Whether helping the body or lifting the spirit, therapy animals have few bounds to assisting people with disabilities.
With a lick, a nudge, a tap, or a paw, the animals in our lives can take us from bad to good in a matter of seconds. Even when we’re at our worst, they are there for us with no judgment, no I told you sos, no haughty advice. They unselfishly give us the only thing they have to share: the healing presence of a friend.
For some, animals are security and peace of mind. For others, they are a necessity. But to these three incredibly blessed individuals, the animals in their lives fulfill and complete them in ways they never thought possible.
Craig Cook lived in the fast lane. A design engineer in southern California, he worked hard doing what he loved. But life as he knew it came to a screeching halt one January day in 1997.
Cook’s out-of-town colleague was driving his convertible car when, unfamiliar with the Los Angeles on-ramps, he accelerated too quickly and flipped the car. His colleague was OK. Cook, on the other hand, couldn’t feel his legs.
In an instant, Cook went from able bodied to a C5–6 quadriplegic. In shock from the sudden life-altering change, he was fighting bouts of depression. That’s when a friend suggested Helping Hands (monkeyhelpers.org), a program that pairs specially trained capuchin monkeys with people who are disabled or have mobility issues.
After reading about the Boston-based program, Cook was humored and a bit intrigued. He decided to apply (more as a joke) and became the first person in California to receive a monkey from the program.
Staff members flew to California with Minnie, the capuchin monkey, to help the roomies get situated. With primates, there’s a hierarchy that needs to be established. Minnie’s lexicon of 35 commands was constantly repeated by Cook until, after three days, she started coming to him over the trainers.
So what’s it like living with a monkey?
Island Dolphin Care has helped Michael Vera relax and pay better attention.
“Beware of an animal that’s got opposable thumbs,” jokes Cook. He frequently hears Minnie in the pantry getting into the peanut butter. Even though the 5.5-pound monkey can be sneaky, she is Cook’s right hand, picking things up, flipping pages, opening doors and fetching out-of-reach items.
Cook is most surprised at how smart and incredibly human-like Minnie is, although she has her bad habits. Minnie hates baths, which explains Cook nicknaming her
He wouldn’t want it any other way.
Bill Weigt is a hero, but he doesn’t see it that way. Though he never saw the front lines of combat, the former U.S. Army gunner and foot soldier is no stranger to violence. He also worked in the department of corrections for eight years before joining the police academy.
On December 17, 2005, a mere ten months into his job as a cop, he answered the call that would change his life. He joined fellow Peoria, Ariz., police officers in pursuit of a drug dealer, which resulted in a shootout on city streets. Weigt was shot in his upper left rib, where the bullet ricocheted and lodged on his T5 vertebra. He was in a coma for three days, waking up on his 37th birthday.
Fast-forward through the rehabilitation and mental trauma to 2012, and you’ll hear Weigt, 37, saying the same thing he said on the day he was shot: “All I did was get shot. If you want to quote heroes in this situation, it’s the men who were with me that morning,” he says of fellow officers Cooper, Smith, Dugan, Borsch and Carpenter.
Wounded in the line of duty, Weigt had access to many programs. The 100 Club of Arizona (100club.org), which assists police officers and their families after an injury or death, brought Weigt to The Foundation for Service Dog Support (servicedogsupport.org). The foundation grants service dogs to community servants in need, including wounded military, first responders, and others. They introduced Weigt to Zeus.
A yellow Labrador retriever, Zeus’s main responsibility is picking things up for Weigt. They frequent children’s hospitals and senior living centers because it brings the residents so much happiness.
“The thing that’s really blown me away [about Zeus] is the pet therapy,” Weigt says.
He recalls a day a few years back when he took Zeus with him to pay respect to a fallen officer and quickly became the center of attention. Officers shared their own pet tales and were able to take their minds off things, if only for a brief while. And that, Weigt says, is what he and Zeus are all about: spreading the love and appreciating life.
Michael Vera, 26, used to have a bad temper. Living with cerebral palsy all his life, his speech and mobility are severely limited. He is able to communicate with sounds, eye contact and body language, which his mother, Vilma, has become an expert at reading.
Vilma found out about Island Dolphin Care (islanddolphin
care.org) in Key Largo, Fla., three years ago and has been taking Michael to their Five-Day Dolphin Time-Out program ever since. Their programs are designed for children, adults, and veterans with special needs or illnesses. A therapist and dolphins work one-on-one with individuals in the water, and it’s said to benefit self-confidence, attention span, and commitment and trust of other people. Vilma has noticed a significant change in her son since his immersion in the program.
Early in life, Michael would act out and become frustrated. Although his family involved him in everything, he didn’t enjoy doing a lot. It’s still a daily struggle to keep him engaged and mentally occupied. Swimming with the dolphins, however, has been Michael’s greatest joy in life.
“The program has really helped him to relax,” Vilma says. “He pays better attention to his surroundings. He’s alert to everything.”
She has seen such tremendous benefits from the program that she had mosaic dolphins built into the middle of her pool and made the switch from chlorine to salt water. The most surprising thing she’s learned from her son’s involvement with Island Dolphin Care is how extremely caring and intelligent the dolphins are.
“It’s incredible the way they respond when they’re working with an older child as opposed to when they’re working with a smaller child,” Vilma says. “You have to see it to believe it.”
A Healing Gait
Despite the theme song of an iconic TV show, a horse is not really a horse, of course. That’s especially true when talking about therapy horse programs that assist children, adults, and veterans with disabilities.
One such program is BraveHearts, part of the PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International network. BraveHearts was started by Marge Tautkus Gunnar, an ovarian cancer survivor who, during the course of her treatment, gained courage and strength from the connection she had to her Lipizzan stallion, Neapolitano IV Farica (Max).
Located in Harvard, Ill., the 5,500-square-foot indoor facility offers therapeutic horseback riding, therapeutic carriage driving, a comprehensive program for military veterans and Gold Star families, summer day camps, and horticultural therapy.
In 2007, BraveHearts started offering therapeutic programs for wounded military and veterans. Individuals involved in the program can experience significant benefits, physically and emotionally.
Because a horse’s gait at a walk is similar to a human’s walking motion, a simulated gait can help strengthen specific muscle groups. This can help the wounded veterans/military as they relearn to walk or learn to use prostheses. Emotional benefits include improved self-confidence and decreased anxiety.
Plans are currently underway to create a national educational/conference center at the facility, which was renamed BraveHearts at The Bergmann Centre.
For more information, call 815-943-8226 or visit braveheartsriding.org / pathintl.org.