Social Creatures: How Animals Can Help us to Connect, Heal, and Love

Pioneering psychologist Helen Thompson once said, "In riding a horse, we borrow freedom." I thought about that recently, when I read a story about HorseBack UK--an innovative nonprofit that supports servicemen and women who've been wounded in active duty. Many of these wounded warriors are amputees. They've been physically and emotionally scarred. Their recovery isn't just about fixing broken bones, but repairing their sense of dignity and identity.

As one serviceman explains, "Being in the Army is a complete lifestyle, so being medically discharged can feel as though life is being wrenched away from you, which can lead to a great deal of mental anguish. This, in addition to existing issues, can lead to feelings of isolation." HorseBack UK helps remedy that isolation by training injured soldiers in horsemanship. Some of the HorseBack UK instructors are disabled veterans themselves. Program participants say that working with the horses restores their sense of competence and confidence, and that being with others who understand what they've been through is a crucial pathway back to connectedness.

Coming from a family of equestrian enthusiasts myself, I appreciate the healing power of horses. When I was a child, despite devoted, loving parents, there were times when I felt lonely and out of place. That began to change when, for my eighth birthday, I received what children for generations have been calling their dream gift: my parents gave me a pony. Winnie, as I called her, was an excellent listener--and, in her company, I found I had a lot to say. With Winnie, I felt comfortable being exactly who I was. Through her and, really, thanks to her, I began to find my voice and my confidence.

Winnie's precious gift to me was loving companionship, free from ego. If you've ever enjoyed a close bond with an animal, I'm guessing you know what I mean. Animals can be wonderful allies in combating social isolation, because of the special qualities inherent in the social interaction they provide.

For one thing, animals offer unconditional acceptance, as my friend and fellow equestrian Georgina Maton has described. Georgina won three Gold medals at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles this past summer. In her words, "I find lots of things hard and have had some difficult times in my life, like school, but I think I understand horses--and they don't judge me."

This absence of judgment can be especially valuable for people whose isolation is married with shame. That's why animal-assisted therapy is used in some of the world's most respected addiction treatment centers--helping patients to overcome feelings of hopelessness and even self-hate. At the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's center in Plymouth, Minnesota, an Australian labradoodle named Willow is considered a key part of the staff. Dogs don't care about a person's past mistakes; they provide pure love and comfort in the present.

Similarly, for individuals whose faith and trust in human relationships has been fractured, developing a relationship with an animal can be an important first step toward recovery. In Australia, a program that worked with young children who'd been traumatized by family violence and homelessness used guinea pigs to help the children reconnect with one another and with their own best selves. Looking after these small, trusting, vulnerable creatures helped bring out the children's natural compassion. Program evaluators found that "Many [children] also demonstrated a capacity to transfer learned empathy into other social and familial relationships, and into more socially acceptable behaviours elsewhere."

Animals also can be the magnets that draw isolated individuals into communities of purpose. A great example is HenPower, a non-profit initiative run by Equal Arts, which is a charity that works with older people in the United Kingdom.

HenPower teaches elderly men and women how to raise and care for chickens. It offers a spirit of fun and community that breaks up lonely days. Joining with neighbors to look after the hens is a powerful antidote to isolation and depression--and the men and women in the program then share their skills and knowledge to lift the lives of others as well.

For example, one HenPower participant featured on their website, Pat Cain, has described how she lost her husband of 48 years after watching him succumb to Parkinson's, diabetes, and ultimately dementia. It was tremendously isolating; "As a carer," she says, "you become a bit invisible. You just blend in."

Then she found HenPower, and started accompanying the group on visits to senior care centers. Suddenly, she felt valued and useful. In her words, "When we go into homes and we work with people with dementia, I can recognise and understand what they are going through and how carers are feeling. I know what it's like to have a husband and then for him not to be there even though in reality he's sitting next to you." Cain also enjoys bringing "Hen Road Shows" to schools, taking the chickens into classrooms and engaging with the students.

Mary Ann Evans, who published under the better-known pseudonym George Eliot, wrote, "Animals are such agreeable friends. They ask no questions, they pass no criticism." Animals can help us heal, and grow into our best selves. They provide a simple, fulfilling pathway to love, to comfort, to companionship. And powerfully, and perhaps counterintuitively, animals help us connect with each other. As we combat social isolation, let us draw on the power of other social creatures to help.