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Lending a Helping Paw

By Mark Kostich

(Page 2 of 3)

One of my cancer patients, Bethany, helped demonstrate and reinforce the fundamental principles underlying the term pet therapy for me. I first met Bethany who was then an 8-year-old girl about to undergo radiation therapy & chemotherapy at my hospital. On her first morning, I saw her walking down the hall with one hand holding firmly to her motherís hand. The other towed a stuffed animal lagging near behind. She had tied a jump rope around the stuffed animalís neck as a makeshift leash. I introduced myself to Bethany as her new friend, and asked her who her friends were. She introduced her mother, and her pet Jaguar. Then she asked if her Jaguar could go with her and get treatments too. And I of course agreed.

After a week or two of seeing her drag this stuffed animal around, I began to see the importance of her relationship with it. She had a friend, a companion and someone (or something) that depended on her. At the time, I was also volunteering at a local animal preserve. The preserve had about 300 cats. They had tigers, leopards, ocelots, servals, caracals, cougars, snow leopards and they also had jaguars! I spoke with her doctors and inquired about her condition and the feasibility of her association with animals. I knew that the very treatments that were helping her had also compromised her immune system. Her doctors gave a visit to the preserve the thumbs up so I approached her mother, and then suggested the idea to her. Bethany was thrilled. She was finally going to see a real jaguar up close!

The next weekend, I escorted the pair through the preserve. Together we saw all the different animals including the jaguars. After a two-hour tour of the compound, we went into the main building where Bethany could see and pet the baby cats. She held and fed a baby ocelot. She pet a baby white tiger and even got to meet and hold an injured baby serval (a mid-sized African wild cat). I was struck by the immediate impact that this adventure was making on her young life. This fact was particularly evident in her association with the young serval. She developed an instant empathy and connection with the cub, and her instincts of care and compassion now had a platform to manifest. This kind of spiritual link is especially important in children undergoing treatment because it is one of the most often overlooked aspects in maintaining their mental health and well being. We take for granted a childís need for love and protection, but often we forget that they also need to provide love and protection as well. They need to participate and feel a connection with their surroundings and not be seen as simply an object or a disease. Nurturing this young wild cat allowed Bethany to experience this feeling for herself and I believe that it made a profound difference in her ability to better cope with the impact of her cancer treatments.

After our weekend adventure, Bethany returned to her treatments at the Hospital. She glowed after her experiences with the animals and delighted in viewing the pictures that she and I had taken together. Bethany still carried her Jaguar with her through the hospital. Her hospital room was decorated with pictures of the animals that she had seen. And when she left the hospital, she was able to return to the animal preserve several times.


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