By Susie Kearley – The therapeutic value of taking dogs to visit hospitals, special needs centers, schools, and nursing homes is well known. Even docile cats are now sometimes used as therapy animals, providing companionship, confidence, and a feeling of well-being to people in need. But therapy chickens? Whoever heard of chickens being used in therapy?
Chickens as pets are wonderful birds, full of life, and with the instant ability to make us smile. So perhaps that’s why Ione Maria Rojas thought they’d make great visiting companions for elderly people in London’s nursing homes.
Ione founded the Furry Tales project at Stepney City Farm in London in 2013, and with the help of volunteers, took Pekin Bantam chickens, rabbits, and guinea pigs to residential care homes and day centers across the capital.
“Living in London is intense!” she explained, “So I started volunteering at Stepney City Farm and found the experience really beneficial for my well-being. I’d had a long-term interest in art therapies and elderly health, and I’d volunteered in a couple of care homes running painting workshops. My positive experience with the farm animals made me think the elderly people would benefit from meeting the animals too. I took a few small animals into a home and it snowballed from there.”
The reaction from elderly people to seeing therapy chickens arrive in their communal lounge was delightful. They were smiling broadly and keen to participate.
“Pekin Bantam chickens are known for being really docile,” explained Ione. “They like to be stroked and enjoy perching on people’s laps, making them the perfect therapy animal. The experience promotes interaction and can make those who are very reserved and withdrawn want to join in and hold a chicken! For some people who kept chickens in their youth, it brings back happy memories.”
Therapy animals provide physical comfort, laughter, and are a great topic of conversation. The very fact that the therapy chickens seem so content is a talking point because people think they’ll run away, but the hens are born and raised on the farm. “When the animals are very young, volunteers spend a lot of time with them. They get a lot of handling, so they’re used to it,” said Ione.
In 2015, Ione visited animal therapy centers across America to learn best practices and share experiences of animal therapy in care homes and other environments. At the Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley in Littleton, Massachusetts, she learned about their hugely successful animal therapy program. They have a brood of therapy chickens and the residents with Alzheimer’s benefit hugely from just sitting and watching the birds; they say the experience is calming. One resident started feeding the chickens to improve his mobility.
In Kansas, a day care worker showed the clients how to care for chickens and encouraged those with DIY skills to build a coop. It was a thoroughly enjoyable activity, which gave them purpose and a sense of accomplishment, lifting their spirits.
When Ione returned from her trip, she was struck by the range of physical, emotional, cognitive, and social benefits she’d observed, including faster healing times in patients, and greater community cohesion when animals were involved in treatment regimes. It opened her eyes to new ideas, some of which were integrated into her work in the United Kingdom.
Then in March 2017, Ione handed over the responsibility for Furry Tales to her co-workers, Jane and Merlin. Jane said, “We’ve now developed a series of outreach packages where we take chickens and other animals to a hospital dementia ward, various residential homes, and to sheltered housing, visiting each location for eight weeks. Some of our clients are isolated or socially excluded, so we help to combat that, generate conversations and promote positive relationships.
“Some of our beneficiaries are living independently, but they’re socially isolated and struggle to get out. Some are in wheelchairs or have mobility problems. We can help. We’ve also introduced weekly Friday afternoon drop-in sessions at the farm, so people who enjoyed their eight-week session can prolong the experience. We help with a range of issues including anxiety and depression. Although most beneficiaries are older, we do accept people as young as 25 if we can identify a need and see that they’ll benefit from the experience. They get a mini-tour of the farm and one-to-one contact with the chickens,” said Jane.
Although the work can be therapeutic, Jane is keen to stress that they don’t actually undertake therapy. “We offer Animal Assisted Interventions and activities,” she says.
Elsewhere, a charity called Henpower, set up in 2011 in the north of England, encourages hen-keeping as a way to combat loneliness and depression among older people. A study by Northumbria University, published in 2013, showed that Henpower not only helps to beat loneliness and depression, it also reduces the need for antipsychotic medication in care homes. Henpower encourages people to take full responsibility for therapy chickens, so they’re not just petting them. Participants have a lot of interaction with the project while learning about different aspects of chicken care. Volunteers take therapy chickens to schools, events, and care environments, where people enjoy the interaction and learn about the birds.
