Tuesday, March 15, 2011

May I kiss it?

Oh dear . . . attention-seeking creatures that they are, I'm afraid my cats are constantly weaving their way into our correspondence! But when I tell you that this story is about another venture into the world of Pet Therapy . . . well, I'm sure you won't mind.

You'll remember Rupert, my much-loved Burmese who died last year. Did I tell you that he made regular visits to the Special Needs Department of our local school?
Let me share something that happened after one of these visits. We were leaving the school when a small boy came walking towards us. As it's a secondary school he can't have been less than eleven, but he seemed very small for his age. Catching sight of Rupert, who was riding on my shoulder, the boy came to a halt. I waited to see if there was anything he wanted to say.

There followed what seemed a long silence, during which the boy stood gazing up at Rupert with rapt attention . . . finally, he spoke.
"May I kiss it?" he said.
I was startled. This was not what I'd expected!
"Of course," I replied, confident of Rupert's total reliability.
By crouching down I enabled the small boy to reach up and place a firm kiss carefully on the top of Rupert's head.
There was another long pause, during which Rupert and the boy studied each other. Then, with a faraway look in his eyes, and a smile of total satisfaction on his face, the small boy continued on his way into the school.

I'm telling you that story because, during the past few weeks, I've been wondering whether Chloe might be able to affect a similar transformation. She is very tolerant and children love her.
Her weekly visits to the nursing-home are a treat for us all . . . but could there, I wondered, be some way that we could extend her therapy to include children?

Looking through the addresses provided by Pets As Therapy, I found a care-home for mentally disturbed children less than a mile from where I live. An exchange of emails established that they would be happy for their children to meet Chloe, and a first meeting was arranged for last Monday.

It was during the days leading up to this encounter that my doubts began to creep in. Not only did they creep in, they established themselves, took root and flourished. Was I being unfair to Chloe? Could children with mental difficulties be relied upon not to scream? What if they wanted to pull her tail . . . or poke their fingers in her eyes? Was I about to subject her to an ordeal, rather than a pleasure? And, if everything went seriously wrong, how could such a hazardous encounter be of any possible benefit to the children?

My anxieties increased as the day drew near. Before leaving home, in order to reduce her energy level, I took Chloe for an energetic walk in the garden. We didn't have to stay with the children for long, I reassured myself. She could be whisked back to the car the moment there was any trouble. But, as I parked at the day-centre, my mood was definitely one of apprehension rather than happy anticipation.

The smiles on the faces of the welcoming care-staff raised my spirits a little. They didn't appear to harbour any misgivings . . . nor did Chloe.
Would I like to give a talk to the group, the supervisor enquired as we walked down the passage? I said that I would rather sit down in a quiet corner, and let the children approach as they wished.

The door ahead of us was opened . . . with Chloe in my arms and my heart in my mouth, I walked in.
Awaiting us was a room full of smiling, expectant small children . . . welcoming, happy children. The sense of loving care was palpable. Not only care, it was evident that this was a place of support and purpose and much kindness. No-one could have doubted that the children were happy. My last uncalled-for misgiving fled . . . and didn't return.

After introducing Chloe to each of the children in wheel-chairs, I settled us both on a sofa whilst the others clustered round excitedly. A forest of small hands reached out towards us.
"What's its name . . .?" they wanted to know.
I told them.
"Can we stroke her . . .?" they crowded in, their fingers eager, but very gentle. It seemed that the only danger posed to Chloe was one of asphyxiation, asphyxiation brought on by an overdose of love!
"Isn't she soft . . . !"
"How old is she . . . ?"
Beneath my restraining hands I could feel Chloe's tense body slowly relax.

There came an unexpected tug at my sleeve. Looking up, I saw a young girl standing close beside me.
"Please . . . " she said earnestly, "may I kiss her . . . ?"

Yes, I know . . . you're thinking what I'm thinking!
From his vantage point in cat heaven, surely Rupert was looking down with benign approval on Chloe, his worthy successor?