Talk to the animals

There is no denying the healing effect of a warm and furry friend on a lonely elder or autistic child.

man snake 88 248 (photo credit: Diana Bletter )
man snake 88 248
(photo credit: Diana Bletter )
Marco Orel looks up from his wheelchair, holding a yellowish-orange corn snake. A shy smile appears on his face. He's a victim of a stroke. He has difficulty speaking and his voice trips as he slowly makes his way from word to word. But as soon as he looks down at the snake crawling around his arm and poking into his blue jacket, the smile on his lips widens and his eyes light up. Orel is participating in a weekly animal therapy session run by Bosmat Boutellier, the energetic 28-year-old founder of Ha'Yeda, a mobile petting zoo. Every week, she brings a small menagerie of animals to the Eden Nursing Home in Nahariya. (The facility is a block away from the nursing home that was recently hit by Katyusha rockets.) This week, Boutellier has brought her gerbils, hamsters and box turtles in a crate. There's also Coco, the cockatiel from Australia, a bird with beautiful feathers, and, of course, Zrizi the snake. Most of the residents in the nursing home lobby sit on chairs not doing much of anything, seemingly cut off from the world. Many suffer from Alzheimer's disease and have a dazed look in their eyes. Others are withdrawn, staring off into space. A television announcer's voice can be heard in the distance. But in one corner of the room, Boutellier engages her audience of about a dozen people who are captivated by her animals. "The elderly want some kind of physical contact," Efrat Reuven, the nursing home's social worker, tells Metro. "They lost their spouses; their families don't always come to visit. The staff of the nursing home can't touch them in an affectionate way so the contact and touch of animals is very important." Coco the cockatiel perches on the arm of Dora Kvater, a resident who can't see or hear very well. She slips in and out of understanding a visitor's questions and can't always follow a conversation. But as soon as Coco perches on her arm, she turns and concentrates, making cooing sounds, speaking to the bird. Kvater says that a long time ago, she had a dog and a cat... then her voice trails off. When asked what the pets' names were, she can't remember. A little while later, Boutellier brings over a rubber crate containing a few gerbils and a box turtle. She hands Kvater a stalk of celery and encourages her to feed the animals. Kvater sits patiently, looking down at her new charges, watching as the animals munch and start to nibble. She gazes up for a moment, content, smiling at Boutellier who, in turn, seems pleased that her animals are being properly fed. "It's wrong to take rabbits and turn them into performers at a circus," states Dr. Yoni Yehuda, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and expert on animal therapy. Yehuda uses animals strictly for therapeutic purposes in closed, one-on-one sessions. But Boutellier believes that if animal caretakers treat their charges appropriately, animals can be an effective tool in reaching out to both the elderly and to children who suffer from autism and other disorders. Boutellier agrees that too many animal caretakers use animals as entertainment at events like children' birthday parties, without caring about the creatures' comfort. She has heard stories of bunnies taken out of their cages and allowed to run around, only to be trampled by the kids. However, she believes that animal activists misread or exaggerate an animal's reactions, and if conducted properly, even birthday parties can be used for educational purposes. Boutellier is also convinced that while rabbits, for example, might not necessarily like being held constantly at such parties, they don't say, "Oy," and continue to feel traumatized after the event. Animal training has enforced the approach that if an animal is still eating and breeding, it is not mentally hurt. And other animals, such as goats, parrots and ferrets, actually thrive on the over-stimulation that comes from a party for lots of children. Boutellier has brought her mobile menagerie to parties for religious Jewish children who have been taught that they should stay away from animals. In one neighborhood in Jerusalem, children had been tying cans on the tails of cats and "torturing them." But she exposed the children to her animals and explained why treating animals appropriately was important. She found that their resistance gradually gave way and she could educate them. The therapist uses her animals to work with autistic children and to stimulate them. Autistic children, she says, particularly like snakes because "they're clean and interesting for them to touch." She said the animals help children focus. In addition to her animal therapy services for children, Boutellier runs six animal therapy groups at nursing homes and geriatric centers in the western Galilee. She avoids advertising her groups as "therapy," because if she did, the elderly residents might not come. She says it's an "animal information group," just another afternoon activity. Some of the residents in this particular group are still intellectually curious and keen about hearing information about animals. This month, she's centered her lectures on animals' senses - for example, which animal sees well, which animal relies on its ears. During another lecture, she brought different animal skulls to explain how one can tell whether an animal is omnivore or carnivore. She's there to satisfy residents' curiosity, she said, and also to listen. Some people, she noted, are more interested in talking about themselves. They need to talk about themselves and the animals they once had, the things they once did. How they used to grow chickens. How they hunted wild boar. How they led their lives. The third group of people who come to the animal therapy sessions are those who just need the contact the animals give. "Animals give complete, unconditional love," Boutellier said. Some visitors might cringe at the sight of an elderly person missing a leg, but animals don't make distinctions and they're available for petting. "Nobody hugs these people any more," Boutellier said. "Nobody kisses them. But these animals offer them warmth and comfort, and that's so important." She also said that when she brings her animals to nursing homes, more family members come for visits because it's a way to connect the generations. "Children are often anxious about being around the elderly," she observes. "But when I'm there, I hear them say, 'Look, grandma is holding a snake!' and they move in close." Boutellier takes care of her animals for Ha'Yeda from her rented house in Moshav Ben Ammi in the western Galilee. In the back yard of her small cottage, she keeps about 100 animals, most of which she calls by name. In addition to the animals that accompanied Boutellier to the nursing home when Metro visited, she also has a small goat, and a huge Burmese python, Banana, that is a beautiful flaming yellow. She explains that the python is not poisonous - it strangles its meals - and that it's a snake rarely, if ever, found in the wild. In fact, most of the species she works with have been bred as pets for generations. There's a chinchilla, an animal originally from South America that was known for its fur. One might not see many chinchilla coats these days and chinchillas no longer exist in the wild. But their fur is soft and snuggly and makes for good physical warmth. Boutellier said that she got her start in animal therapy in a roundabout way. "I never played with spiders or cockroaches and I never brought home stray cats when I was growing up," she says. "My father said I didn't even like animals. I must admit I played with Barbies." But after spending time as a scout leader and serving in the IDF as a nature guide, then later working in a camp in California as the nature counselor, she got a job at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. "It was there that I fell in love with animals," she said. "I learned how to catch butterflies and touch a snake, which took a lot of courage." She gradually learned how to take care of animals - and also how to understand them. Some people, including opponents of zoos, assume that animals' natural behavior indicates distress. "Bunnies and guinea pigs like to lie very closely together in one corner of a cage," she said. "But some people might look at them and say they're hiding or disturbed. They're not - they enjoy being close that way." She opposes capturing a bird that has grown up wild its whole life and putting it in a cage. But she sides with the view that zoos can serve an educational purpose. If zoos can recreate the conditions of the animal's wild habitat and meet the animal's most important needs by providing the appropriate sustenance and shelter, they are not wrong. "I feel like I'm helping wild animals by using [domesticated] animals to teach children," she said. "By exposing children to domesticated animals, I'm raising their awareness about wild boars, coyotes and sea turtles. I hope that somehow it will make a difference in the future."