Animal Sanctuaries as Healing Havens By Ines Wynn

That animals have a salutary and therapeutic effect on humans is a fact that has been long established. Early Greek history records the use of horses to benefit severely ill people. The first clinically documented instance of equine therapy for physical and mental disorders dates from the 17th century.  By 1792 animal assisted therapy (AAT) was already established in England at the York Retreat, an asylum run by the Society of Friends which used ordinary farm animals as part of their therapy program to help the mentally ill. The famous Bethlem hospital in London also used the practice to a certain degree. The benefits of AAT have been debated ever since.

What exactly is AAT? Animal assisted therapy is a healing practice that uses animals as a medium of therapy in order to improve social, emotional, cognitive and physical functioning. The premise is that animals are a non-threatening aid used in an established medical program. Many kinds of animals are used, mostly dogs, cats, horses, and dolphins depending on the program and the trust and comfort level of the patient.   AAT can be used to treat mental and physical conditions alike. It has been noted that animals deflect the anxiety associated with the authority or control of the therapist. In establishing a bond between the animal and the patient, the therapist reverts to a less authoritarian role.  There are many ways AAT can be effective. For children or adults with physical challenges horses and dolphins are used as an aid in therapy. In palliative care, depression or long term illness dogs and cats can bring some solace to the patients. The therapy has also been used to help in treating drug and behavioural addictions.

AAT has its proponents and detractors. There is some controversy in regards to its benefits. Some argue that the therapeutic value of this practice has not been seriously studied and therefore not firmly established. However, it does not take much debate to concede that for certain types of patients this is a very valuable part of their healing process. Children with autism, Downs Syndrome and cerebral palsy have demonstrated an increased attention span and confidence level when engaged in animal assisted therapy. Patients with physical ailments often respond positively to hippo therapy in which horses are used to help them gain better mobility.

Part of the controversy also revolves around the use of captive animals like dolphins in AAT. Some activists maintain the position that animals should never be coerced and used as tools for the benefit of humans. This stance may appear somewhat extreme, especially considering that animals used in AAT are not abused or maltreated. One could even argue that the benefits and compassion factors work both ways: the animals sense their usefulness and create an empathic bond with the patient, who in turn, communicates their desire for animal empathy.

Is compassion for animals a learned emotion? We humans still have trouble sometimes appreciating animals as our co-creations, an entity to be treated humanely and compassionately, rather than be mastered and controlled.  The Judeo-Christian tradition of belief that humans have been given superiority, mastery and control over the animal world is hard to eradicate.  The interpretation has sometimes veered into the cynical and to the detriment of the animals.  But control should not mean abuse and people should realise that animas do have a soul, an instinct and an intellect that needs to be reckoned with.  Humanity’s compassion towards animals is a measure of their emotional and spiritual development.  Gandhi famously said that if you want to get the measure of a man, you should look how he treats the animals in his charge.


AAT in Bali. A few community service organizations in Bali practice animal assisted therapy and channel the healing properties of connecting with animals into programs that benefit adults and children alike to overcome addictions, depression and loneliness.

One animal sanctuary in Tabanan, home to a coterie of some 170 abandoned, mistreated, sick and rescued animals -including a hedgehog, horses, monkeys and dogs- is not only a refuge for the animals but also a therapeutic approach for recovering addicts and others in need of healing.  A kitten shelter close to Ubud has several programs benefiting lonely kids and those in orphanages.  Even among the Balinese communities these types of programs enjoy some resonance.

The animal sanctuary in Desa Perean Kangin, to the south-east of Baturiti has been under development since 2011 by Ubud based Linda Buller who is a recognised artist, doctor in Chinese medicine, philanthrope, founder of BARC and the Change Drug Rehabilitation Centre. That she is an animal lover is beyond the pale.  BARC, the rescue and dog shelter in Ubud is well known.  What is less well known is that Linda also established the Warrior Legacy sanctuary in Tabanan which plays a role in the therapeutic programs embraced by the Change Drug Rehabilitation Centre. The 127-are sanctuary is a heaven for abused, abandoned, behaviourally challenged and generally difficult to adopt animals. It is located in a remote rural area, surrounded by jungle and woods. It is an ideal environment for battered bodies and injured souls, human and animal alike, to come to rest, be healed and get a new lease on life far away from human mistreatment.  The sanctuary at present shelters 134 dogs, 26 monkeys, 2 horses and 3 pigs.

Each of those animals can tell their own story, mostly of abuse, abandonment, illness or handicap.  The dog stories are all too familiar in Bali.  At the sanctuary you will see many dogs with missing limbs, scurvy coats, behavioural problems, aggressive behaviours but also sweethearts with trust in their eyes and a yearning to be petted and loved. The horses, I am told, came from Denpasar dokar drivers who abused their animals to the point of collapse.  They came to the centre barely able to stand, ribs sticking through their coats and generally in bad health.  Thanks to the care of the sanctuary’s dedicated staff they are being nursed back to health and can spend their final days in a lushly green, comfortable and loving environment.

