Lilly Love credits birds with saving her life.
The U.S. Coast Guard veteran, profiled in a recent New York Times Magazine story, said a white cockatoo with a red headdress caught her attention on one of her repeated trips to West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center. The cockatoo itself was an abandoned pet, as were the other exotic, colorful and chattering birds.
Turns out parrots are highly attuned birds, with brain skills and emotional responses quite like ours. They understand hundreds of words and use them appropriately. They “get” concepts like absence and boredom. And the parrots at the VA hospital in California had suffered trauma — twice actually. They’d been separated from their native habitat, then they’d been ditched by their owners.
Veterans, like Lilly Love and others, could relate. According to the Times, the birds’ behaviors are the same as the classic symptoms of PTSD — pacing, screaming, cowering and repeating memories, to name a few. Lorin Lindner, who started the parrot sanctuary, mixed the birds and the veterans on a lark (so to speak) one day and immediately noticed benefits to both. She talked the VA into letting her move her birds to the hospital campus and now, daily, veterans tend to the birds, clean and build cages and even help them learn to fly again.
Animal-assisted therapy is nothing new in veterans circles. Farm animals were used in therapy beginning as early as the 18th century and Sigmund Freud often let his own dog sit in on sessions.
The Brookfield Institute has an ongoing relationships with NEADS, which provides highly trained service dogs for free. A former board member, Cynthia Crosson, wrote a book, "Only Daddy's Dog," about the special training and treatment service dogs need.
"Several veterans we've worked with have had their lives changed by their service dog." said Beverly Prestwood-Taylor, executive director of The Brookfield Institute. "Service dogs have an uncanny ability to know when a vet is triggered and needs support, in addition to being a loyal companions. Vets with service dogs have the impetus to exercise more, which also helps.
And it's not just dogs working with local veterans, Prestwood-Taylor said. The local veterans center has had great results with an equine therapy program. "Animal therapy has proven results in managing post traumatic stress," she said.
But the parrots are adding a dollop of intelligence that other species haven’t exhibited. Sure, it’s a different level of intelligence, but the birds with their own wounds seem to sense the veterans’ pain, without judgment.
And the therapy — parrot therapy or any kind of therapy — is helping. It helps while it’s happening as well as in the long term. Science backs this up. Studies show that therapy can help the brain build bypasses around injured and scarred sections. “There are some physiological and chemical changes happening that are real, that are measurable,” Leslie Martin, a clinical social worker, told the Times. Several new best-selling books tell stories about pets saving their owners from depression, PTSD, bullying and more.
Whether it’s animal- or human-assisted therapy, The Brookfield Institute is here to help. Our new storytelling program encourages veterans to share their experiences and trains volunteers to listen. Both parties benefit from this in myriad ways, many of which are still unfolding. We also offer workshops to help people understand the journey of healing and work with churches and other organizations to facilitate veterans outreach.
Contact The Brookfield Institute if you or someone you know could use help with healing.