Growing up in Kentucky, I have always been surrounded by horse pastures and farmland. I grew up working with animals and serving as Commissioner of Agriculture for a government-learning program in my state. To me, humans and animals were interdependent, and I was attracted to the power of animals to heal humans. When I came to the University of Alabama, I knew that I wanted to stay involved with this passion in some way, and I began volunteering with Therapeutic Riding of Tuscaloosa (TROT). Through this I was able to assist with riding lessons for children with disabilities and other activities at the farm.
As I volunteered here, I became interested in how the clinical psychologist would take some of the barnyard animals to nursing homes in the community to provide animal-assisted therapy. Partnering with TROT, I started taking the animals consistently to three different nursing homes in the community, and eventually two other girls from my classes started coming with me. This past fall we founded the Geriatric Organization for Animal Therapy (GOAT) and we have been working to expand our outreach to include eight nursing homes, retirement homes, and an adult day care center for patients with Alzheimer’s. I’ve been personally touched by the residents that I’ve had the privilege to work with and I’ve been humbled at the dedication of the students getting involved. I’ve been able to see how having a dog hop up and cuddle next to a resident can make a bedridden woman fill the room with laughter and how holding a baby goat can prompt a man to tell us stories about his own animals growing up. What I love about animal therapy is that it’s something that bridges generations. Goats haven’t changed that much over the past 50 years, so it’s something that students and residents can easily talk about, especially since a lot of the residents grew up on farms. It also brightens the days of many of the staff members—it’s not every day that you see a chicken in a stroller or a goat in a onesie walking around your work place.