The animals are cared for by a full-time staff of 6 and it is very apparent that they care about the animals in their charge.  The animals have plenty of play and run room.  The dogs are housed in a compound with large kennels for those that need to be isolated due to illness or aggressiveness, a roomy house where they find shelter and companionship and a big yard where they can play.  Some of the problem dogs are let out in a special green area where they can run and exercise their excess energy safely away from other animals.

The monkeys have their own enclosure and playground, complete with a pool to cavort in, trees to climb on, equipment to play on and shelters to sleep in. The pigs, affectionately called Olie, Romeo and Juliet, have a delightful mud area to muck around in and a roomy shelter to sleep in.  One of the pigs is blind but that does not prevent him from leading a happy grunt-life and he is appropriately obese. All animals are under care of the BARC veterinarian and they are sterilised when arriving at the centre.

The Villa Kitty Programs – Villa Kitty’s founder Elizabeth Henzell has a couple of long established programs that benefit children and disadvantaged children.  Her “Sunday Lunch under the Mango Tree” at Villa Kitty are wondrous occasions for adults and children alike to come, have lunch in a garden setting and play with the kittens and cats that are sheltered there, 143 at last count.  Elizabeth thoroughly understands the healing power that emanates from animals and she started the “Every Child deserves a Kitten” at the SOS Children’s Village in Tabanan in 2013.  The children in this program are either orphaned or children whose parents do not have the funds to care for them or pay for their schooling. The idea was to give the children the opportunity to enjoy the love of a cat to compensate somewhat for the feelings of loneliness and missing their parents. Each home was offered a vaccinated and sterilised kitten, or two. The children were given the responsibility of caring for the kittens. The orphanage now has 14 cats in eight of their homes and they are a great part of the children’s lives.  Every 3 weeks, Villa Kitty staff visit the orphanage to bring food for the cats and check their health. The program has been a huge success. They live in safety with children in homes surrounded by beautiful gardens. This was an important part of the decision.

The program is expensive to run and yet, Elizabeth would love to expand it as she realizes the benefits these cats have on the children who have lost their parents.  At the same time she is not hesitant to refuse interested organisations if she thinks the kittens will not be treated well.

Besides this program, Elizabeth hosts school outings for visiting school children at Villa Kitty.  The children are split in groups of 4 or 5 to interact with the cats and kittens.  In the past Villa Kitty has also run educational programs at various schools to teach the children respect and compassion towards animals; however, it became apparent that the children learned so much more when spending time with the Villa Kitty cats in their own safe surroundings.  The Villa Kitty staff are very vocal about the cruelty in taking tiny kittens from their mothers and abandoning them. They believe that children are taught cruelty and so it can be ‘untaught’. Wherever she can Elizabeth is keen to educate youngsters on the plight of the voiceless Bali cats.

Amongst the Villa Kitty staff are 10 youngsters who come in before or after school to spend time playing with the kittens or giving the older feline residents some cuddles.  And in return the children enjoy the comfort and satisfaction they receive from the purrers.

To illustrate the therapeutic benefits of interacting with cats, Elizabeth relates the story of the recent adoption of Theodore, one of Villa Kitty’s most famous cats. Theodore was found almost dead in a garbage bin in Kerobokan prison and nursed back to health.  He was adopted by a little boy who had been diagnosed with atypical autism, whose mother had researched the benefits of animals for her son and came to Villa Kitty to see how this would help. Far from running from this excited boy, Theodore and other cats purred around his legs, allowing him to give them a combination of rather uncoordinated pats.

An overseas family comes once or twice a year to Ubud at the instance of their seventeen year old who spends every day at Villa Kitty. This delightful young girl tells everyone that she is autistic and that cats ‘saved her life’. Another young intellectually impaired boy visiting with his family had the entire staff in stitches. This young boy sat down in the centre of the West Village room and was blanketed with cats. The sheer joy this child was experiencing from the actions of these intuitive cats had everyone laughing.

Elizabeth also tells of the sadness that is a cat shelter. There are times, she says, when seeing the pain the cats and kittens suffer can be so acute she needs to find herself a moment of quiet in her home. The minute she puts her head on the pillow she is comforted by any number of her cat family. What is extraordinary about this, she says, is that the cats seem to be able to differentiate between when she is just tired and when she is feeling the sadness that comes with saying goodbye to a kitten who has lost the fight for life due to the cruelty of humans.

Compassion can go a long way in helping the healing process we sometimes need for ourselves.  The emotion itself appears to stimulate endorphins, one of the important elements associated with the feeling ofwell-being. In experiencing compassion and empathy with our fellow animal beings, we create healing waves for ourselves.

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