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Helen Woodward Therapy Animals Spread Unconditional Love

Photo credit: Kris Arciaga

Rootbeer, the miniature horse, is shown outside of Vista's Murray High School on May 31, 2017.

Rootbeer is ready for his close up.

Rootbeer is a grey and white miniature horse. Gloria Johnston, a volunteer with the Helen Woodward Animal Center's Pet Encounter Therapy Program, walked the small animal around a parking lot.

“He’s very low key, very easy going, life is good. That’s Rootbeer,” she said, smiling.

On a recent weekday morning, program volunteers and staff members brought a small menagerie to Murray High School in Vista.

Along with Rootbeer, there is another mini-horse, Edward, a small, fluffy dog named Balonee and a white rabbit known as Calvin Klein.

Their job on this day is to bring a little joy into the lives of kids who have fallen on hard times.

Spending time with a friendly animal can be fun and therapeutic, too. That is the concept behind a special program run by the nonprofit Helen Woodward Animal Center.

Murray High is an alternative school. Principal Chuck Hoover said his students often have a lot of negative stuff in their life.

“Whether it’s home life, or some of the failures they’ve had in school," Hoover said.

The therapy animals come to Murray High twice a month. Hoover said the visits give the kids a chance to put their troubles aside for a little while.

“And you can interact with, not only the animals, but with the other adults that come from Helen Woodward," Hoover explained. "It gives our teachers a chance to interact with our kids in a different way, too. So it’s a real positive for our kids and for us.”

The animals were waiting in the schoolyard as students were let out of their classrooms.

Photo credit: Kris Arciaga

Students and teachers at Murray High School admire the miniature horses Rootbeer and Edward, May 31, 2017.

The miniature horses were a big hit. Some students took them for a walk, parading them around the yard as if they were in a pageant.

Kade Prouty, a junior at Murray High, could not get enough of Calvin Klein, the rabbit. Prouty said he used to have a pet rabbit.

Photo credit: Kris Arciaga

The white rabbit known as Calvin Klein, May 31, 2017.

“They’re more nice than humans," he said, as he stroked the rabbit's fur. "They’re just chillin’. They’re not going to argue with you. They just want to hang out and munch out on food.”

Angela Diaz, the school’s valedictorian, also loved Calvin.

“It’s so small, like you could touch and carry him, and he wouldn’t even do nothin’, " she gushed. "Like you could feed him, like a baby. It’s just a small baby with hair.”

Robin Cohen has managed the pet encounter therapy program for 25 years. Her team makes around 60 visits each month to schools, nursing homes, and other facilities around San Diego County.

Photo credit: Kris Arciaga

Pet Encounter Therapy Program manager Robin Cohen holds her dog, Balonee, while students pet him, May 31, 2017.

Cohen said the animals are more than just cute and cuddly — they actually offer a lot of benefits.

She said therapy animals can help lower one’s blood pressure, and improve memory and recall.

“But the unconditional acceptance, that’s the emotional side," Cohen said. "These animals make people feel special, loved, and worthy of everything that the world has to offer.”

Cohen said people, on the other hand, can be judgmental.

“Maybe people see a student, and because they look a certain way and talk a certain way, they may not be as accepting as the animals are," she pointed out. "The animals don’t care what they’ve done ten minutes ago, ten years ago. They love them for who they are at that moment.”

And who couldn’t use a little more love like that?

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