Mary Decker held a tawny pullet close to her and affectionately pecked it on the head. Returning the favor, the hen began pecking at the bright floral print of 92-year-old Mrs. Decker's dress.
Nearby, Alice Peterson, 82, nestled a guinea pig against her chest.
"This really gives me a thrill," Mrs. Peterson said. "It makes me feel kind of good, you know. They like to snuggle and they take away the boredom."
In another corner of the courtyard of the Santa Anita Convalescent Home in Temple City, Velma Porter, 98, held a rabbit.
"I have had animals as far back as I can remember," she said. "They've always been a part of my life. I sure would love to keep her."
Like hundreds of other senior citizens and handicapped or mentally ill throughout the San Gabriel Valley, the residents at the home have been getting a very special kind of psychotherapy from unlicensed practitioners.
"I realized these people needed a warm body to hug and a furry little face to love," said Joan Coleman, director of the San Gabriel Humane Society.
"Those people, they just don't have much. They need something to hang onto," said Coleman, who founded her group's Pet Therapy Program 25 years ago after she visited a friend in a home for the elderly and saw the disabling effects of loneliness on people in institutions.
Workers from three San Gabriel Valley humane societies take chickens, ferrets, kittens, dogs and even pythons and ravens to the homes. The visits help give those in institutions a better outlook on life, a sense of well-being and higher self-esteem, said Jackie Sheldon, activities coordinator at the convalescent home.
"Their faces light up when the animals come here," said Sheldon.
Patients at the Santa Anita home became so attached to the animals that they formed a committee in 1984 to work out arrangements to adopt one. After several visits from the Humane Society, the home adopted Taffy, a sprightly cocker mix. The facility also has become home to two stray cats, several birds and a number of goldfish.
Taffy is especially suited to life in a convalescent home because she is small and has a good disposition and an outgoing personality, Coleman said.
Although Taffy "loves everyone," Sheldon said, the dog has developed a special relationship with Louis Wickser, 53, who is confined to a wheelchair.
"She jumps up on his lap and bums a ride around the grounds," Sheldon said. "When she hears his electric wheelchair coming she runs and gets her leash. A lot of times it looks like she's pulling his wheelchair around."
Sheldon said Taffy has helped boost the patients' self-esteem and sense of well-being.
"There are people here who have never smiled until Taffy came to stay with us," Sheldon said. "She greets everyone every morning. The residents help to bathe and brush her. It gives them something to look forward to. I've seen a happier
outlook in their everyday activities. She has helped to raise their self-image by giving them a sense that somebody loves them and cares for them."
According to G. Jay Westbrook, a research consultant for the University of Southern California's Geriatric Center, studies have shown that contact with animals has beneficial physical, social and psychological effects on people, especially the elderly.
"Blood pressure and heart rate tend to drop in the presence of a companion animal," said Westbrook, a gerontologist who also works at Elder-Med, a nonprofit Chatsworth-based corporation that arranges health care and financing for senior citizens.
On a psychological level, the animals help boost the self-awareness and self-esteem of the elderly, by making them feel loved, wanted and useful, Westbrook said.
"Animals are very non-judgmental. What may look like a dumb old lady to a lot of people is very different to her dog or cat or whatever," Westbrook said. "As soon as she walks through the door that dog is right there and says, 'I don't care that you use a cane, or have false teeth, or have wrinkles.' "
However, Westbrook warned, without proper planning by therapists, activities coordinators, nurses and psychologists, such programs can be detrimental. Animals might be subject to abuse, and patients could be injured by the animals or contract diseases from a neglected pet.
"Life becomes a series of losses as people get older," Westbrook said. "It can be devastating if someone allowed them to bond to an animal for four or five weeks and then stopped the program and took the animal away. Then it just becomes another loss."
Coleman said her group is aware of the risks and only rarely offers animals to institutions for adoption.
"We just don't give any animal to convalescent homes," Coleman said. "We're very careful." Before she was given to the home, Taffy got all her shots and a license, and the project was cleared by the home's administrators.