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From Housebroken to House Calls

April 05, 1998|Joe Sehee

While working at an aquatic reserve in Israel that enabled people to interact with dolphins in their natural habitat, Daniela Ortner noticed that dolphins were continually attracted to those swimmers with physical or emotional disabilities. When she watched usually reserved autistic children attempt to communicate with the gentle creatures, she began to understand the vast therapeutic potential of human-animal bonding. Though she had dedicated her life to helping animals--as a pet shelter volunteer, vet tech, working at a circus--she'd never realized how much animals could give to people.

"If we can get back to nature, and back to the human-animal bond, we all would be healthier," says Ortner, 30, who founded the International Wildlife Education and Conservation's "Create-A-Smile" project two years ago. The Westwood-based project is the only nonprofit program of its kind in Los Angeles that trains, tests and certifies pet owners (and their pets) to provide animal-assisted therapy--or AAT--to patients. Create-A-Smile supplies more than 100 pet-owner volunteer teams to 28 local institutions--from the Ronald McDonald House for terminally ill children to the Metropolitan State Psychiatric Hospital.

Ortner, who moved to the States to attend UCLA after a two-year stint in the Israeli army, serves as the project's statuesque yet down-to-earth executive director. She originally funded Create-A-Smile with money earned as a fashion model--a career she abandoned to devote herself to the project. She owns two pugs, a golden retriever and a Jack Russell mix; her cat, Sneeze, visits trauma victims, as does her hamster, Harry. "The hamster is great with burn victims, who like its soft fur," Ortner notes, "and also with mentally impaired people in need of getting over a commonly held fear of rodents." The therapy, she says, has quickened recovery, raised motivation and lowered blood pressure.

Ortner, who is pursuing her doctorate in psychology, would like to use animals in combination with traditional psychotherapy. "Animals don't judge," she says, "they accept people the way they are, which is something most of us have a hard time with."

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