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The healing power of a baby goat

Gabriel Martin bonds with a doeling during a visit at Coffee Oasis.  - Melinda Weer / Herald
Gabriel Martin bonds with a doeling during a visit at Coffee Oasis.
— image credit: Melinda Weer / Herald

I figured I could take care of a bit of business while I visited the Poulsbo Coffee Oasis Youth Center one day.

I had five baby goats in a carrier in the back of my Honda, ready for a surprise visit to the teens at the center. But, pressing on my mind was that I needed to get a picture of a couple in the process of planning their wedding, for an announcement I was going to post in the Herald. I had a deadline to meet. As I pulled into the lot at the Coffee Oasis, I grabbed my Pentax.

As I got out of the car, I saw the look on Gelli Ballard’s face and realized there would be no wedding announcement pictures that day. I put down the camera and picked up a baby goat instead.

After we got settled with baby goats in our laps, Gelli told me that her fiancée, Nathan Hardy, had gotten sick and his boss at the diner took him off the schedule. Without a paycheck that week, Nate couldn’t pay the rent. Now they were homeless.

A week earlier, their biggest concern was trying to raise the $65 needed to pay for a marriage license. Now, Gelli’s parents in Idaho were questioning her recent decision to move to Poulsbo and marry Nate. The weight of the world was more than she thought she could bear.

“Before [the baby goats’ visit], I thought I was going to seriously explode on someone,” she said. “But the goats helped me calm down.”

Nate snuggled up with a buckling that the group at Coffee Oasis named Thaddeus. Nate had been having a hard time as well.

“When I held that little baby goat, there was peace across my body,” Nate said. “I became attuned with him. I noticed he was peaceful in an environment that would be distressing to a baby goat, so I felt I could be peaceful too.”

Courtney Williams, the youth center manager, felt the goats’ visit to Coffee Oasis was a good experience for the young people there.

“It was really neat to see the youth trying to comfort the baby goats when they were nervous,” she said. “I think it helps to see how our actions influence others. It’s also good to get outside yourself.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve brought goat kids to the center. And, last year, we had quite a good run of visits with young rabbits. I recently got a phone call from one of our youth that had moved across the country last summer. The first question that Ashley Slate asked me was, “How is my rabbit doing?” Of course, it’s not really her rabbit. But try to explain that to Ashley. When she was going through a hard time last year, after the death of her mom, Honey Bunny was part of her healing.

I am not a trained professional in the field of animal assisted therapy. I’m just a farmer. But, I learned how important animals are to young people with special needs back in 2004 when Head Start classes visited our farm in Sandy, Ore. I was a volunteer in the classroom and thought it would be a fun way for the children to spend an afternoon. What I saw surprised me: Children who were usually so distracted, the ones who were always out of line and wiggling off their mats at circle time, sat so very still and quietly when they had a baby goat or a young bunny in their laps. It was an absolute transformation.

I continued to have Head Start children visit my farm over the years. And I helped a facility for special-needs adults in Portland get set up with a couple of lovely Pygora goat kids. The Pygoras grow woolly fleeces which heightens the tactile experience. It’s really quite wonderful to bury your face in cashmere.

It’s not just the youth who benefitted from time with the baby goats that day at Coffee Oasis. The case manager at Coffee Oasis, Donna Pledger, told me that her job is tough at times. “I hear a lot of difficult situations involving people that I get attached to. Animals are therapy. They make you smile.”

Pledger also noticed that the baby goat visit was good for the youth. “I watched the youth in the center and the smiles on their faces.”

The benefit of spending time with animals has been getting attention from researchers in the past decade. Froma Walsh, Ph.D, wrote in “Human-Animal Bonds: The Relational Significance of Companion Animals”:

“As research has developed from small, descriptive reports to more systematic study, there is steadily increasing evidence that companion animals provide many important physiological, psychological, and relational benefits. Their contribution to well-being, healing, and positive growth in a variety of animal-assistance programs holds strong potential for valuable clinical and community intervention and prevention initiatives.”

There are various organizations in the Puget Sound that provide training and resources for animal assisted therapy. One source is Pet Partners in Bellevue. You can visit their website for more information: www.petpartners.org.

— Melinda Weer lives on a farm in Poulsbo. She is interning in the North Kitsap Herald newsroom.

 

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