The Animal Angels Foundation was set up in 2005 by Rohini Fernandes and Radhika Nair. They are both certified practitioners of Animal Assisted therapy from the University of North Texas in the United States of America, besides having Master’s degrees in Clinical Psychology. Their common love for animals inspired their endeavour of counselling with the help of specially trained and tested therapy pets. The Animal Angels Foundation works with patients having developmental, behavioural and mental disabilities and disorders. Treatment is not necessarily restricted to children and the Angels work with adults and senior citizens too.
This pioneering duo has discovered that there are a lot of hindrances in practising new and revolutionary methods of counselling. They have had trouble setting up their operations due to a lack of funding and are still looking for benefactors. However, that has not deterred them. They had their first major breakthrough when a special school in Nerul accepted their form of therapy.
The Animal Angels Foundation and its founders have been recognised by national organisations and groups at various levels. According to their official website, the Animal Angels Foundation has been short-listed by Marico Innovation Foundation as one of the top twenty-five innovations in India for the Innovation for India Awards 2007-2008. Rohini and Radhika have also been nominated as MTV Youth Icons of the year 2008 for their work. The foundation has also been nominated for the TATA NEN Startups Awards 2008 and has been given a rank of 241 from 600 different start-up companies in India.
The Viewspaper speaks to Radhika Nair about the goals, the inspirations and the trials of running such a pioneering foundation.
VP: India has always been reticent about mental health care. Even the conventional methods took very long to gain foothold in the country. What has been the general response to Animal Assisted Therapy?
RN: When Animal Angels Foundation was started in 2005, many people in India were not aware of the healing power of animals. We faced a lot of obstacles, the main being that institutes were too apprehensive to allow us to practice AAT with their clients. They told us that if human therapists could not produce much change in these clients then animals would not be able to help them at all. We then offered these institutes a trial period where we would conduct therapy for a month and we would discontinue if they 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. We also video record the first and last sessions of our clients so that when we have to explain our work at a new institute we show them video clips of the clients.
VP: AAT is a novel way of dealing with disorders and disabilities and hence the available reference database in the Indian context must not be very strong. How easy/hard is it to establish this database?
RN:This therapy has not been practised in India before and we had no research to back us up. Hence we decided to have a tailor-made program for each client and the whole process is documented and evaluated. At Animal Angels Foundation, each of our clients goes through a pre-therapy, mid-therapy and post-therapy evaluation. All therapy sessions are documented through quantitative/qualitative data. We also occasionally do video recordings of first and last sessions to observe the improvement in the client.
We hope this kind of documented research will be helpful to people who wish to study about AAT in the future.
VP: During your practise, have you come across patients who are not responsive to AAT? What is your plan of action in such a scenario?
RN: AAT like any other conventional therapy does have some level of trial and error. One of the key requirements for AAT to work is that the client must have some level of motivation towards the pet. Some might be scared or apprehensive of the situation but they are still interested in the pet and ask questions about it. We have come across clients especially children who are indifferent towards our therapy. Therapy will not be very successful with such an individual as the pet does not grab their interest.
VP: In such a situation when the patient is afraid of animals, is it possible to use AAT to alleviate this fear?
RN: If an individual is scared but still interested in the pet, we work on them very slowly. Their first few sessions might involve just having the pet in the room but no physical contact. Children may be asked to throw the ball. Once the clients’ comfort levels increase they begin to approach the pet on their own and are asked to do activities which involve petting brushing etc. By the end of a couple of sessions most of our clients cuddle and kiss the dog good bye!!
VP: The pets that interact with the patients pass tests to determine whether they are fit and have the necessary disposition for this sort of an interaction. However, suppose a situation arises wherein a pet develops an aversion to a patient though the patient is attached to the pet, what happens in that case?
RN: A basic criterion in choosing out therapy pets is that they love being around and interacting with people. We make sure that our pet is comfortable during a therapy session. If they are unwell, we do not have sessions. If they are uncomfortable then it’s not going to be therapeutic in any way!
Since our pet is comfortable there has never been a situation when they haven’t liked a client. Our pets associate therapy sessions with lots of treats, playing ball, being petted and hugged and getting a lot of love. Hence they enjoy going to work and give their 100% when they’re with a client
VP: AAT seems to be quite a revolutionary method of therapist-patient interaction. Are you prepared to take this into the arena of state funded rehabilitation of criminal children and adults?
RN: We would love to move on to those arenas. The reason we are in the field of AAT is because we believe in the power of animals in healing people. Animals do not discriminate against caste, colour, creed, deformities or failures and somehow their sixth sense always reaches out to a soul in need.
We believe they will help to bring about a lot of change and definitely help in their rehabilitation. We have approached a juvenile home in Mumbai but there was a lot of red-tapism and we found it difficult to penetrate that. We sincerely hope we do get a chance in the future.
VP: If you were to rate the effectiveness of AAT, where would it stand?
RN:If the client is even slightly motivated we will definitely see some improvement, however small it may be. The higher the motivation levels, the higher the effectiveness.
VP: What has been the most poignant step for you as founders of the Animal Angels Foundation?
RN: Whenever we notice a change in our clients it makes our day. It has not been an easy journey for us but small moments like these make the ride worthwhile.
When Sheela (name changed to protect identity), an eight-year-old child with Autism enters the therapy room, she runs straight towards her friend, therapy dog Casper. She then lies down by his side and rests her head on his back. Sheela found it very difficult to interact with people and had a very short attention span. She was then introduced to Casper and was very motivated to interact with him. After just twelve sessions of animal-assisted therapy, she plays with her peers and responds positively to her teacher who says that she is ‘now a happier child’. Her attention span and concentration have improved tremendously through activities with Casper like playing ball with him or walking him. She has also started saying simple words like ‘ball’, ‘dog’, ‘come’ etc. these improvements are seen not only in the therapy room but also in her class and home environment.
VP: The Animal Angels Foundation is based entirely in Mumbai. Have you considered taking this brilliant form of patient-therapist interaction to other parts of the country, or for that matter, the state?
RN: When we started Animal Angels Foundation in 2005 no one in India had worked in this field before. Also, of now we are only Mumbai-based and just the two of us run this organization and practice this therapy here. We are extremely short of trained therapists. Hence, we would like to train more like-minded health professionals and expand our staff. We are not able to take on new projects till we can employ more therapists to work with us.
From the time we have started getting publicity in the media for our work, we have had many people from other cities in India contacting us because they want their child or family member to benefit from this therapy. We do want to expand to other cities so that people from all over benefit from this therapy.
VP: What is your mission statement for the Animal Angels Foundation for the next 5 years?
RN:Our mission statement has always been ‘Enhancing the quality of people’s lives through our therapy animals’. In the next 5 years we want to reach out to as many people as we can.