Click for more pics
MADISON - No one doubts any more the therapeutic power of a purr, a whinny, or a cold wet nose.
The role of animals in assisting the healing of the physically or emotionally traumatized humans has entered the canon of medical science. Its arrival there has been long overdue, says Toni Schriver.
Schriver is a certified large animal veterinary technician at the Large Animal Hospital at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, where she acts as a nurse in internal medicine to the animal patients, assisting in treatments and procedures such as endoscopies and radiology.
She also is a survivor of a decade of sexual abuse when she was small.
"My saving grace back then were the family pets," she says. "We had horses, dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, hamsters and gerbils. I found my safety, patience, support and unconditional love from them."
Schriver's story begins in Madison, in the 1960s. "I truly lost my innocence at a very young age. I struggled with fear, anger, lack of trust and deception as I grew up. When I reached my teens I was very destructive, using drinking and drugs to help hide the pain I was dealing with," she says.
As an adult, Schriver learned to ease that pain by trying to help others. For example, her job as a school bus driver, which she got in 1980, gave her responsibility for the safety of children as they traveled to and from school. She also started doing volunteer work at a safe house for abused children.
In 1986, Schriver enrolled in the Animal Health Technician Program at Madison Area Technical College. After graduation, she worked at zoos in Oregon, Texas, Maryland and California.
"This job allows me to give the healing back to animals," she says. Indeed, the sentiment reverberates in her every time she draws blood or takes the vitals of a patient in the Large Animal Hospital, she says.
Schriver knew that the ugly childhood memories would gnaw at her until she took direct action to help others in recovery from trauma. In 2004, she founded PAWWS (Passionate Animals Working With Survivors) to Heal, a nonprofit animal-assisted therapy organization for abused and physically disabled children.
The sudden death of Schriver's brother-in-law left her sister back in Madison a single mother of two teenagers. So Schriver moved from California back to her hometown in September 2005, and brought PAWWS with her.
"The way the organization works is, a therapist tells us the goals of each particular child. We then select an animal - or animals - that we think will best help us achieve those goals," she says.
At present, insurance costs are delaying PAWWS-Madison from seeing clients here, and Schriver is working to secure the approximately $3,000 annual fee. When the insurance is settled, clients will be able to work interactively with Roxy the shepherd cross dog; Mousy the 18-year-old cat; and Phoenix the parrot ("who has amazing speaking ability," Schriver says).
Eventually, Schriver and animal and human volunteers will provide therapies for individuals, families or groups. "We focus 100 percent on providing emotional and mental health treatment," she says. Her five-year plan includes an on-site ranch facility.
"That way we could have more animals available, and an on-site therapist," she says. "Children wouldn't be limited to coming to the ranch for therapy - they could just come for a 'ranch day' and feed, groom or just hang out with the animals.
"This is so important to me. I would like to make a positive change in a child's life so that child doesn't have to struggle with a tragedy for many years," she says. "Through animals, emotionally or physically traumatized children can develop trust, patience, and a sense of safety, support and security so they can grow up to make good choices in life."
For more information about PAWWS to Heal, or to volunteer or make a contribution, visit its Web site at http://www.pawwstoheal.org.