Animal Angels: Israeli nonprofit providing animal therapy

HAMA Israel, also known as Animal Angels, provides the therapeutic benefits of animal assistance to children and families in distress, and is dedicated to pluralism, diversity and inclusiveness.

 Animal therapy at HAMA Israel. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Animal therapy at HAMA Israel.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee, 

And the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee...

In whose hand is the soul of every living thing,

And the breath of all mankind. – Job 12: 7,10

"But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee, And the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee... In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, And the breath of all mankind."

Job 12:7,10

HAMA Israel, also known as Animal Angels, is a small Israeli NPO founded in 1997 and incorporated as a public service company in 2002. It is dedicated to both human and animal welfare, through its Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) programs in therapy and education.

 Animal therapy at HAMA Israel. (credit: Courtesy) Animal therapy at HAMA Israel. (credit: Courtesy)

The organization works exclusively in the public sector in partnership with schools, social services and other nonprofit organizations. It provides the therapeutic benefits of animal assistance to children and families in distress, and is dedicated to pluralism, diversity and inclusiveness.

HAMA’s professional staff of men and women counselors, educators, social workers, therapists, and volunteers, along with the families we assist, reflect the rich ethnic, social and cultural mosaic that is Israel: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, secular, national religious, haredi, Arab, Druze, Ethiopian and asylum seekers, all make up the HAMA family. Despite many differences, the organization’s shared compassion for people and animals has transcended social, religious and political barriers.

Animal rescue and rehabilitation are also a vital part of the HAMA program. Many of the animals are rescued from abuse and neglect, and have in turn enriched many human lives, including those struggling with physical and psychological trauma, deep loss and abandonment.

HAMA is among the pioneering organizations in AAI – Animal Assisted Intervention in Therapy and Education in Israel. As director and founder, I have concurrently served on the teaching staff of the Magid Institute for Animal Therapeutic Intervention of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for the last 15 years.

There is often a general misconception that AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy), is primarily intended for children. It is true that animal companionship plays a vital role in many people’s childhoods. However, it is also important to note that some of those memories from our childhood remain with us forever. 

For most who deeply loved their first animal companion, animals will continue to move them emotionally and connect them to others, as well to their own feelings throughout their lives. The therapeutic interactions with animals, which I have been privileged to witness over the years, have provided me with a treasure of professional and personal enrichment.

Here is one of our poignant stories.

 Animal therapy at HAMA Israel. (credit: Courtesy) Animal therapy at HAMA Israel. (credit: Courtesy)
A Holocaust survivor and a kitten

An elderly Holocaust survivor’s encounter with one of our cats had a profound impact, not only on his life, but on my own, as well. Shmuel was an institutionalized Holocaust survivor from Poland who passed away several years ago. His traumatic experiences in the concentration camps as a child left him debilitated with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

He barely spoke over the years and when he did, those words were often singular and monosyllabic. His conventional caretakers assumed he could not speak Hebrew. Caretakers addressed him in Yiddish, Polish and Russian in an attempt to elicit some kind of verbal communication.

Our AAT sessions often integrate music and art in order to provide greater depth and breadth to emotional expression and social interaction in patients who are non-verbal. During one session, Shmuel and seven other patients were listening to classical music combined with songs in Yiddish. Their response to the music was overwhelming. Some of these patients swayed to the music, while others sat rigidly in their seats, crying silently. 

Shmuel was particularly fond of a particular kitten called Chanel. She invariably chose Shmuel’s lap as her special place for comfort and security. He, in turn, would hold her and stroke her to the sound of the music. When the music stopped, the room was silent. And then, the loud but soothing purring of that little cat broke the silence and filled the room with another sound of music all its own. 

Shmuel stood up holding Chanel in his arms and gently rested his ear to her body, almost as if he were listening to a sea shell. He was smiling and crying. Struggling, he turned and spoke to me, to all of us... in Hebrew.

“Listen to her. They took her from her mother, and brought her to me. But she is still calling out to her. That’s the way her mother sang to her when she was born. And now she calls her, to come and look for her and find her. She is sad and alone and afraid. She calls for her mother to come back and find her, but she cannot. She will never, never come back again.”

“Listen to her. They took her from her mother, and brought her to me. But she is still calling out to her. That’s the way her mother sang to her when she was born. And now she calls her, to come and look for her and find her. She is sad and alone and afraid. She calls for her mother to come back and find her, but she cannot. She will never, never come back again.”

Shmuel

This was the first time staff and patients had ever heard Shmuel speak Hebrew so clearly and coherently. He began to rub his head gently on the cat’s shoulders. 

In a place where patients co-exist as shadows hiding from themselves, sitting next to each other day in and day out for years on end, without ever mentioning each other’s names or venturing beyond their own silent torments, this indeed was a moment of grace. The purr of this kitten became an unforgettable memory for Shmuel, caretakers and me.

For the first time in a long time, these old and troubled souls could feel a sense of rediscovery, a reaffirmation of beauty, tenderness, and longing – a yearning to remember themselves before the Holocaust had shattered everything in their lives. It is hard to imagine that so many of these old souls were only children themselves when they were lost and abandoned in an abyss of unimaginable suffering and separation.

Shmuel and Chanel together poignantly connected all of us to our childhoods, particularly those times when we felt sad and alone, and often seek out the comfort of our special animal companion to make the bad and sad things go away. 

THIS IS the miracle of the human-animal bond that I have experienced and re-experienced time and time again over a generation of work and love in the field of Animal Assisted Therapeutic Intervention. The animals to whom we and our patients have become deeply attached are like family.

No matter how young we were, or old we become, animal companions have a way of reconnecting us to that part of ourselves we thought had been erased or forgotten.

As I embark upon the coming year, I realize how my horizons have inevitably broadened and how tikkun olam has touched my work in so many ways. When I departed on this journey of helping people and animals rescue each other a generation ago in 1997, I was an ardent dog lover; then in time became an ardent cat lover. 

 Animal therapy at HAMA Israel. (credit: Courtesy) Animal therapy at HAMA Israel. (credit: Courtesy)

Over the years I evolved into an ardent rabbit lover, parrot lover, chicken and duck lover and tortoise lover, and the list keeps growing as I continue to discover Nature’s remarkable diversity and the unique attributes of every being, human and animal alike. We learn to appreciate the differences in each and every one of them.

Cats are not “slurpers” and extroverted “party lovers” like dogs, and dogs are not “head-butters” and introverted “bohemian individualists” like cats. They communicate their affection, rejection, joys, fears, anxieties and love in very different ways, just as people do.

In my work over the years, I have felt the dog’s tail wag the human heart, and the purr of the cat make it sing. It is as simple and wonderful as that.

Avshalom Beni is the founder and program director of HAMA (Israel) Humans and Animals in Mutual Assistance. For more information, visit www.hama-israel.org.il.■