons, press bells and switches, and flip switches on computers. These
wiry monkeys are light, agile and intelligent. They are also easy to train.
their owners also have to be very firm with them as their usefulness depends
entirely on their being disciplined and obedient.
Companion animals are indeed a boon to the disabled. They make it
possible for the disabled to lead as normal a life as possible. The love
they give is unconditional and cannot be measured. Unlike human beings,
their only reward is the kindness shown to them in the shape of snacks, pats
on the head and words of encouragement and this seems to be enough.