Ever wonder why it's easier to talk to your pet than it is to other humans sometimes?
Unlike the complex verbal, physical and behavioral communications we experience with people in our everyday relationships, animals provide an unspoken and unconditional love that produces some seriously cathartic results in us, whether we are conscious of it or not.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), used to improve a person's emotional, social and cognitive functioning, has been used as a form of healing in treatment and outreach programs at nursing homes, prisons, mental institutions, hospitals--and now at Maui's own Leilani Farm Sanctuary in lush Ha'iku.
This boy enjoyed a special bond with a duckling. Keiki visiting the farm can witness these animal angels being rescued, cared for and loved, and begin to feel hope for their own situations.
The sprawling eight-acre Leilani Farm Sanctuary is home to some very fortunate rescued animals, its Founder and President Laurelee Blanchard and her partner, Barry Sultanoff, M.D. No stranger to animal rights' work, Blanchard has served as director of communications for the Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM) and currently serves on the board of directors for the Vegetarian Society of Hawai'i (VSH). As a licensed psychiatrist, Sultanoff knows first-hand of the cleansing and healing that takes place in humans when they interact with animals.
Stress relief results during such interactions because these animals are non-judgmental, allowing a person to feel whole-heartedly accepted as themselves through their animal companionship. Similarly, our pets give us a sense of purpose, a routine of caregiving that demands us to be responsible for sentient beings other than ourselves.
The day of my visit to the picturesque sanctuary coincided with a community reach-out to hearing-impaired children and adults. Some of the participants in attendance included Horizons Academy and Wailuku Elementary School students, along with their families and teachers who communicate through American Sign Language.
It was a joy to watch this group feel instantly understood without the limitations of traditional communication that can be an everyday challenge for them.
Robin Chung, mother of one of the special-needs students in attendance, said, "Communicating with animals is easier for kids facing special challenges because it allows them to feel less isolated, and therefore, they experience less stress and more acceptance. Leilani Farm Sanctuary is the perfect place to visit for any child who needs a friend and can't have animals at home."
"Animal-assisted therapy, activities and learning clearly demonstrate how the human-animal bond can bring about lasting social, emotional, cognitive, physical, spiritual and psychological changes," said Leilani Farm Sanctuary Board of Director Member Melody Fisher. "In this field, we see such things--a teen who doesn't open up during traditional therapy will do so after exposure to animal interaction programs. Or a child victim or witness of abuse suffering from developmental psychopathology can come to understand the difference between kindness and cruelty.
"Research has shown what the long-term affects are on children in the context of violence," added Fisher. "Animal and intimate partner abuse are huge risk factors. All children who are neglected or abused or have a physical or mental disability can especially relate to gentle, innocent animals with similar backgrounds or conditions. They can witness these animal angels being rescued, cared for and loved, and begin to feel hope for their own situations."
River Penner, who served as the interpreter for the farm's tour, is also the mother and the grandmother of two hearing-impaired keiki--Tyler and Tobias.
"After leaving the sanctuary every day I go there, I am left feeling deeply at peace with myself," Penner observed. "There is a calm that animals bring that nothing else can."
It's wonderfully ironic to see how a sanctuary for rescued animals in need has transformed into salvation for humans who are in need of a little rescuing themselves.
Current outreach programs at the Leilani Farm Sanctuary focus on school groups, agencies that serve the disabled, and parent, peer and mentoring groups. Farm tours are available to the general public twice a week on Wednesdays at 4 p.m. and Saturdays at 10 a.m. A $10 tax-deductible donation per person is requested. Reservations are required: Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call (808) 298-8544.
"Our motto at Leilani Farm Sanctuary is 'Widening the Circle of Compassion,'" Fisher added. "We hope to educate, heal and hold space for our keiki most in need of unconditional love. We hope to enlighten them to the spirit in the animals, nature, and in themselves and others. We hope that we can show that animals should be seen as sentient beings who deserve love and respect just as we do."
Operating as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Leilani Farm Sanctuary is completely supported by donations and volunteers. To learn more about ways in which you can get involved or to make a donation, visit www.leilanifarmsanctuary.org.