Animals As Therapy!

In and around the time I wrote my first set of board exams, at the age of 15, I, like most of you, was asking myself what felt like the most important question of my life: what did I want to do? What did I want to make a career in?

Many of you are probably familiar with this. While you’re struggling to figure things out, everyone has a sudden burst of interest in you, in your future. Looking back, I was so sure I had much more on my plate than the boards. But teenage drama aside, I realized I needed to have some sort of an idea, if not a full-fledged plan, of what the next few years would look like.

To answer “the question”, I came up with a few other queries: What made me happy, and would continue to do so every single day of my life? What will get me to drag my sometimes less-motivated butt out of bed and into action, come rain or sunshine? What did I love, unchangingly and oh-so-fervently, in my life? The answer came to me before I even began to answer the first question – animals!

My love affair with furry friends began when I was eight years old, and my parents gifted my brother and I, a tiny Daschund puppy. For the next three years, this four-legged pooch was my best friend, sibling, confidante and adventure buddy all rolled into one. And though he left us for heaven much earlier than we had hoped, his love and his presence in my life had done its magic. I became the girl that stopped every dog she saw to pet it, fawn over it, scratch its belly, and feed it, if possible.

Almost 10 years down the line, when I asked myself what I wanted to do for work, quite naturally the voice in my head said, “Anything that involved animals.” The most obvious choice to me was to become a veterinarian, and that’s what I set out to become.

As these matters often tend to go, it didn’t happen. I didn’t make the cut for the competitive exams. I’ll leave out the dreary details, but it felt a lot like the end of the world at the time. I had hit my first of many obstacles to come, and it felt like my story was done before it even began. So I returned to the ‘drawing-board’ and slightly adjusted the question I had asked myself earlier. Now it was “What did I love the second-most?”

I had studied psychology in my 11th and 12th grade and had found that not only was the subject interesting, but it made complete sense to me, and suited me in a way that felt organic and natural. I’ll admit to feeling a little defeated and sad that I had to let go of what I thought was my dream then, but I decided to push on, and played to what I knew to be my strengths.

After graduating school, as I set out on a five-year academic journey of becoming a psychologist, a close family member, knowing fully well how much I still loved animals, suggested the most straightforward solution to my predicament. She simply asked me: “Why can’t you do both? Why can’t you do psychology and work with animals?”. I had such a face-palm moment; why hadn’t I thought of it myself?

You can imagine the amount of time in front of the computer that followed! That is how I found my calling, my destiny — Animal- Assisted Psychotherapy. Plainly put, I use my skills as a trained psychologist to help people manage and improve their mental health, with the help of my therapy animals as a part of the treatment process. This way I get to be around animals all day, every day.

My research told me that this was a field that did not even exist in India at the time, and was only a few decades old in western countries. However, the concept of this beautiful marriage of two subjects — psychology and animals — had such a grip over me that I did not let the idea fade. And when the many aunties and uncles asked me what I wanted to become, the answer was always, “Animal Assisted Therapist”. Of course, I then had to explain to them what that was, most of whom lost interest by the time they figured I wasn’t describing a career as a doctor or an engineer.

The biggest struggle I faced in my search for this specialization was the lack of appropriate and adequate tutelage in the field, especially since it had barely been recognized in my country. Moreover, I had resolutely told myself that if I was to do this specialization, I was not going to settle; I wanted hands-on training (as opposed to doing only an online course) under a qualified professional in the field.

Unlike my dreams to become a vet, almost six years after passing out from school and even working in the field for some time, I was still doggedly chasing the idea of Animal Assisted Therapy, despite having no idea how to realize my dream.

Google, my constant and faithful companion in this journey of almost a decade, finally threw me a bone. On one fateful afternoon, after trawling through many pages online, I found a center in Denver, Colorado that specialized in Animal Assisted Psychotherapy. They had horses, goats, rabbits, cats, rats, and dogs of course! I sat there, reading through their website, learning about their internship program, picturing myself working there, and digesting what felt like a mix of joy, disbelief, elation and excitement. I had done it, I had found what I wanted after years of what began to feel like endless pursuit, like chasing the end of a rainbow for the mythical pot of gold.

I’ve always felt that the journey from that point on was something inevitable; something that was bound to happen because nothing could now keep me from becoming an animal-assisted therapist! A long Skype interview, an arduous visa-application process, several challenging obstacles and a move-across-the-world later, I found myself in the US as the first and only Indian extern so far at the Barking C.A.A.T (Center for Animal Assisted Therapy) Ranch in Denver. It was in getting there I learned to live and love the dream I had so steadfastly held on to, against all odds.

In a sense, I did find the end of the rainbow; I’m now ‘digging about for the pot of gold’ by trying to make it on my own, in a field less explored. Having come this far, if there’s anything I would tell my younger self and other future yellow-collar career aspirants, it’s that dreams have a life of their own, just like you and me.

Give them the opportunity to grow, the space to become larger than life, and the gift of time and trust combined with tenaciousness. For achieving your dreams is everything it is made out to be, and worth every single iota of effort required to fuel it.

Anjana Thampy

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