By Elizabeth Nelson
“They’re my babies,” says Russell Blake. He beams with warmth as he watches Taco, a three-year-old guinea pig, squirm inside a cloth tunnel. The little animal is a deep, chocolate brown with bright eyes. He squeaks playfully, wiggling his nose as he pokes his face through one of the soft fabric ends. “They calm me down,” he continues. “If I get nervous, upset, I come in and talk to them. I put them to bed each night.”
Russell is one of 152 residents at Williamstown Commons Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. Located near the borders of both Vermont and New York, the Massachusetts facility spreads across eight acres, providing rehabilitation and long-term care to its residents. One type of rehabilitation offered is pet therapy, which encourages residents to interact and spend time with animals – Taco, two parakeets, and – until recently – a cat name Jasmine.
“Jasmine just went home today!” says Janice Paquette, the activity director at Williamstown Commons who oversees the animal programs and related activities. “Russell was the first person I went to tell.”
“I taught Jasmine to come get in my lap,” he says. “She was one of my babies.”
The popular and friendly feline was part of the facility’s Foster Cat Program, which began partnering with Berkshire Humane Society a few months ago. The program was started by Janice in 2003 and has been enormously successful, both in enriching the quality of life for residents and in helping find the cats forever homes.
“Jasmine was number 51,” says Janice, looking through three large photo albums, each documenting the past 14 years of cats, guinea pigs, birds and other small animals. “She is number two from Berkshire Humane because we just began our relationship with them. Of those 51 cats, 43 were adopted. Seven or so went back to the shelter for various reasons. One actually had a stroke while it was here, which was a little traumatic. We’ve had several cats stay for a year. Then there was one cat who was here two days and then she got adopted.”
A tall man shuffles into the room. He peeks at the cages and then eyes the cat condo.
“Jasmine went home,” Janice tells him.
“Ah!” he exclaims, shaking his head. “There’s nothing to pet today!” The man is smiling, but his disappointment is evident.
“I know, I’m sorry!” Janice calls as he leaves the room.
The pet friendly facility facilitates animal interaction, and many of the residents visit Taco and friends multiple times a day. Many had pets of their own, either in the past or just before they were admitted. Some still have their companion animals at home, and their family members are allowed to periodically bring them for a visit.
Taco and the parakeets live at Williamstown Commons permanently. Their cages occupy the activity room on the second floor of the rehab unit. Residents can visit on their own or work with them in groups as part of their therapy. The animals are also brought to other parts of the building to spend time with other residents.
“The cat has free rein of the second floor,” says Janice. “During the day, this room is the busy area. It’s where food, water and litter is. In the evenings the cat tends to go out toward the nurses’ station, because that’s where people are. And they bed-hop. They find residents to sleep with.”
Russell recalls a cat that singled him out and spent most of its time in his room. Janice flips through the book, looking for that particular cat.
“Helix,” she says.
Russell confirms this. “I lived across the hall then. That cat found me and would stay with me all day, cuddled at my feet.” He smiles, watching Taco. “I’ve made friends with just about all of them. Some take longer than others. Once they love you…” He thinks for a brief moment, then says, “that’s it!”
If Russell’s apparent bond is any indication, the Foster Cat and pet therapy programs are clearly working, for both the animals and the people.
“Every single time an animal comes,” says Janice, “everyone always says, this is the best one! Right now Jasmine is on all our minds, and we’re thinking, Jasmine was the greatest cat. But if I look back [through these books]at my pictures and notes, I’ll remember, oh that cat was so great. They go to really good homes. Sometimes they go to employees, family members, employees’ family members. People in the community that know we have this program, they come here and ask to meet the cats.”
Berkshire Humane oversees the entire adoption process, handling the paperwork and ensuring the match between cat and new home is a positive one.
“It’s a great relationship,” says Cheryl Truskowski, Berkshire Humane Society’s shelter manager. “When we have a cat we feel is appropriate, we’ll arrange for that cat to visit the facility and test it out. It can be a really great opportunity for the cat – they don’t all thrive in the shelter environment. The cat basically has to be ‘bomb proof.’ It’s going to encounter all kinds of stimuli and meet all kinds of people and other animals, so it has to be a resilient cat that thrives in that sort of novel environment. And it really has to love people.”
Jasmine, who was as nimble as she was social, was often found perched on top of the bird and guinea pig cages or near the fish tank. She would sometimes sleep in the gardening container by the window, or on top of the piano. And she developed a friendship with Taco.
“Jasmine was a cat who liked to help,” explains Janice. “When it was time to feed Taco, she would jump into the play pen and lay down. She’d watch Taco pull his food into his castle, and sometimes she’d pull the food out – it was really funny to watch. Sometimes Taco would chase her around the pen. Then she’d lay down and Taco would come over to her. They built a rapport. That often happens with our animals.”
“They bring so much joy to people,” she continues. “It can be surprising – you don’t expect to see a cat walking down the hallway in this environment, and you don’t always expect to see someone holding a guinea pig on their lap, or hear birds. And it’s a de-stressor for our staff. So many people make it part of their day to come see the animals. We’re really proud of these programs.”
Russell, who volunteers to assist Janice in their daily care, adds this about the cats: “They can sense your feelings. They can feel that you are nervous or upset. Especially if they get to know you. It’s like having a brother or sister.” He pauses again, perhaps remembering Jasmine. “So far, we’ve been lucky,” he says. “The cats have been adopted to good, nice people.”