Rohini Fernandes and Radhika Nair, Animal Angels Foundation
The idea of using animals to help people first occurred to them during fieldwork in M.A. when they were working in the psychiatric wards of various hospitals. While working with clients who loved animals, they found that the moment they started talking about animals, their clients would become more relaxed with them. Further research in this area and led them to the conclusion that
animal-assisted therapy is a new field that is still in its initial stages in other countries. They also found that in India no one had been using this as a medium of therapy. Feeling a need for this therapy here, they decided to start an organization that provides such services. Wanting to reach out to as many children, adults and senior citizens through this therapy as possible, they combined their knowledge of dogs with their training in the field of clinical psychology to use "Animal-Assisted Therapy" with clients. They have done a one year course from the University of North Texas, USA and are now certified practitioners of animal-assisted therapy. Rohini bought a golden retriever puppy, named her 'Angel' and specially trained her as a therapy dog. She is the first therapy dog of 'Animal Angels Foundation' which has been named after her. They now have a team of about twenty dogs and one cat in Mumbai who have been specially trained for this therapy. Fish are also used as a medium of therapy with children.
When Animal Angels Foundation was started in 2005, many people in India were not aware of the healing power of animals. Institutes were too apprehensive to allow 'Animal Angels Foundation' to practice AAT with their clients. They said that if human therapists could not produce much change in these clients then animals would not be able to help them at all. To overcome this difficulty, Rohini and Radhika offered these institutes a trial period where they would conduct therapy for a month and would discontinue if the institution felt that it was not working. After a month of AAT the positive changes were visible not just to the staff but to the parents of the clients also. Their first big break came when a special school in Nerul accepted their therapy.
One internal challenge they also faced is that they had no one to guide them when they started to practice AAT. As this is a new field in psychology (work on AAT has been documented only since the past 30 years) techniques in this therapy and data collection methods are still being developed in the world. They have therefore had to devise new techniques for each of the populations that they work with and also had to formulate tables that would get useful data on the progress of our clients. Today they have devised various techniques which they use with different clients. With regard to data collection they managed to get help from some therapists who practice AAT in the USA and now have tables that give information as to whether the clients are progressing in terms of social, cognitive, physical and verbal skills.
'Animal Angels Foundation' started without any infrastructure. They did not have any clinic or even any vehicle to transport the animals. All therapy pets need to be transported by an AC vehicle since they get tired quickly in non AC vehicles because of the heat, dust and pollution. These two factors made it difficult to reach out to clients in different parts of Mumbai. Now the therapy pets are taken to the institutes so that more clients can avail of their services. They use Meru AC Taxi Service to transport the pets to the institutes. However this is very expensive as the fare for an AC taxi is very steep. For private clients, sessions are conducted at Rohini or Radhika's residence.
As a professional organization working in the novel field of animal-assisted therapy in India, financial assistance to help provide animal-assisted therapy services, buy therapy material for animals and clients, for transportation of therapy animals and for research and documentation of work is continually required. This is an area where they face continual challenge. Radhika and Rohini started 'Animal Angels Foundation' as soon as they completed their MA and without any capital. They approached people to help them with funding, and found that the people did not want to put their money into a concept they had not heard of. They were lucky to have the support and backing of their parents who helped them out with the basic finances of the Foundation. Three years later they have still not yet received any funding from anyone. They use part of their salary to run the organization.
With regard to children 'Animal angels Foundation' has worked in the areas of developmental disorders like Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, etc. The children have shown improvement in motor skills, verbal skills, social skills and cognitive skills. They have also worked with children with behavioural problems like aggression, shyness, low self-confidence and have brought about a lot of positive changes in client behaviour.
AAT programs in kindergartens and schools have helped in educating children about animals. Showing children what it means to be responsible for another creature's survival helps teach them important life lessons such as discipline, patience, kindness and attentiveness. With regard to adults they have been successful in the use of AAT in the case of psychiatric disorders, physical disabilities, and physical illnesses and also to help them deal with emotional problems. One of the biggest successes in AAT has been with adults who are physically challenged. AAT has helped them improve their fine and gross motor skills, wheelchair skills and standing balance. Many of these clients have been motivated to go for occupational therapy after we have improved their motor skills.
AAT programs with senior citizens focus on alleviating loneliness and anxiety in people. Activities like playing ball with our pets or taking them for a walk ensures that these people keep themselves physically active. They also use AAT for senior citizens with Alzheimer's Disease.
Their passion to help people enhance the quality of their lives through animal- assisted therapy, and their faith in the basic healing power of animals, is what drives Rohini and Radhika on to face the day to day challenges of pioneering a new field. They hope to be able to expand their services to hospitals, and to train more people in this life-enhancing field of work, in the near future.