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Valley Focus | Van Nuys

It May Really Help to Talk to the Animals

April 28, 1998|ERIC RIMBERT

An African gray parrot named Toto walks across a table and picks up a red block.

"Red," he says.

The parrot, performing for an audience at a demonstration, is also a teacher.

Toto and nine other parrots are part of a new animal-assisted therapy program at the Berkley Convalescent Hospital in Van Nuys designed to help patients with memory and speech problems.

The program, called A Bird in the Hand, is part of the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services Healing Power of Animals campaign.

The campaign will compile information for hospitals, nursing homes and individual health providers as well as people looking for a provider.

"This project responds to an increasing number of calls made by people who want to know what the regulations are for starting and establishing animal-assisted therapy programs," said Becky Day-Swain, director of Volunteer Programs for Los Angeles Animal Services.

Campaign chairwoman Dotti Bernhard said birds help people feel more comfortable about speaking and are able to help stimulate memory function.

A patient asks the parrot to do a set of tasks, and by doing so the person works on memory and speech skills.

"The birds are less intimidating than a counselor or a therapist, so people are more willing to participate," Bernhard said.

Several medical studies over the past decade have found that relationships between animals and people can translate into better health.

One UCLA study found that one group of 65-year-olds with pets had fewer doctor contacts than another similarly aged group without pets.

"Birds are very social creatures. They need a lot of interaction," Bernstein said.

Qualified animal-assisted therapy programs looking to be included in the referral service may contact the Healing Power of Animals at (818) 786-0020 or (310) 841-0103.

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