Working ferrets with a difference!
by Dr June McNicholas
Some of you may be interested to hear that two of my hobs have been recognised as members of a psychology research group at the University of Warwick currently working with children with autism. Their role is to act as a catalyst for communicating with the children, rather like the way that P.A.T. dogs are used in old people's homes and hospitals. Briefly, autism is a condition which appears to prevent the forming of social relationships. The children are locked into their own worlds, rarely communicating or relating with anyone, even their own parents. Sometimes, just very occasionally, it seems that some autistic children can relate to an animal in ways that they cannot relate to people. My research group was due to observe and test a four year old girl and we wanted to introduce animals to see if this made her more willing to communicate. Although we have a resident trained dog and access to a number of docile guinea pigs and rabbits, I felt that a small interactive animal might be useful.
I have to admit that when I suggested a ferret I was greeted with a reaction from my group which wasn't far short of hysteria. Quite plainly they thought that my work was affecting my mental state and that I should go and lie down in a darkened room for at least a few months. But why not ferrets? They are friendly, curious, interactive, comical, furry - in fact, they seem to have a lot going for them. Eventually, after some patient professional persuasion (helped by impatient unprofessional threats) I took two hobs to meet the group. Bracken, a huge sandy teddy bear who chuckles and dances continuously, and Wombat, a calm, gentle white-headed silver mitt, whose main thought in life is where to find a lap to sleep on. Typically, they reversed roles and Bracken spent the afternoon asleep on a professor's lap whilst Wombat hurtled around my office like a misguided missile. However, both were highly approved of and formally accepted into the group as therapy animals.
In fact it was Wombat we used on these particular test occasions. The little girl we were observing showed little interest in our dog and, although she interacted with the guinea pig, her chief interest was to feed it carrots.
However, when Wombat was taken out of his box, she instantly became interested. She stroked him, spoke to him and put him gently on the floor where she crawled alongside him talking all the time. She took Wombat to her mother to 'share', very unusual behaviours for an autistic child. Obviously I was supervising all the time, but she was very gentle with him. When I suggested Wombat be returned to his box, she reacted immediately by running to the box, shutting the lid and sitting on it! A pretty clear message that she wasn't going to let him go! In the end, Wombat had to help her on with her coat to go home and walk with her to the car. She even kissed him goodbye and waved. In fact, a number of her behaviours were not typical of those she normally showed with people. So far we do not know why animals can sometimes have this effect, but it was clear that of our animals it was Wombat that had most impact on her. We hope to use both Bracken and Wombat in similar ways with other children. In the meantime, it makes a nice change for ferrets to be thought of as gentle, trustworthy animals capable of such work rather than their more dubious undeserved reputation for viciousness.
Two more of Juneís ferrets have now been involved with hospitalised children. The following is part of an e-mail I received from her on the subject:
Just thought Iíd let you know that Jack went in for the Ferret Therapy game this weekend on a childrenís ward. I have a number of children in for surgery and they are understandably very nervous. Part of my job is to lessen their anxiety.
Since Jack is visibly post-surgical - shaves, visible stitches etc - he went along to show everyone how wonderful he is feeling. This was demonstrated by high jumps on beds, dances in the pillow cases and generally behaving in his normal ballistically engergetic way. Little Robyn, again very obviously post-surgical with her spay op, also showed off her operation scars and stitch marks. Since itís only 10 days after their operations and they look and feel great, they were a good example of showing the children that the feel-bad part of having a big operation is not permanent, and they, too, will soon be able to jump on beds and ambush people from inside pillow cases if they feel so inclined. All in all, it was a good way of helping children make sense of operations and the consequences, and to entertain them (and the ferrets!) at a time when not much seems like fun.
Ferret Ferapy seems to work! Jack was a real sweetie, and versatile, too, as he was Ferapy-ing on Saturday and out rabbiting on Sunday. He would probably say that he prefers the Ferapy-ing to the bunny lark, mainly because he gets the chance to pinch sweets and fruit in the hospital. We havenít yet come across a rabbit hole that has been equipped with boxes of chocolates and fruit bowls.