Elephant Assisted Therapy
According to a study done by Saint Louis University and published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, animal assisted therapy has concrete social benefits. One of the researchers, William Banks, professor of geriatrics and psychological science at Saint Louis University, explained: "It's not that animals have magic vibes coming out of them. It's about giving people a sense of life beyond what they ordinarily experience." Another researcher says, "Stroking a dog, watching a kitten play or observing the hypnotic explorations of fish can reduce stress and loneliness, shift our focus beyond ourselves and help us connect to the larger world." In several places, including South Africa and Jerusalem, animal assisted therapy includes elephants.
In South Africa, psychologist Dr. Swanepoel works with children to help them develop skills and behaviors in order to overcome disabilities - by using elephant assisted therapy. "I have always been interested in animal assisted therapy, and studied dolphin assisted therapy in Israel," he says. Dolphins are rare in South Africa, but elephants share many of the same qualities. "Elephants are gentle with their young, protective, and seem to sense when they are near a child or disabled individual."
In South Africa, ten-year-old patient Rentia was born without eyes, and she was extremely fearful about basic life tasks. She was afraid to walk to the bathroom alone and she had low self-esteem, which hindered her ability to learn to dress herself and to learn how to read Braille. However, she was enthusiastic about animals. Rentia's mother contacted Dr. Swanepoel, and Rentia was brought to a local game farm to have therapy with an elephant named Boelie. "Elephants have a 'wow' factor about them because of their size," Dr. Swanepoel says. "Spending time with such a creature could provide a motivating experience for a child."
This was true for Rentia. She was immediately fascinated by the rough texture of Boelie's skin, soft ears, long, long trunk and wet snout, soft ears, and intriguing sounds. The doctor worked with Rentia to help her gain skills, and when she achieved each goal, she was taken for a visit with Boelie. Each skill she gained increased her confidence, and in three months time, she learned to go to the bathroom alone, walk up and down stairs, button her blouse, and read Braille. She also went camping and walked on terrain she was unfamiliar with, both activities she had never done before and would have previously been afraid to try.
Dr. Swanepel also used elephant assisted therapy with Jonathan, a 13-year-old who had cerebral palsy. The boy refused to talk and was reluctant to use his limbs. He too was taken to visit Boelie and progressive goals were set for his therapy. Jonathan enjoyed stroking the elephant's trunk so much that he overcame his fear of movement. He also began talking, gained self-confidence, and greatly improved his ability to socially interact. "Elephants are gentle with their young, protective, and seem to sense when they are near a child or a disabled individual," Dr. Swanepoel says. "Many children with disabilities need therapy and behavior interventions that may not be conventional. . Animals work magic with these children. It is my hope that I will be able to share this success with other children who might benefit from Elephant Assisted Therapy."
Some elephant assisted therapy is conducted in a zoo, an environment that is beyond the scope of a child's everyday life. It is an exciting place to visit, and children look forward to an experience there. They are excited to see the animal they are working with, and they gain a sense of confidence and security by knowing that an animal is waiting to see them. It is a unique experience, and it gives the child the experience of feeling special and important. The physical and emotional contact is essential for kids who do not get that contact in their family or in their environment at home or school.
Children who have special needs, including emotional ones, receive tremendous support through animal assisted therapy, including the unusual elephant assisted therapy. They learn concentration and self-discipline in order to form a connection with the animal, which is a process of emotion and of trust. The child has to take responsibility and adapt to the animal's needs, and that becomes part of the child's development. In therapy, a child will feed, pet, and clean the animal, which are normally activities that are done for them by their parents or other caretakers. The act of doing these tasks for animals gives the child a sense of empowerment because it allows the child to decide what to feed the animal, when to clean it, and how to make the animal trust him or her. Additionally, the child must control emotions such as anger and frustration in order to get the animal to cooperate, and this control transfers to outside activities. Other issues are also addressed, such as family support and parental protection when a child observes the way an animal, including an elephant, functions within a social herd. This experience helps the child learn how to cope with the realities of his or her daily life.
Elephants are amazing, intelligent, caring, funny, and protective beings - and today, some troubled and disabled children can actually say that their therapist is a two-ton pachyderm!