We’ve all grown up around the endless children’s stories, myths, legends and fables with animals as their heroes, villains, guides and Feeling a little furry?companions. No matter the cultural background, animals abound. Children have an innate affinity for animals; perhaps down to Biophilia, an innate tendency or love of nature, as defined by E. O. Wilson (1984), suggesting this love, this connection is part of biology, genetic make-up and is in fact in-built. Perhaps that is why it is so easy for children, young people, adults and older people to relate to most things concerning animals – whether that be a conversation or an interaction.

What were your favourite stories with animals whilst you were growing up? I have always loved all the different animal stories as I was growing up. Stories where the animals could speak to us and we could be understood back were always a favourite and classic tales such as Brer Rabbit from Disney’s “Song of the South” have stayed with me throughout my years.

A popular “tool” though has always been the fable – Aesop’s Fables being perhaps the most well-known. Who hasn’t heard of “The Hare and the Tortoise” or “The Fox & the Crow”? Most people are familiar with them and of course there are morals and lessons to be learnt behind these wonderful stories. (If you aren’t familiar with these wonderful tales, I can highly recommend them!) Depending on how you read them you may take away one lesson or more; in “The Hare and the Tortoise” you might end up considering “more haste, less speed” or, as it was for me “slow but steady, wins the race”. There are a number of different interpretations and different people will perceive and interpret different understandings of the same story. However, suffice to say that animals are a useful and popular tool and theme that can teach us a lot.

At our most recent course, on day 2, we saw the “animal as metaphor” in action. On day 2 of the course, we focus on Animal Assisted Therapy from the angle of the Therapy Animal and one aspect of this is the animal as a metaphor and parallel as well as Therapy Animal suitability. Our students had different case studies that they used as a framework from which to create a role play using the tools they had learnt during that day. We had some very interesting results and discussions.

For example, we had:

Jane

Student nuzzled by tortoise            Jane is a married, 50yr old woman with a chronic pain condition. She struggles with pain on a daily basis and has limited   mobility. She walks with a walking stick. She has always loved dogs but does not feel that she could look after one because of her condition. She feels that she cannot do the things she wants to in life because of her condition and feels guilty that she relies on her husband so much.”

We had some very creative “interpretative role play” from our students who really seemed to fall into the activity well and in this situation our “Therapist” was working with a “Therapy Tortoise” with her client “Jane”.

You could have heard a pin drop.

Some of the key points from the interaction included:

– the tortoise’s shell as a metaphor for Jane’s chronic pain & “weight” to carry around

– Jane observing that whilst the tortoise had carried his shell since birth, she had not had chronic pain her whole life. She then went on to compare and contrast their situations.

– the tortoise’s slow life pace and how her chronic pain condition slows her down

This was, of course, an unusual situation. However, it was an opportunity for our students to explore how they might apply and adapt certain approaches in a therapeutic situation and how it might work with different animals regardless of the Therapy Animal’s sex, age, size or even species. “Enlightening”  is one way of describing the experience and I certainly found it to be powerful.

So you see, if somebody ever tells you, “but they’re just animals?!”, remember the power of the metaphor and remind them of the animal stories they learnt whilst growing up.

(PLEASE NOTE: All names used are fictitious & where photographs have been used, permission has been given)