Our relationships with animals have evolved from the days when we used them only for food, clothing or beasts of burden. But animals still work for us. Only in this era, they are working in more mysterious-and some would say, spiritual-ways. Scientists have proven that animals-through just the simple act of touching them-can bring down our blood pressure and extend the quality and length of our lives. Of course, anyone who has ever owned and loved a pet knows about the powerful and intimate connections we have with animals. But good things happen even when the animal isn’t ours. The animals on these pages go to work almost every day, laboring without complaint and without a paycheck, either. They’ve made a difference in hundreds of lives. Sunflower seeds, a carrot and a pat on the head are all that most require. Feathered or furry, stray or costly purebred, providing therapy, entertainment or just a loyal chin to scratch, animals make us better people.
For all of his 165 pounds, Taz, a magnificent-looking five-year-old bull mastiff with a velvety, black nose as plush as a pillow and a back as broad as a coffee table, is a gentle giant. He is also a giant ice breaker.
Since he was seven weeks old, Taz, a certified pet therapy dog, has been working with abused kids at Sarasota’s Child Protection Center with his owner, therapist Susan Krinsk. Krinsk, a former San Diego zookeeper, animal behavior specialist and author of Anicare: The Animal Human Connection, also uses Taz in group counseling sessions with adult sexual offenders.
Taz’s massive frame is perfect for hugging. Abused children have climbed out of hiding places in therapy rooms and in the locked places of their hearts to touch him. "People are more open with him in the room," Krinsk says. "He can’t repeat what anyone says. He doesn’t look at anyone with judgment. So many of our clients are shame-filled. It’s such a relief for them to walk through a door and feel equal to everyone else. He teaches that all living things have feelings and need to be treated with respect."
Three years ago, Spirit, a golden retriever born missing one of her paws but possessing that endearing "golden" smile, was sitting in a cage at the Humane Society of Sarasota County, Inc., when the shelter’s education director Kate Franklin spied her. "There was something in her eyes," Franklin says. "I work here every day, and she was special."
So Franklin adopted Spirit and trained her to work in the Hugs Program, a Humane Society program that brings animals to children who have physical and mental handicaps. Sometimes, Franklin says, the profoundly disabled won’t reach for anything until animals enter the room. "Even a smile from some kids is a breakthrough because they’re so inside themselves," Franklin says. "Children lying on the floor will follow her actions and turn their heads. An autistic and hearing-impaired child learned to sign because he wanted to see our animals."
In particular, Spirit seems drawn to children in wheelchairs, and many physically disabled children are drawn to her. "The children are fascinated with her birth defect and accept her immediately," says Franklin. "They see she lives perfectly well, even without a paw."
Cats were once prized only as mousers. And Spunky, now the oldest fish market cat at Star Fish Company Seafood & Restaurant in Cortez since his brother Chopper died, has remained loyal to this time-honored calling for almost 20 years. Old Cortez fishermen and long-time staff knew the pair by name and never minded when the cats begged for shrimp heads or maybe just some acknowledgement that the fish market was a cleaner and friendlier place because they were patrolling the grounds.
Chopper died in his sleep recently and was buried in a special place near the landmark restaurant. But Spunky-along with a few new strays-carries on the tradition. In return, the cats get fresh fish, canned cat food and plenty of warm, dry places for sunbathing. "They eat better than I do," assistant manager John Moore says of Spunky and the other strays attracted by the smell of fresh fish and a pat from kind-hearted workers. "And the customers love them."
Sometimes, when Kathy Wilbanks walks into a room of a patient or a resident at a nursing home, a nurse precedes her, asking the patient, "How would you like some unusual company?" It’s not Wilbanks who’s so unusual, however; it’s her seven-foot llama, Blue.
Few people would suspect that llamas make wonderful hospital visitors, but they are often the brightest part of a resident’s day, says Wilbanks, who transports several in her van to area nursing homes and a hospice facility.
"They go right to the bed and give kisses," she says. (Llamas, she adds, don’t have potty accidents, since they only eliminate in specific areas.)
And with their great big brown eyes and long lashes, they’re irresistible bedside companions. Alzheimer’s patients, who often show no reaction to the outside world, often reach out to touch them.
"A friend describes my llamas as like cats until you catch them, and then they’re like dogs," Wilbanks says. Her daughters, 12 and 15, actually invite them into the house where they fold themselves up and watch TV with the rest of the family. "They’re so loving and kind," Wilbanks says. "I’m happy to know they’re bringing happiness to people within those walls."
Jacob, a dark bay with a star on his forehead, was once a top-rated $30,000 dressage horse that showed around the world. Then Donna Blem, the executive director of the Smith Center for Therapeutic Riding, Inc., inherited him. She eventually brought the 18-year-old gelding, who has endless patience and an uncanny ability to match his stride to his riders’ needs, to Nokomis to help children and adults with disabilities. For many of these riders, Blem explains, getting on the back of a horse like Jacob is the only time they feel a sense of freedom and independence.
Jacob senses the difference between an able-bodied rider and one who has problems with balance and coordination, says Blem, "and he’ll reposition himself."
Just ask Joann Chandler, whose daughter Liz suffered severe head injuries four years ago after being hit by a car while rollerblading. Not only has riding improved the girl’s balance and strength, it has also helped relax the muscle spasms on the right side of her body. "After 10 minutes, I can see her relax. It’s amazing," Joann says. "Jacob just seems to sense and know what’s best for her."
For sheer number of days worked without ever complaining or calling in sick, the award has to go to Frosty, Jungle Gardens’ 66-year-old greater sulfur crested cockatoo. Originally trained by an ex-convict who started an animal training program in California prisons, Frosty is usually described as the gardens’ "celebrity" for his 1950s’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, where he handily rode a bicycle across the stage. In 1972, he was purchased for Jungle Gardens’ bird shows.
For the last 31 years, Frosty has been jauntily hopping on a unicycle to take a quick turn on the high wire at the daily shows. He gets about two weeks off a year and a constant supply of his favorite snack of sunflower seeds.
Once in a while, Frosty balks at performing. "Sometimes he won’t go," says his handler and animal manager, Robin Cain. "He’ll just sit there and that will be embarrassing." But, she says, the birds are really like a bunch of three-year-olds, so they’re expected to be temperamental at times. "It’s like working at a preschool here," she says about the backstage shenanigans of the Gardens’ seven performing macaws and cockatoos. "But I think they really enjoy performing. Birds are very routine-oriented."