Meaningful animal encounters at monthly zootherapy sessions

Meaningful animal encounters at monthly zootherapy sessions
(Photo : Geoff Agombar)

By Geoff Agombar
Local Journalism Initiative

“There’s just an energy that happens when they are around,” says Carol Ann McElrea, activities director at the Wales Home. “The minute they come through the door; the animals are all excited. They know where they’re going, and they know they’re going to work, and they just love their work.”

“Sometimes, I’m at a loss for words. It stirs up so many emotions,” McElrea adds. Indeed, as residents coo over the hairless guinea pigs and show off the surprising dove that has landed on their wrist, many share memories of younger years on the farm or compare lists of cherished cat names and favoured dog breeds.

Some parade about while Pascal the miniature horse shows off tricks. Others share a laugh about at a chicken’s fancy pompadour, or sit and hold the long, lazy gaze of a cat. Everyone is absorbed in a moment of connection. Many are transported to meaningful memories and come back with stories to tell.

Today’s session is for residents of the more autonomous residential units, but McElrea speaks with particular wonder about the effect on residents from the long-term care units. She marvels at how someone with advanced cognitive loss can spark up when they meet their furry and feathered visitors.

“They really come alive. Someone who wouldn’t normally move very much just starts petting the animals,” McElrea smiles. “It is extremely beneficial. It hits so many senses. It is so beautiful to see.”

Anne-Caroline Coutu says, technically she offers zooanimation, more than zootherapy. She is not a therapist, but she certainly animates a room.

Her story started more than a decade ago after her own parents were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s’ and entered a home. She credits her father with inspiring her love of animals and returned the favour by bringing her dog to visit him. Then a rabbit. Then a chicken.

Soon, her father’s care home was encouraging her to expand the visits and she ended up leaving her job in sales to answer her new calling.

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