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Zoos Educating Beyond the Stigma

The pet industry is big business. According to a study conducted by the American Pet Products Association, an estimated $60.59 billion dollars will be spent on household pets in the United Stands for the year 2015. This is an increase over the staggering $58.04 billion spent in 2014. Without question, people love their pets.  Many measurable psychological, emotional, and even physiological benefits arise from animal interactions. Simplistic and routine behaviors such as petting one’s beloved companion animal can actually decrease blood pressure, and increase peripheral skin temperature. Scientific studies have shown that general relationships with animals increase learning, foster a sense of safety and comfort, and boost self-esteem.

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With this knowledge in mind, animals are being trained to evolve beyond the role of traditional house pets.  Many scholars are now recognizing animals as healers. Through this theory, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) was born. It is a trend that is gaining momentum at an unprecedented rate. Research has presented evidence that suggests patients in hospitals that employ animal assisted therapy are significantly calmer, less stressed, and possess higher morale than patients in hospitals without animal therapy. Yet what exactly constitutes animal assisted therapy? The widely accepted definition is the implementation of an animal into the immediate surroundings of an individual, or a group, as a means of interaction with a therapeutic intention. The possibilities are endless!

This trend is highly applicable in a number of settings. Rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, and long-term care facilities are some of the biggest proponents of the movement. Senior citizens participating in a walking rehabilitation program walked further when walking with a canine than when walking alone. In nursing homes, patient-staff interactions increased, along with a boost in overall social engagement levels for elderly residents when animal assisted therapy was utilized. Furthermore, reported loneliness and depression levels decreased by the incorporation of animal assisted therapy. Another hallmark study found that a simple incorporation of aquariums was powerful enough to increase weight gain, and diminish the need for nutritional supplements with Alzheimer’s patients residing in extended care facilities.

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With so much attention being dedicated to the therapeutic benefits of animals in a medical setting, it is no wonder why zoological facilities are beginning to recognize the value of this therapy and are subsequently testing their own applications.  Pioneering the way for this crusade is Mystic Aquarium working in conjunction with Synergy Center Corporation. The Synergy Socials Program welcomes children from the age of five through nine years old with disabilities like autism, attention deficit disorder, emotional behavioral disorders, and learning disabilities.  The sessions are designed to help build social skills, improve listening skills, and teach appropriate play interactions. The curricula include a variety of hands-on sensory experiences like touch-and-learn with the aquarium’s invertebrates. Kids have a platform to engage with and build relationships with the aquarium’s residents. The Social Species from the Sea to Me program welcomes an older teen demographic and is aimed at transition planning. Animal-assisted therapy programs are designed to create a safe, supportive, and effective learning environment, with the animal serving as a catalyst in both motivation and engagement. Anecdotal reporting is providing a plethora of evidence to showcase how these skills are being generalized beyond the confines of the therapy sessions.

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We are in the midst of a therapeutic revolution where zoos and aquariums are primed to make a substantial impact in overall care for children facing so many obstacles.  Community resources for children with developmental and learning disabilities are scarce, with parents often overwhelmed and schools underfunded.  Local zoos offer the perfect environment to enrich social relationships, cultivate literacy, and nurture age-appropriate behaviors.  Animal ambassadors employ solutions to complex situations and inspire a genuine difference!




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