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An affinity with animals contributes to our wellbeing

Creating a bond with our fellow animals enriches our lives and relationships with other humans, writes Katrina Fox.

Amid the horror of the Australian bush fires last year that saw the loss of so many homes and lives, one image touched the hearts of millions of people as it made its way around the world through the international media: Sam, the koala, drinking from a water bottle while resting her burnt paw in a wildlife rescuer’s hand. 

Creating an affinity with animals – whether it’s empathy for a cute little bear or reverence for the might of a humpback whale – can enrich our lives in many ways. 

“By observing or interacting with animals, I believe we can glimpse other worlds, worlds beyond our human perception and experience,” says Dr Annie Potts, co-director of the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies (NZCHAS) at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.

“Personally I find this really inspirational. Watching seagulls fly, for example. This is not an experience we can know ourselves, but we can glimpse how this is for another creature, and watching this difference in experience can open our own worlds up to a myriad of things: compassion towards another being, respect for their abilities, and best of all, we can experience wonder when we truly engage with another species.” 

Connecting with an animal can change our lives. Those of us who are blessed to be the carers of dogs or the support staff of cats know the joy a four-legged friend can bring. If we’re depressed, lonely, stressed, upset or angry, the unconditional love and affection from a pet can help alleviate these negative emotions. 

Liam Creed, a teenager from the UK, literally became a different person because of a dog. Writing in his new book, A Puppy Called Aero, he describes how he was able to overcome much of the “bad behaviour” associated with his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). 

“Until a couple of years ago I was trouble,” he says. “I was close to getting thrown out of school for good … At the weekends I would get up to mischief and would end up hurting someone or destroying something.” 

After several weeks training a puppy at Canine Partners – an organisation whose dogs go to live with disabled people, helping them in ways similar to guide dogs for the blind – Creed, now 18, was a changed boy. Working with Aero helped his confidence and allowed him to relax and control his behaviour. 

“Aero helped build new Liam,” he says. “He is a thoughtful, confident friend, son, student and boyfriend. My transformation and my new outlook on life are solely down to this amazing dog.” 

The use of pet therapy – or Animal-Assisted Therapy – is not new. Dr Aubrey Fine, a US specialist in this field, has been using the technique for more than 30 years. In his book, The Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy, he writes: “In difficult periods within therapy, a client may be in need of comforting and reassurance. The presence of an animal may become that catharsis. The holding of an animal or the petting of an animal may act as a physical comforter and soothe many patients.” 

In Australia, the Delta Society runs a Pet Partners program where teams of volunteers with specially trained dogs visit hospitals and nursing homes. Julia Peake has been taking her two Delta dogs, labradoodles Lambert and Jedda, to visit residents at an aged care facility in the central coast for the past two years. 

“We visit weekly and I alternate dogs,” says Peake. “We spend about two hours a visit. With some residents it is just a quick hello and a pat and others want to get the dogs to do tricks and feed them treats. For the elderly and the dementia patients our visits are a different stimulation from the norm. With the dementia patients, each time you go is the first time for them, so they ask the same questions over and over again, but at least they are communicating and thinking of questions to ask.” 

Peake also reaped the benefits of her Delta dogs during a recent stay in hospital. “Just having the dogs visit me and being able to pat and stroke them made me feel so much better,” she says. 

It’s not just “pets” who can enrich our lives, though. Striking up a bond with so-called “farm” animals can also be rewarding for us, according to author Jeffrey Masson. 

A former US resident, Masson, who has written several books on the emotional lives of farm animals, now resides in New Zealand. He describes a pig called Piglet who lived on a beach in Auckland and “made the sweetest sounds” during a full moon. 

“Her emotional life was particularly near the surface,” he says. “She always let you know what she was feeling; most of the time it was obvious from the smile on her face, especially when she was swimming or playing with her small human friends. Perhaps if we listen carefully enough to the songs that Piglet and her cousins sing at night to the moon, we may yet learn about emotions that could bring us a new and utterly undreamed of delight.” 

Dr Potts concurs, citing chickens as an example of what humans can learn from our feathered friends. 

“One of the key things we can learn from animals is how to simply enjoy life and not be burdened unduly by our very human concerns such as career, consumerism, property and so on,” she says. 

“I live with four chickens. When they go each day to the same section of the garden to dust-bathe, they spend ages preparing a bowl in the soil where they can roll around and scatter dirt all over their feathers. This is clearly an immensely enjoyable time for them: they make happy sounds and close their eyes with pleasure. We have tended to deny the significance of pleasure-seeking, fun and enjoyment in animals and this has been at our own peril. 

“At moments like this, when observing the joy of another creature, I believe humans can connect with our own appreciation of happiness and fun. Animals bring perspective to our lives. They also teach us how to care for others and how to live for the moment.”

Then there are dolphins, renowned for encouraging a healing transformation in humans who swim with them. Rio Rossellini is an artist, originally from the UK, who lives in an eco-house in Kaikura, New Zealand. 

So inspired was she by her experience of swimming with these beautiful creatures that she creates art featuring dolphins and other cetaceans. “It’s really hard to describe the emotions experienced during and after you have swum with a wild dolphin,” she says. 

“To try almost demeans the experience. Each encounter can be different. I can only say that overall you are filled with an incredible elation. It’s quite a euphoric feeling, long-lasting and easily recollected in dreams.” 

Using the technique of “pointillism” (where millions of hand-made dots make up the image), Rossellini creates paintings of cetaceans and other animals that she hopes will “gently nudge people’s consciences and to inspire others to lead a humane and compassionate lifestyle” and regularly gifts prints of her work to help raise funds for organisations such as Sea Shepherd, Save Animals From Exploitation (SAFE) and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Agency. 

The human-animal bond can be a very special one. If we allow ourselves to feel compassion for all species, it’s easier to open our hearts to our fellow humans. 

“There are many studies showing that if children learn from an early age, through companion or other animals, about caring, trusting, respecting and loving another being, they are more likely to also be respectful and caring of other humans,” says Dr Potts. 

“I believe it is very important for humans to learn how to care for and nurture others, human and non-human.” 

An edited version of this article appeared in the April 2010 issue of Mindfood women’s magazine.

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