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Zoo animals help in therapy program

By Lori O' Brien


SPRINGFIELD "Sophie" and "Juliet" are among select animals at The Zoo in Forest Park this spring that are part of a unique therapeutic intervention strategy for area children.

The approach is simple incorporate animals as "therapy assistants" in the treatment of children with a variety of delays and/or disorders, according to Linda Lyons, LICSW, pediatric social worker for children's rehabilitation at the Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital at Mercy Medical Center.

The program is called Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), and is a strategy used by therapists as part of a child's goal directed treatment program. Currently, Weldon's AAT program works with preschool and school-age children to assist in reaching their speech/language, occupational and physical therapy goals, according to Lyons.

During a recent Tuesday afternoon session, Megan Smith, Sarah Sienkiewicz and Amanda Barnard were "zookeeper helpers" as Nancy Condon, director of education and volunteer services, The Zoo in Forest Park, provided them with a behind-the-scenes tour to meet and learn how to care for rabbits, tarantulas, goats and miniature horses.

"One of the foremost educational goals of The Zoo is to be an exceptional educational resource for our community," said Condon. "Providing animal-assisted therapy for the pediatric rehab center at Weldon is a unique service we can provide and in which we are happy to be of service."

Since 1998, the Springfield-based program has provided animal-assisted therapy that encompasses speech, occupational and physical therapies, according to Lyons, adding that many of the children also have needs in social skills, attention and self-esteem.

"Their sense of excitement and motivation to interact with the animals gives us windows of opportunity to address our therapeutic goals with the children," said Lyons. "Some of those goals include comprehension of language, vocabulary, turn taking, developing self control, caring for others and appropriate expression of emotions."

Lyons explained that the zoo environment provides a hands-on experience "to help the children integrate what they are learning in a fun environment with the hope that skills learned during the session can be carried over at home and in school."

Groups are determined based on age, therapy goals and one's level of functioning. Generally, each group is comprised of four to six children with two to four staff in addition to the zoo volunteer.

Condon said that the children's interaction with staff is not as important as the participants' interaction with the animals.

"Staff or volunteers facilitate the interface, gently introducing one of our education animals to the children and facilitating touching, answering questions about the animal, and making sure the animal and participants feel safe about their encounter," said Condon.

Condon added that the animal visit with a staff member is brief for the younger children, allowing the rest of the session for the children to work with the therapists on verbal exercises, pictures, motion and crafts. Children also have a chance to visit and feed crackers to the display animals in the zoo.

With older children, their role as "Zookeeper Helpers" is structured in a more involved fashion, according to Condon. While children help to feed and care for a select group of animals, a zoo staffer provides education so that the child will be able to make a presentation to parents at the end of the program.

"The children will also make some useful items for the zoo, including can and bottle recycling containers, birthday boxes for our birthday groups, and enrichment items for the zoo's animals," said Condon.

Ultimately, a zoo staffer facilitates the children's involvement in zoo operations while the therapists oversee that it is done in a therapeutic fashion.

By the time the hour long session was over, the girls were enthusiastic about their roles and couldn't wait to talk about their experiences.

For Megan Smith of Springfield, being able to help feed and tend to the animals was a rewarding experience. Her favorite animal to tend to was the miniature horse "Juliet."

"She was cool," said Smith, adding "I liked petting her."

Spring also brought many newborns into the fold at the zoo and the baby animals are the most fun for Sarah Sienkiewicz of Ludlow.

"I like to meet the baby animals, feed and pet them," she said.

Amanda Barnard of Westfield, also has a tender spot for the baby animals and "just likes being with them."

Family members interviewed report seeing a noticeable change in the girls who are participating in the therapy sessions and wholeheartedly support the program.

"Megan was shy and now is more outgoing and well spoken," said her mom Lorrie Smith.

Don Sienkiewicz added that Sarah has become more outgoing which has improved her socialization skills.

Cathy Sullivan, grandmother of Amanda, said she would also recommend the program to families since she has seen a dramatic change in her granddaughter.

"She was shy and withdrawn," said Sullivan, "but now she's more outgoing."

All family members also praised the Weldon's supportive therapists who are always willing to go the "extra mile" for the children.

"This neutral environment helps to relax children, decrease anxiety and increase attention, all of which create an ideal learning situation," said Lyons. "The numerous benefits of AAT make this a highly recommended adjunct to traditional treatment."

Lyons added that AAT is not only therapeutically beneficial but it is also fun.

"What could be more perfect for children with special needs and their families than an opportunity to have both," said Lyons.

At the conclusion of the session, Condon took time out to also praise the girls on a job well done working with the animals.

"I am very proud of all of you," she said.

For more information on Weldon's AAT program, contact Lyons at (413) 748-6853.