In the locked child-psychiatric unit it seemed as if Lesley had become invisible. Unless you looked closely at the place where the eleven-year-old sat, you might not even see her, so well had she practiced vanishing.
A long shield of hair covered her face, and her crossed arms held her body contained and closed away from other people. Her voice, too, had gone into hiding; she had elected to be mute. Mute, invisible, contained, pallid. I did not have to know her case history to imagine it had been hard.
The two younger boys next to Lesley were very verbal by contrast, volunteering questions and information about the environment of spring they saw in front of them. When I reached Lesley they informed me that she didn't speak. So [I paused with the collie Fern], as I repeated my question to her, not assuming that she would respond but inviting her to meet Fern if she would like to. A thin hand dropped down near the collie, the only sign that the child had heard me. Fern moved in to the gesture, placing her head under Lesley's hand, leaning gently against her legs.
As the program continued, we brought ducklings, rabbits, rocks, spring flowers, and doves around to each child, inviting the child to smell, touch, and listen. Each time a hand would reach out from Lesley's spot to touch, her body would begin to turn a little, and it seemed to me that I could see her more clearly. She was becoming tangible. A young girl in a chair in a room.
After the program, we invited the children to stay for a visit with the animals if they chose to. Lesley moved out of her chair and over to the waiting dogs. She knelt on the floor and drew them to her, into her arms, hugging them close, burying her face in their warmth.
The staff psychiatrist came back later to tell us how extraordinary it was to see Lesley with the dogs. The doctor smiled with ideas about how to continue this unfolding. She spoke further about how difficult it can be to assess a child who is in crisis. Given only two weeks of time with each child on the unit, it was a challenge to see healthy possibilities in the midst of the crisis, to stay optimistic in the face of so much difficulty. Now to see the children interacting, laughing, asking bright questions, holding an animal gently, or passing a flower with carethese moments gave the psychiatrist renewed hope.
The AAI [Animals as Intermediaries] program affords daily staff the rare opportunity to step back and see new possibilities. At a school for emotionally troubled boys, a daily caretaker remarked on how healing it was for her to see her students as whole and healthy. She commented on the surprise of watching a boy handle a bunny very gently and caringly, the same boy who yesterday had kicked this caretaker ruthlessly, who frequently had to be physically restrained by the classroom attendant for his own safety and the safety of others. Daily in close proximity to his violence, she was pleased to observe him capable of gentleness.
A visiting program does not replace the dedicated work of therapists or teachers, but it can offer them unique support.