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'The peace in rabbits'
Southern Manor's rabbit garden provides unique animal-assisted therapy to residents
w073015 BUNNY THERAPY 05
Glitzy takes a peek outside her den dug in the courtyard at Southern Manor Retirement Inn. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

    Therapists come in all shapes and sizes.
    At Southern Manor Retirement Inn in Statesboro they come in the small, soft, fluffy variety. They don't ask questions and they don't administer physical therapy. In fact, their only daily tasks are nibbling grass, hopping and twitching their cute little noses.
    They are rabbits — four of them, named Rusty, Glitzy, Floppy and Sable — and they are Southern Manor's resident pets.
    Plenty of assisted living facilities and hospitals employ the services of therapy dogs, but dogs are far from the only approved pets for animal-assisted therapy. Pet Partners, a national nonprofit that registers pet owners to facilitate animal-assisted therapy, includes rabbits in the list of nine species it approves for therapy. Pet Partners argues that, particularly for elderly people, rabbits are appealing because they are quiet, calm and gentle. They sit in laps and enjoy being cuddled and stroked.
    Southern Manor's rabbits are not registered animal-assisted therapy pets, and they do not particularly like being picked up or handled. The females, Rusty and Glitzy, wander free in a grassy courtyard. The males, Floppy and Sable, remain in a hutch in a second courtyard. Most of the residents' interactions with the rabbits consist of feeding them treats and watching them, either from the courtyard benches or from one of the windows facing the enclosures. These simple actions, however, have their own therapeutic benefits.
    "I just like to watch them," said resident Barbara Grinstead, who has spent many mornings and evenings in the females' courtyard with the rabbits hopping around her. "We have lots of people who don't come outside, or aren't able to get out here, but they'll bring their chairs to the door and sit right there and watch them."

The therapy of watching
    Dr. Aubrey Fine, a member of the Pet Partners board who specializes in rabbits as therapy animals, has written in the Pet Partner magazine that the "enchanting hop" of rabbits "can provide a wonderful venue for observation and discussion." Southern Manor Lifestyles Director Judith Eastman calls it the "peace in rabbits."
    Owner and director Ralph Cowart, Jr., has found this to be particularly true for residents with cognitive impairments, so much so that the private rooms with windows looking into the female rabbits' courtyard have been given to patients with the most severe mental health issues so can watch the rabbits from their own rooms.
    "Most of the patients with dementia and Alzheimer's like to look out this window," Cowart said, gesturing to the glass doors that look from a community room into the female rabbits' courtyard. "It's a lot of entertainment for them to be able to watch the rabbits."
    Grinstead said that in the early days of the rabbits' arrival, some of the residents made a project of growing millet in planters on the porch so they could feed their fluffy friends.
    "We grew them and watered them daily and let them get about that high," Grinstead said, holding her fingers two to three inches apart. "And then we would come out here and have a rabbit picnic."
    The rabbits remember the residents who feed them most often, and will often bound right up to them if their favorite humans come to sit in the garden. Resident Joann Gibson enjoys bringing them apple slices, and says the rabbits got so used to her that they would try to demand her attention.
    "They'd come sniff around," Gibson said. "They got to where they would pull on my pants leg."
    Eastman said Rusty and Glitzy's freedom to wander made such interactions more special for the residents. When the rabbits' actions were not coordinated by any handlers, being adopted as one of their favorites is a unique and validating experience.

Other benefits
    Eastman, a big believer in pet-assisted therapy, says that one of the appeals of the rabbits is the connection they provide between the residents and nature. Occasionally, they also provide a less obvious connection: between residents and their families, particularly grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
    "The little ones come in and say, 'I want to go see Great-Grandma,' which is helpful," Eastman said. "'I want to go see Great-Grandma so I can see the bunnies.' And they hit the doors and they come to see the bunnies. It causes family to come together."
    Many animal-assisted therapy groups, Pet Partners included, argue that therapy helps alleviate the loneliness residents feel when they receive few visitors, or no visitors at all. Families with small children may neglect visits because children get bored in the facilities and they cannot always find sitters to watch the children while older relatives go to visit.
    The rabbits provide incentive to get the children into the facility. Sometimes, having the children inside helps get residents outdoors just so they can watch their grandchildren play with the bunnies.
    "I'm a firm believer that the elderly cannot be left by themselves," Eastman said. "Our brains are too busy; we're still intelligent, we're still learning, we're still going, so when there's a way to spur that on again and make them come alive — what's better than babies and animals?"

Bunny tales
    Southern Manor on Fair Road has had their rabbits for the past two years, but Eastman and Cowart had considered a live-in therapy pet for quite some time.
    "I knew we couldn't have cats because people are allergic to cats, and we have therapy dogs that come in," Eastman said. "When we had talked about it years before we got them, one of the residents said, 'What about rabbits?'"
    They rescued their first pair — Rusty and Floppy — during the Easter season, when many rabbits, chicks and ducks are hastily adopted and just as quickly abandoned. A local photographer had used the rabbits for Easter photo shoots, and, when the shoots were over, began looking to rehome them. Eastman got in touch, and they had the rabbits by Easter Sunday.
    They released the rabbits in one of Southern Manor's courtyards, believing them to both be female. They got a surprise a few weeks later, when six tiny bunnies hopped out of the rabbits' burrow.
    "(The residents) were so excited when the first litter was born," Eastman said. "They were all peeking out their windows. This was the place to be."
    They kept one of the baby rabbits — Sable — and found new homes for the other five. Not long after, they received Glitzy from a construction worker who had worked on the facility and needed to rehome the family pet. Sable and Glitzy hit it off immediately, producing six more bunnies.
    Glitzy had two litters before she was fixed. The male rabbits were relocated to a separate courtyard and the babies were all rehomed — except for one gray rabbit, who lives in the females' courtyard and prefers to hide out in the burrow. 
    The way the staff members and residents talk about them, the rabbits' antics take on the quality of an anthropomorphized soap opera.
    "(Rusty) can be quite snippy to Glitzy," Eastman said with a laugh. "And the residents will say, 'You better be nice to your daughter-in-law, or you won't see your grandbabies!'"
    Eastman herself is not immune to creating her own narratives to add to the discussion. As she tells it, separating the males and females became a tragic love story for Glitzy and Sable.
    "Sable had a perfect upside-down heart when he came to us," Eastman said. "It was right over his nose, light tan. After all his loving and honeymooning and marriage and all Glitzy, he — once I separated him and his lovemaking days were over — he doesn't have his heart anymore. His heart has gone away."

Adding to the menagerie
    The facility often has therapy dogs come visit, but Eastman said that Southern Manor is considering adding to their miniature menagerie by putting an aviary for pet birds in one of the activity rooms. According to Pet Partners, birds are also approved therapy animals that can be fascinating for residents to watch: building nests, laying eggs and filling a room with a pleasant background warble.
    "It's a connection with nature," Eastman said. "We all love nature; it's a connection with them. To see the joy of little ones, to see them being fuzzy and cute — even if residents only spot one, that's all they need to do."
    Eastman hopes that the success of their program will inspire other facilities to add pet therapy to their own offered amenities. In some ways, it already has.
    "My brother lives in an assisted living facility like this in Thomasville, Georgia, and I've been talking about our rabbits all along," Gibson said. "He got to talking about it over there, so now they have rabbits too."

    Brittani Howell can be reached at (912) 489-9405.

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