A pet therapy service based in Worcestershire proves that sometimes the most unlikely sorts of animals can help improve the lives of service users in unusual ways.
Criterrish Allsorts was founded by Dale Preece-Kelly and has been bringing exotic encounters to social care settings since 2010. Community Care caught up with Dale to find out about his menagerie of social care beasties and how they are helping to change lives.
Stoosh the skunk
Forget Pepé Le Pew, Stoosh might be a North American skunk but she’s no stinker. She’s much more into having a cuddle and looking cute than causing nasal offence with her scent glands. “Everyone thinks skunks smell but Stoosh doesn’t, she’s loveable and affectionate,” says Dale.
What’s great about Stoosh is that she’s like a cat but much more reliable when it comes to working with people. “I do a lot of work with CAMHS kids who have self-esteem issues and the problem with cats is that if they get off their lap and wander off, the kids will say ‘the cat doesn’t like me’ and it compounds their lack of self-esteem,” explains Dale. “Stoosh doesn’t do that. You put her on somebody’s lap and she just goes to sleep as they stroke her.”
Shiver the blue-tongued skink
This Australian ground lizard might look like she raided a box of prank sweets but her smooth, sticky tongue has its therapeutic uses. “Shiver gives kisses with her tongue on the end of the nose or the cheek and that touch is therapeutic to people,” says Dale.
“It’s kind of a shock for people when they get a kiss but at the same time, it breaks a barrier because people in homes or hospitals don’t get much affection so they like having that kind of inter-personal interaction.”
Rumours that kissing a skink back will turn it into a prince are, however, unfounded.
Titan the giant black millipede
Hailing from East Africa, Titan’s not short on legs. His body is 8-inches long and held aloft by way too many legs to count, but somewhere between 150 and 400 seems likely.
But while Titan is the ultimate creepy crawly and ticklish to the touch, he can work wonders with autistic children who have hyper-sensitive skin.
“By putting him on the skin for seconds and then, over a period of weeks, increasing that to minutes, you help to desensitise that person,” says Dale. “So instead of having a child with autism who screams every time mummy holds his hand, he can now hold mummy and daddy’s hand and it’s not painful.”
Titan’s collection of symbiotic mites that spend their lives keeping his legs clean also help out. “If you point the mites out, kids concentrate on the mites not the feeling on the skin,” says Dale. “That’s how pet therapy works – it takes the focus away from the problem and makes the animal the focus.”
Sebastian the chinchilla
When it comes to working a room this South American rodent’s got it covered. “You can put Sebastian on a sofa between two people and he will share himself evenly between them, hopping from one to the other,” says Dale. “He’ll even hop from chair to chair to go to different people.”
What’s more, Sebastian has got a coat that is made for stroking: “He’s so soft. For every hair we’ve got chinchillas have 80. The way I describe the feel is imagine reaching out of a plane and touching a cloud.”
Mr Gray and Anastasia
While the Fifty Shades of Grey inspired names of these lizards provoke a giggle in nursing homes, it’s their stress relief skills that make these African fat-tailed geckos a favorite with those Dale works with. And it’s all thanks to their bulbous tails.
“Their tails look like their heads and in the wild it’s their defence,” explains Dale. “If a predator comes along they put their head down and stick up their tail. The predator grabs the tail and then a mechanism at the base of the tail allows them to detach and escape. They then grow another tail. The tail is made up of fats and is quite squidgy so a lot of the time people will sit with them and gently use their thumb and finger on the tail which, if they have a high stress level, can bring down that feeling of anxiety.”
Wasabi the hedgehog
Sadly, Wasabi recently passed away but this African pygmy hedgehog was a favourite among residents at the care homes Dale visits with his animals. “Dementia patients love hedgehogs because they were very prevalent in the ’70s and ’80s,” he says.
“People have that recollection of putting out bread and milk for them so there was this connection between Wasabi and the past. He also made them laugh. He’d do this thing where he would jump and huff a bit like a train and because that surprised people it made them giggle and smile, which made them feel better about things.”
Connie the boa constrictor
While boa constrictors have a bad reputation, Dale insists that eight-foot long Connie doesn’t see people as prey (she prefers rats) and lacks the strength to strangle.
And while handling this pretty patterned reptile isn’t for everyone, he says for those who overcome their fears an encounter with Connie can power up their confidence: “If a patient at a psychiatric hospital holds her, something that others are too scared to do, that gives the person a huge feeling of self-esteem and achievement. It really buoys them up.”
Wubbles the White’s tree frog
While Wubbles’ need for water makes him less of a regular feature on Dale’s visits, he always makes an impression with his big, deep eyes. “Wubbles has very intelligent eyes. If you look into the eyes of a frog they have very friendly eyes and it makes people feel they are not being judged,” he says.
The lack of judgement animals offer people in psychiatric hospitals is very important, he adds: “You can get people who have been mute for three months in a psychiatric hospital and all of a sudden they start talking to the animals because the animals aren’t judging them.”
Moshi the tortoise
This Horsefield tortoise is a big hit with people suffering from dementia, says Dale. “Tortoises are huge because a lot of people had them as pets in the 60s – they cost about 50p and were sold in pet shops. That brings back memories for people with dementia,” he says.
Moshi has also had a transformative effect on one psychiatric hospital patient. “This guy was always verbally and physically aggressive with staff and he was really sweet with Moshi,” Dale recalls. “He just sat with Moshi, watching him walk around and eat grass while stroking his shell gently. That changed the perception of the staff, they could see him in a different light after that. So the staff began treating him differently and he began reacting differently and became more settled on the ward. The guy’s whole treatment and recovery was enhanced because Moshi helped him be seen in a different light.”
Beanz the dog
It’s not just those in need of social care who benefit from animal-assisted therapy, sometimes its the animals themselves. Dale’s border collie was a rescue dog that had spent time living on the streets of Ireland and never played until the patients at a psychiatric hospital helped him out. “It was one of the patients who taught him to play,” says Dale. “I would throw balls for him and got nothing – Beanz would just look at me.
The patient would throw balls for him for visit after visit and he would just ignore it. But then, suddenly, one day Beanz decided to pick up the ball and bring it back. He got such a fuss that he did it again and he changed. It was like he was a puppy all of a sudden. He went from this dog that would just lie there and watch to one with a big smile and tongue lolling out of his mouth. I was in bits. He got as much therapy out of it as those getting the therapy.”
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