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Therapeutic animals

Farm breeds can help with recovery and development

Story by Becca Edwards  +  Photography by Mike Ritterbeck

It is Sunday afternoon. Berryman and CeCe, two therapeutic farm animals, are doing what they do best — being dwarf fainting goats. They eat just about everything in sight, including cardboard Amazon boxes, cotton clothing and lollipops still in the wrapper. They unapologetically go “number two” whenever and wherever they want. And there is something undeniably innocent and childlike in their eyes that softens you and makes you want to smile despite everything else that may be going on in your life.

PARTY ANIMALS • Berryman and Cece (goats)

“They ease anxiety,” said local psychotherapist Dr. Debi Lynes. “As the goats go from person to person, the results are immediate. As the focus of the group turns toward the animals, the goats ease tension in the group, and the lines of communication within the group open up.”

  Animals provide unconditionally positive rewards as long as they are being cared for appropriately.”

Lynes is describing a teen group therapy session in which Berryman and CeCe facilitate. Since launching her practice, Lynes has incorporated therapeutic animals into her patients’ lives. In her yard along with Berryman and CeCe, you will find two Lionhead bunnies named Sparkle and Party; nine chickens named Bianca, Karen, Ciara, Skinny Ciara, Lulu, Gretchen, Martha, Andrea and Myrtle; and two ferrets named Bob and Bill.

HIDE AND SNEAK • Bob, a slinky white weasel, is an escape artist who loves kisses and cheese and peanut butter crackers.

The names of these animals were given by both neighborhood kids and young clients, and, as a result, many of the children feel a sense of responsibility for the welfare of the animals. Lynes gives all the children the opportunity to interact with and care for the animals. Some children earn one dollar cleaning the enclosures. Some children sign up to change the water and do feedings. Some children like to collect eggs. Some children simply just want to pet and play with the animals. And yet all the children gain the same therapeutic benefits of coexisting with the animals.

“Animals provide unconditionally positive rewards as long as they are being cared for appropriately. Many therapeutic animals like goats, chickens, horses and bunnies are prey animals, which make them very sensitive and skittish until they know and feel safe about their surroundings,” said Lynes. “But once they feel secure, they are able to connect with humans and be forever companions.

GET YOUR GOATS • Goats are very curious and love to be wherever their people are. They are also surprisingly smart. “They can open up the door on the back screened-in porch to lounge in the comfy chairs by the firplace,” Lynes said.

“Animals allow us to feel vulnerable and express emotions that may be difficult,” she said. “They give us a sense of purpose and protection and help us develop a sense of responsibility and of something bigger than ourselves.”

Evidence shows that petting an animal lowers cortisol levels and, therefore, lessens anxiety and depression, as well as lowers blood pressure. For this reason, therapeutic animals are being used more and more for helping adolescents and teens.

Asheville Academy, a therapeutic boarding school for girls ages 10 to 14, states that therapeutic animals are a great tool for neurofeedback therapy, a non-invasive treatment that targets brain waves in order to regulate the brain and nervous system. It can help with a large variety of things. The most significant improvements are classified with executive functioning, cognitive flexibility and sustained attention.

Winken, Blinken and Nod are the three chicks that stay together all the time.

Asheville Academy offers neurofeedback treatments to students coping with anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD, reactivity/tantrums, sleep issues, and impulsivity, just to name a few conditions. The school reports its students have seen an 87 percent improvement in cognitive flexibility and executive function, a 68 percent improvement in composite memory, and a 62 percent improvement in processing speed.

Animals also have the ability to teach children about important life concepts. “Animals provide teachable life lessons that are invaluable,” said Lynes. “Sometimes the information is uncomfortable, but it is real.” Lynes talked about the circle of life. “Many of us have experienced a pet as a part of the family, and when that animal passes on, for many children, it is the first time they experience loss of life. As sad as it is, it gives them the necessary skills to deal with death.”

Party is the bunny. EMOJI is the dog. “He is the empath and is very dramatic. He often instigates trouble,” Lynes reports.

Lynes discussed how animals helped children during the pandemic and during quarantine via “transference of emotion.”

“Animals are adept at reading body language. Interacting with therapy animals provides opportunities to address physical and mental pain. The animals have the power to help with self-awareness and insight,” said Lynes. “The animals transform fear into respect which, in turn, allows children to trust other humans.”

If you have a child or grandchild challenged with emotional, behavioral or learning issues, know that there are resources. Lynes can be reached at 843-301-6147.