• Esther Delisle

The Gorilla, the Airplane and The Scientific Mind

Updated: Feb 20, 2020

I became an animal-assisted therapist in 2004. "Zoothérapie" (zootherapy) then was so little known that many people asked me for what zoo I was working. Many of them were English speaking and they might be forgiven because "zoo" is pronounced as one syllable in English and two in French (zo-o-thérapie/therapy.) Add my thick French accent and the early development of the field and you have a perfect recipe for confusion. Once I made clear that I was not working at the Granby zoo or at any other such establishments, I had to explain in a few sentences what animal-assisted therapy was. There is the client, the practitioner and the animal the three of them linked by the synergy of their interaction. The practitioner helps his client reach some goals by playing on the relationship that is being built between the animal and the client. I'm not sure the message came across as I wished it would, but "you have to start somewhere" was becoming my mantra.

Nowadays, I have much less explaining to do, both in English and in French. If my interlocutors don't grasp all the intricacies of the triangular synergy, many have read or seen a story about how dogs can help autistic kids. Or cats and bunnies in a nursing home. The expressions of Animal-assisted therapy/zoothérapie don't convey anymore the image of me taking care of the smiling gorilla you see in the picture below.

Already, by the mid-2000, animal-assisted therapy was quickly moving from the fringe to the mainstream as testified by the theme of the 2016 International Association of Human-Animals Interaction Organizations (IAHAIO http://iahaio.org/) Conference in Paris: “Unveiling a New Paradigm: Human-Animal Interactions in the Mainstream.”

I realized at that conference how strong was the drive to give scientific credentials to Animal-assisted interventions. Science-oriented papers had been submitted in international conferences on Animal-Assisted Interactions and Interventions as far as I can remember, but not to that extent. Some of the presentations had dry titles, but they were sometimes funny, often touching and always provided food for thought. It can be a challenge to measure and understand, as much as possible, the effects of what we're doing as well as the best ways of doing it.

I've always tremendously enjoyed attending international conferences whatever their theme, and it served me well for my new profession, even though it regularly depleted my savings. I like the opportunity they provide to meet interesting people, some of whom might become important in one's life. I like their intellectual and social effervescence. I, therefore, witnessed first hand the rapid development of the field and I met many remarkable persons, some of whom became dear friends. Now I want to share it with my readers and the members of the CIAAI. It is as simple as that.

One striking feature of these events was the various expressions used to name the action of a specialist helping a client by including an animal in their therapeutic relationship. In France, it is called la médiation animale (animal mediation)and not la zoothérapie or la thérapie assistée par l'animal, like it is in Quebec even though both places are predominantly French-speaking. In the United States, it seems that Animal-Assisted intervention is dominant, followed by Animal-AssistedTherapy and Pet Therapy. When I established the Canadian Institute of Animal-Assisted Interventions (CIAAI), I chose that name because I found it more encompassing that animal-assisted therapy and because it could be easily translated into French. For example, Animal-assisted learning, for me, is closer to intervention than to therapy. You find all these expressions on the website of the CIAAI.

The mission of the Canadian Institute of Animal-Assisted Interventions (CIAAI) is to provide accurate (as much as possible), credible information about Animal-Assisted Interventions. It wants to do so in a lively manner, because serious doesn't mean boring. already. Already dozens of AAI programs for children, adults and elders have found their way on our website. More are to come. There are 2 interviews with specialists: one with Victor Chitic, a Rumanian psychologist who works with orphans and stray dogs and another with Michael Kaufmann, director Director of Farm & Wildlife at Green Chimneys and of the Sam and Myra Ross Institute.

Open-mindedness remains paramount: I might not agree with or have reservations about a paper or a book I reviewed and my readers are completely entitled to do the same or to totally agree. I might find some programs or experiences more interesting than others. But if I deem them worthy they find their way on the website of the CIAAI.

which starts with an all-important question: Can lamas do Animal-Assisted interventions? The answer is right below and much more information is to be found in Michael's interview.

Everything can be discussed respectfully. I assume we all want to know more about Animal-Assisted Interventions and Human-Animal Interactions. We are all, each and every one of us, willing to try to understand them better. This means that we accept that we will never understand fully everything about it.


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