Here’s my latest Faces & Places column, which came out in the Moss Rock Review May/June issue.
It all started with Toby, who was just doing what he knew best. He cared for the patients of Saanich Peninsula Hospital each and every day, which was the most natural thing in the world for him to do. After all, he had lived there since he was a pup. Toby was a dog with one of the most important jobs of all – he brought happiness and joy to the people around him.
For Sadey Guy, a nurse at the hospital at the time, Toby was an inspiration. In 1988, she started the non-profit Pacific Animal Therapy Society (PATS) to bring pet therapy to more than just the people of one institution. PATS pets now visit over 90 facilities on the island. “Research has shown that it works,” Sadey says. “Patients get better faster if they have a pet.”
When I visited Sadey at her home we poured over the photo history of her almost-twenty year organization. She remembers them all: the pets, the owners, the celebrations and smiles. She tells me of her own dog, Dylan, whose picture has a place of honour on her wall. Although now gone, Dylan is remembered fondly. Sadey hasn’t forgotten anyone’s contribution to animal therapy – be it a human or pet volunteer.
Toby was the first dog, and many others have since followed. But Sadey’s volunteers also include furry – and not so furry – friends of other kinds, such as cats, rats, rabbits, birds, guinea pigs, chickens, goats, lambs, horses, ducks, snakes and yes, even a llama. These pets – over 400 of them – visit the young and old alike at schools, retirement homes, care facilities, activity centres and hospitals, and PATS now has five locations throughout BC.
Excited to see some of these extraordinary animals in action, I happily agreed to meet Sadey and some of her volunteers one day at a seniors centre downtown. Who greeted me when I walked in the door? The six-foot high llama named Inca Warrior, encircled by a small but very enthusiastic crowd! Several therapy dogs and cats were also in attendance; some even did tricks for their owners during the introductions. Amidst the happy commotion of the room I overheard a participant’s enthusiastic statement – “I just love animals!” – and I, too, became smitten with these four-legged creatures. (Who knew that a llama’s neck would be so soft?) These pets certainly make a difference to people’s lives; I saw it happen right in front of my eyes.
Not just any animal can become a therapy pet. Before the Dylans and Inca Warriors of the pet community can get passed as PATS pets, they need to go through standard behaviour testing with an unfamiliar vet. Twenty-three veterinarians on the island now offer this free test – which includes dropping loud items, pinching the pet and moving toward them with a walker. The vets make sure that the pet has the temperament to handle anything that might happen during a community visit. Pet volunteers also need to be vaccinated and have regular check-ups.
While pet therapy is one of the services that PATS provides, pet loss support is another. Many of us feel that our pets are part of our family, and so it can be very hard when they pass away. Who else understands this loss like a fellow pet owner? PATS operates a phone line for people struggling with the loss of a pet. It’s staffed by pet lovers trained in issues surrounding grief, and it’s open from 8am to 9pm any day of the week.
Toby is no longer with us, but he has not been forgotten. His smiling face now appears on the PATS logo, and it’s abundantly clear that his caring legacy lives on. Sadey Guy and her volunteers – both pet and human alike – have made sure of it.
PATS can be contacted at http://members.shaw.ca/patspets/ or at 250-656-4283. The pet loss support line can be reached at 250-389-8047.
Interested in reading more Faces & Places columns? Check out my last one here on supporting local food and farmers.