I first experienced the healing power of animals when I was eight years old, after taking a particularly nasty spill off my bike.
Since my smiling dad cast me off on my first solo ride in the parking lot of Leo Baeck Temple the month before, I’d fallen quite a few times while riding (finding “balance” in my life was an issue, even then). Scraped knees and elbows were the order of the day.
But this tumble over a cement bump on a path in grandma’s backyard sent me hurtling head-first over the handle bars. I landed on my left cheek and skid several inches. Flecks of grit burrowed under my skin.
I lay there for a minute, more stunned than in pain, before turning on my back and looking up at the baby-blue sky. What happened next stunned me more than the fall.
From a torn grate in the crawlspace of grandma’s apartment building, a small cat emerged and padded slowly toward me. I recognized her as one of a family of strays that had taken up residence there. Given that she was not attached to a human family, I was amazed that she came right up to me and hovered, like a furry angel, over my face. She meowed, purred then proceeded to lick my wounded cheek.
Usually by this time after a bike injury I would be panicked from thoughts that all the blood would drain from my body. But this time, I was seized by a sense of peaceful release that I’d not known before and had since rarely known until recent years.
The next day, I cringed while slowly peeling the gauze from my face, convinced that I’d be scarred for life. The three inch-long gorges in my cheek had almost completely filled like small, pink rivulets.
My wounds had never healed this fast before. Grandma said it was the ointment, but I knew better – because I was also still at peace.
Certainly, my eight-year-old self was not the first to know the healing power of animals. In 1792, English Quakers were the first to incorporate animal therapy as a nurturing lesson for psych patients. Sigmund Freud, the poker-faced father of psychoanalytic thought, always brought his chow-chow, Jo-Fi, into sessions because he was believed to be a “good judge of character.” After World War II, the American Humane Society coupled the idea of dog therapy with returning, war-ravaged vets.
Then, in 1977, a group headed by Dr. Bill McColloch, formed to begin earnest research on the human-companion-animal bond. The newly formed “Delta Society” soon documented what shamans and other non-traditional healers already knew: the healing power of animals is sacrosanct.
Studies have shown that animal companionship lowers cortisol levels in humans. Cortisol is the adrenal-produced steroid hormone that increases blood sugar levels, suppresses the immune system and erodes memory. Lower blood pressure and heartrate have been attributed to the presence of pets as has the production of oxytocin, the “happy” hormone that promotes cellular regeneration and predisposes us to trust more.
Thanks to Delta Society’s testimony before congress, The Housing Urban Rural Recovery Act of 1983 was passed. This act ensured that the elderly and the handicapped could not be displaced from their current housing or be denied new housing because they keep or acquire animal companions. Eventually, the Delta Society changed its name to Pet Partners which now successfully trains more human/companion animal teams in the name of pet therapy than any other organization. It is estimated that pet therapy teams visit pediatric, adult and hospice units more than one million times each year.
This Monday, May 18th, is the First Annual National Animal Therapy Day, sponsored by Pet Partners. Nationwide, individuals, groups and celebrities will put their baking and event-organizing skills to work. The proceeds of these events will help finance the training and registry of thousands of pet-therapy teams.
Because we’ve seen how our Boston terrier, Lilly, has transformed the mood of anyone who walks through our door, my wife and I are toying with the idea of going through the training with her. However, there will be a few challenges to conquer, like her passion for flitting after every scent. The really important stuff she has nailed, like the flawless intuition of when to snuggle and just when and how much to lick – just like the cat-angel of my youth.
How’s that for good medicine!