Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Alpaca Therapy: Observations with Foster Children and Alpaca Interactions

Cute Cria are Great Alpaca Therapists: They Guarantee Lots of Smiles

In my last blog, I talked about trauma and how being around alpacas can help people who suffer from the effects of traumatic events in their lives.  I invited a foster care organization to the farm.  It was a live-in foster care facility and the coordinator was looking for activities that would be good to bring about 20 kids to for an outing.  She was eager to accept my invitation and we set a date.  The kids got out of their vans and were quite hyped up.  I talked to them briefly about gates and keeping them closed and then told them the best way to interact with alpacas.  Fast movements and loud noises would startle the alpacas.  I wasn't sure how much was heard but alpacas are clever enough and can move fast if they need to run away.  I hoped the alpacas wouldn't be too frightened by the hyper-activity and would interact but one never knows.  I had a bucket of pellets to hand out to kids and hoped that would overcome any fear the alpacas might have of the large number of people coming to see them.

A few kids took to the alpacas right away and enjoyed giving treats.  As first, I took them to my most social animals I'd worked with so as to set them up as best I could for successes.  These kids needed whatever successes they could get.  The ages of kids ranged from around 8 or 9 to around 15 or 16.  Two teenaged boys were trying to act "cool." One kid was uncomfortable with wanting to enjoy himself and appeared to be the leader of the other boy even though the meeker boy was double the size.  He went along at first with the one kid that wanted to make fun of the entire situation and also wanted to be center of attention.  I took them to a pen that had a couple of more skittish alpacas.  I wasn't sure why I did that but I tend to follow my instincts.  I asked the larger kid if he wanted to try feeding one of the younger and skittish alpacas.  The boy took some treats but the alpaca was a little too afraid of this big kid.  I suggested he bend down a little.  He did so and the alpaca was more curious and wanted some pellets so overcame its fear and took pellets.  I watched as this big kid who was following the lead of the mischief maker was now ignoring the antics of the other kid and focused his attention on this alpaca.  His energy softened and this large kid became this gentle soul talking so softly to this alpaca.  I wear a treat pouch at events like this so I have treats at the ready as well as have both hands handy.  This big kid asked me if he could borrow my pouch while I helped with some of other kids.  I smiled and handed him my pouch.  The mischief maker started to tease the big kid about wearing my pouch and the big kid told him to "shut up" and turned his back focusing on his alpaca.

Without coaching or interference on my part, I observed this big kid who was initially going along with the peer pressure and leadership of a kid who wanted to cause trouble quickly change to being a gentle and caring guy and he walked away from the peer pressure.  Just a little positive reinforcement with encouraging this kid to feed this little alpaca and he was able to choose for himself what he wanted to do and not follow the cycle of negative influences of peer pressure at least for a couple of hours.  

I did notice that the mischief maker gave up on the larger boy who was now totally into the alpacas and turned his attention on a younger child.  This young boy was a different kid than the rest.  You could tell he was teased a lot and probably bullied.  The mischief maker kid was definitely more cruel with his "teasing" of the younger boy.  The young boy found an alpaca he wanted to interact with.  My heart sank a bit because he chose a very aloof alpaca.  She didn't interact much with the herd and she never came over for pellets.  She was difficult to halter train and just didn't like people or alpacas for that matter.  The young boy asked for some pellets to offer this little alpaca so I gave him some.  There were other alpacas that were very interested in the treats and I hoped perhaps he'd be interested in them but he was totally focused on this aloof alpaca.  We were in a catch pen of about 15'X15' so she couldn't go far to run away.  I got asked some questions by some of the other kids and after a few minutes, this young boy came over to me and asked if I could help him.  The teasing started in again with the mischief maker and I stepped in and walked the younger boy away offering to help him.  He asked me if I could distract one of the other younger alpacas that kept interfering with him and his desire to connect to "his" alpaca.  I shooed the other alpaca away and he sat on the ground.  I kept the others away while he interacted with this alpaca and got talking to some of the others again.  The next time I looked back to see how this boy was doing with "his" alpaca, I smiled as she was taking treats from him and their foreheads were touching in such a sweet fashion.  He had connected with her and she with him.  They were in a corner of the pen and for the two of them, no one else was around.  They were so connected.  The other boy attempted to tease again and I interrupted and started to praise this young boy for doing something I had tried for months to do and wasn't successful at.  This young boys face lit up with the praise and the taunting and teasing of the other kid fell on deaf ears.

It was sad that the mischief maker couldn't or wouldn't let his guard down but what was very interesting was that all the others that would normally follow his lead chose not to and the ones that he would taunt and be mean to ignored him as well.  The hold he typically held over the other kids was quite diluted while at least on the farm and around the animals.  The alpacas were able to defuse and undo his hold.  He increased his antics as their time wore on but it didn't have any affect.  You could tell he was very unsettled by the loss of control he had over the others.   

This all happened plus more in about two hours at the farm.  Can you imagine what healing could take place if troubled kids could spend more time with alpacas?  Alpacas and animals are wonderful healers.  (I have not included pictures of that event to protect the children that were present). 

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