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May 21, 2024

Cow Hug Therapy. ~ Ellie Laks

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Human-to-human physical contact can often be awkward, but for someone who feels emotionally or physically vulnerable, even eye contact with other people can be overwhelming. As a little girl, eye contact alone would often make me feel judged or isolated. It was only with my animals that I could relax and know that I didn’t have to be anything other than who I was, with whatever I was feeling.

Buddha, my first cow, was the source of my understanding of the healing power of Cow Hug Therapy: an opportunity to feel unconditional support, warmth, and safe nonjudgment at the side of a gentle healer. Because of a cow’s large size, even adult humans can feel they are in a protector’s care. Starting with Buddha, we established Cow Hug Therapy as a foundational offering at the Gentle Barn. Whether they were coming with a school field trip, as part of a private tour, or with a foster agency, homeless shelter, domestic violence shelter, or rehab center, our guests have always hugged our cows.

During the first years of the pandemic, when the Gentle Barn had to be closed to visitors, we received many emails and comments on social media from people saying they needed the love of our animals to help them through their hardship, both mentally and physically. One day an email arrived from a foster care caseworker, writing on behalf of a seventeen-year-old girl, I’ll call Mandy, who was in crisis. I thought of how incredibly hard the pandemic had been for our own teenage daughter and could not fathom how hard it must be for a child in foster care, without a secure family to call her own.

The caseworker wrote that being around animals was the only thing that lit Mandy up and made her feel that life was worth living. The caseworker acknowledged in her email that she knew we were closed due to the pandemic and not running our programs, but because Mandy was in such despair, she wondered if we might make an exception. I knew I would not say no, despite the Covid risks. When I weighed the risk of a young girl feeling hopeless and alone with the risk of me getting this virus while outside in the barnyard, I knew the answer. I would wear a mask and social distance, but this girl would get the comfort she needed with our animals.

When they arrived, I tried to look into the face of this beautiful young lady and make conversation. I told her it was nice to meet her and asked if she had ever been here before. She stared at the ground, wouldn’t look at me, and wouldn’t answer me. She was completely shut down. Not wanting her to feel awkward, I moved us on to meet the cows.

As we opened the gate to the pasture, Mandy’s eyes were still cast on the ground, and she walked in the shadow of her caseworker. John Lewis, acting as if being reunited with a long-lost friend, came bounding over, full of life and fun, with a bright, mischievous expression on his face. I could hear Mandy start to giggle as he licked her arm, like a popsicle, and leaned his body against hers.

John Lewis took over from there, and Mandy responded immediately, stroking his neck, bowing her face toward his soft coat. In a matter of minutes, this despondent shell of a girl looked up at me for the first time and began asking questions: What’s his name? What’s his story? How old is he? Coincidentally, she and John Lewis shared the same birthday, July 23, and that made her smile from ear to ear.

After she had hugged Lewis close, I brought her over to meet our older cows, who were lying down in anticipation of her arrival. I showed Mandy how to kneel down beside their shoulders, lean her weight onto their sides, put her face on their backs, close her eyes, breathe in and out a few times, and connect without words, without expectations, without thinking, just heart to heart, soul to soul, in silence. An hour later, my heart was full, seeing how Mandy had relaxed and connected in a way that melted the deep frown from between her eyes.

The Cow Hug Therapy was so successful that we set up a plan for Mandy to come back once a month. Sometimes we returned to the cows for cuddles, other times we groomed and walked horses, or we went to the upper barnyard and sat on the floor to give tummy rubs to pigs, hold chickens, or pat goats and sheep.

Mandy’s arrivals were always a little bit awkward, human to human. She clearly didn’t feel right in her own skin, which made it a bit hard to find our starting place. But the minute we got into the pastures or into the barnyards, a light shined in her eyes and she was full of questions and conversation. Little by little, with each visit, she would tell me more about her life, about what she was going through, what it was like in the foster homes, and what it was like in her home of origin. She even told me about her boyfriend.

The thread through all our conversations was always animals. She shared with me how she was ridiculed and misunderstood for her love of animals. She excitedly described the dog she wanted to get one day. She reminisced about animals she had known in former group homes, who always made her feel safe.

Over time I really got to know Mandy. I related to her completely, understanding what it is like to be a girl who only among animals felt she was worthy and really mattered. I was glad that I didn’t have to sit on the Covid sidelines anymore. I was finally helping somebody in the pandemic, and it felt wonderful.

 

{*This is an excerpt from Cow Hug Therapy: How the Animals at the Gentle Barn Taught Me about Life, Death, and Everything in Between by Ellie Laks.}

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