Chickens can change lives too. Paul Checkley from England suffered abuse as a child. As an adult, he couldn’t shake off the feelings of shame and depression, had a full psychotic breakdown, retired from his job on medical grounds, and then a friend suggested he adopt battery hens. “They’ve had a horrible life, just like you.” his friend persisted.
Paul adopted four hens; they were featherless and terrified from their ordeal. But as he watched them grow into beautiful, confident chickens. He found it immensely rewarding and the experience gave him the strength to fight his own demons. “The hens accept me. They calm me down and I feel that, through the horrors in both their lives and mine, we connect,” he told The Guardian newspaper.
Today therapy chickens are used around the world to help those in nursing homes improve their mobility and have fun. Residents are more inclined to go outdoors if they can interact with animals when they get there. This means people are motivated to push themselves to achieve greater mobility and independence. The therapy chickens make people laugh, and bring simple pleasures to people who face huge challenges with ill health, disabilities, or have serious mental health issues.
Therapy chickens are also being used to rehabilitate prisoners. At The State Hospital in Scotland, where 75 percent of patients have schizophrenia, chickens roam the animal garden. You might think the patients are a threat to the animals but in fact, they treat them with kindness and compassion. Animals offer non-judgemental companionship, so the sessions can be the first positive relationship that some criminals experience in their lives, opening the door to new positive attitudes and successful rehabilitation. It’s therapeutic, calming, and can enhance their well-being.
Ashworth Hospital in Merseyside, England, looks after dangerous criminals, using therapy chickens to help them deal with a wide range of mental health issues. One of the patients called Chris was hurting himself in prison and was suicidal. He was sent to the hospital to recover and told a BBC reporter, “I look after the chickens. I enjoy it. It’s therapeutic. It helps me. It’s good to get off the ward and forget about where I am.”
On Rikers Island, the main prison in New York City, the Horticulture Society of New York administers a horticulture course called the GreenHouse program, which trains prisoners to be gardeners and provides employment in gardening roles in the city, following their release. Part of this experience is working with chickens, where they have the opportunity to nurture the birds. For some prisoners, learning about horticulture and animal care provides a valuable connection to nature, which begins a healing process.
At Dartmoor Prison, England, the therapy garden is home to a brood of ex-battery chickens who are now thriving in the prisoners’ care. Their eggs are sold and the money raised is spent on the garden project.
Edinburgh Prison in Scotland has a brood of therapy chickens, who improve the mood of the prisoners who care for them. The prisoners built a chicken coop for them and learned about their welfare. They use the eggs in cooking lessons, and one prisoner said the chickens “put more light into every day.”
Registration and Training
A good therapy chicken needs to enjoy being handled, so the process of socialization, early in life, is important. They shouldn’t startle easily and should have an easy-going temperament.
In the UK, therapy chickens are not certified because there is no official accreditation process for therapy chickens or Animal Assisted Interventions. There are, however, registration schemes and training programs in the United States. There are also best practice guidelines, to which many organizations in the UK and around the world adhere.
- Society for Companionship Animal Studies (SCAS) Code of Practice
- International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organisations’ 2014 White Paper on AAI
An organization called Register My Service Animal, LLC says, it can register your chickens as either Emotional Support Animals or Therapy Animals. They do not provide training.
You can also register Emotional Support Animals with The Official ESA Registration Of America. Chickens are accepted. They say, “Any animal that provides therapeutic value can be considered an Emotional Support Animal.”
Chicken owners can apply to work with an organization called Intermountain Therapy Animals, based in Utah. You and your chicken will be screened for suitability and if you’re deemed to be suitable, you can proceed onto the team training course.
There are many animal therapy organizations across the USA, providing opportunities for volunteers and their animals to enter therapeutic environments. Only a minority work with chickens, but it’s worth making inquiries with your nearest center if you’d like to volunteer.
An interactive online course called Chickens and You leads to a Therapy Chicken Handler certificate and teaches the skills needed for chicken therapy, including handling, public speaking, transportation and bird safety. The course explores how to read your bird’s stress signals, and anticipate their responses and behavior.
|Therapy Chicken Resources|
|Register My Service Animal, LLC||registermyserviceanimal.com/home.html|
|Official ESA Registration of America||esaregistration.org/my-account|
|Intermountain Therapy Animals||therapyanimals.org/Volunteer.html|
|Chickens and You||chickensandyou.com/course_therapy_chicken.html|
Do you have experience with therapy chickens? Have they helped you or a loved one? Let us know in the comments below.