Photo by Lavanya Sunkara
Birds are incredible animals. They are sensitive, caring and understanding. One bird named Harriet at the Helen Woodward Animal Center (HWAC) in San Diego is putting her skills to use to help those in need. That's right: birds can be therapy animals, too.
Harriet is an Umbrella Cockatoo, a species native of Indonesia and the central/northern Moluccas. She is one of the birds at the HWAC’s Pet Encounter Therapy Program, where she spends her time visiting adult patients at skilled nursing facilities, Alzheimer’s facilities, psychiatric day centers and hospitals. She occasionally visits with children at a local psychiatric facility and a children’s shelter.
Harriet is 40 years old. She went through many owners in her lifetime. There was a time when she was living in a basement, neglected by her owner. A kind woman heard about her plight and convinced the owner to give her up. She was eventually adopted by the HWAC in 1993. Since then, she has been under the loving care of the staff and volunteers at the Center. “She considers us her family,” said Robin Cohen, manager of the Pet Encounter Therapy Program.
While most birds don’t like to be touched by anyone other than their owner, Harriet demands to be pet. Robin said, “She has a way of cuddling up under your chin and pressing her body against your face which is the perfect behavior for her most important therapy work – working with clients that have paralysis from the neck down.”
Patients with paralysis can still feel sensation on their face. When Harriet presses up against them, they can feel the softness of her feathers, her breath on their cheek and hear her beak clicking, which is similar to a cat purring or a dog wagging its tail.
“These clients get a full interaction from the neck up," said Robin. "We have seen people speak to her when they won’t speak to any of the facility staff and people will reach out to touch her soft feathers when they won’t interact with anyone in any other way. She will let everyone pet her and will dance and raise her crest feathers at the top of her head to salute them."
Unlike therapy dogs and horses, Harriet brings something more to therapy. Since the patients cannot move easily, she can be brought to their bedside and close to their hand or cheek.
“The patients ‘oh and ah’ over her, smiling, laughing and marveling at her gentle nature,” Robin says. Patients that are mostly unresponsive and don’t get much interaction find their encounters with Harriet very fulfilling.
Harriet is the only bird that goes out on visits. HWAC’s Pet Encounter Therapy program uses doves occasionally for clients who come to the Center for on-site visits. Small and large hookbills are also on the premises for on-site tours, but are not to be touched like Harriet. All the birds are tested yearly to make sure they do not carry any diseases.
“Our animals work only when they want to!” said Robin about the work the birds do. While HWAC has a rule of animals working only an hour a day, Harriet works more because she loves it. Harriet had a long career and has visited more than 40,000 people over the years. Harriet received the California Veterinary Medical Association Animal Hall of Fame award for her work. She is the only bird to ever receive the award.
Dogs are an obvious choice for meeting the increasing demand for therapy animals. Animal visitation programs are becoming more and more popular due to the amazing benefits they offer—lowered blood pressure, faster healing time and unconditional love—but using birds for therapy is not as common.
“It’s hard to find the right bird with the right personality for this type of work," says Robin. "I have worked in this field for over 18 years and Harriet is the only large bird that I have met that is right for this program." Harriet is one special bird indeed.
Helen Woodward Animal Center is a no-kill animal center and educational facility in San Diego, CA, offering Pet Encounter Therapy, AniMeals, therapeutic horse riding programs, pet boarding, equine and small animal hospital and an education camp for kids among other services. To learn more, visit Helen Woodward Animal Center's website.