Larazus the therapy cat loves sitting on the laps of the ladies at Legacy Lodge. They pet him, and he listens to them tell stories in return.
“They’ve had lives that were well lived,” said his handler, Theresa Godchaux. “They were loved and they did love, and now so many of them are almost alone.”
Lazarus, nearly 15, had been visiting the assisted living home every week to offer comfort to the residents. He was set to start going to the C-bar-V Ranch to visit kids with his 7-year-old Labrador retriever sister, Penny, but hasn’t been able to do any visits since March.
Godchaux and her pets, along with over 30 other pet-handler teams with Teton County Pet Partners, are facing a Catch-22: Animal therapy can alleviate some of the stress of the pandemic, but the program has been put on hold because of the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, in the time when I feel like we need it the most, we’re not really volunteering,” said Teton County Pet Partners director Kelly Chadwick. “It’s kind of sad, because this is really the time we all need the love and attention and the smiles that the dog brings to us, or the cat in Theresa’s case.”
Therapy animals provide a range of support, from visiting hospital patients to reading with children to comforting the elderly like Lazarus.
“It’s probably been really hard on them,” Godchaux said of the Legacy Lodge residents. “I know with the children at the Literacy Center, they were so excited to have the dogs back, and I happened to be there the first day with Penny. They just wanted to hug on her and love on her.”
Godchaux and Penny were part of a few visits Pet Partners was able to do outdoors in October. Penny became a therapy dog about six years ago after someone noticed how calm she was at a hectic outdoor event. She’s great with children and sits with the kids while they read to her.
Pets become therapy animals by passing a series of exercises to make sure they will remain calm regardless of the situation they’re put in, like a child pulling on their tail.
Chadwick’s job is to match the teams with locations, which may be Jackson Hole Airport, St. John’s Health, the Girl Scouts, or schools and day care centers like Sweet Peas and the Children’s Learning Center.
Godchaux said Penny had just been cleared to go behind security at the airport when everything closed. The Lab was going to help comfort anxious passengers, greet arrivals and relieve stress for those missing baggage.
Unfortunately many of the places they go — schools, the airport, retirement centers and the hospital — are either highly trafficked or high-risk locations.
Godchaux recalled how hospital patients found joy from Penny being by their side during treatment. She thinks Lazarus was also a nice distraction for the residents at Legacy Lodge, something they looked forward to each week.
“I believe in the human-animal relationship and the contact, the physical contact, of having that cat sit in those people’s laps,” she said. “They don’t get hugs and kisses all the time, and that’s contact for them. And I think that’s huge, and it does something to your endorphins.”
Chadwick has seen this not only with Penny and Lazarus but with all of the Pet Partner teams.
“You don’t really need the statistics to see it,” she said. “I’ve actually seen a little terrier follow along as a little kid read and you could just see in his eyes this little boy just loving every minute of it, and you know that there’s no stress when it comes to reading out loud for him at that very moment.
“You can see it in patients’ eyes,” she said. “You knock on the door, you ask if you can come in, and immediately patients’ faces light up.”
Not everyone has their own dog, Godchaux noted, so therapy animals help fill the void. She understands that it’s not safe to go to some of their usual locations, that not all handlers are ready to go back, and Legacy Lodge is planning to close this winter, but she hopes her pets can return to some of the lower-risk visits soon.
“I think people have put animal therapy on the back burner, and I think it’s a shame,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do.”
Chadwick is hopeful they can return to visits either after a vaccine becomes available or in the spring when they can visit outside. She has many handlers like Godchaux who are excited to get back to work and make up for lost time.