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Area barn offers cow-hugging therapy as a way to cope

DITTMER, Mo. (AP) — He’s one of those therapists who doesn’t say much, really. No probing questions about one’s mood or concerns.

But his body was warm and soft, and his stomach churned with a calming, rhythmic rumble.

As Chico lay chewing his cud, a visitor could kneel next to him, hugging or petting the 1,500-pound bovine. It’s a paying gig that helps finance hay and care at an animal sanctuary in Dittmer in Jefferson County.

The Gentle Barn, one of three founded by Ellie Laks and her husband, Jay Weiner, has offered “cow hugging therapy” for two decades in California. The sanctuary is also promoting hugs as a way for St. Louis-area visitors to become familiar with five animals that escaped a slaughterhouse in north St. Louis in 2017.

“You see them in fields, but there isn’t a lot of opportunity to be with cows,” Britt Johansson, 26, said on a recent winter day. Her partner, Philip Masini, 25, had purchased a private session with the cows as a Christmas present. The pair grew up in Chicago and attended universities in St. Louis. Now they live in Tower Grove East with one canine, which happens to be an Australian cattle dog.

The couple have no farming background, but they’ve always found cows charming. The pair’s interest was prompted by a desire to reconnect with nature during the pandemic, and they were excited to go into a barn and mingle with the herd, which was eating lunch at noon.

The five guys (neutered males but referred to at the barn as cows) paid little attention to their human observers at first. They chomped hay from racks; then a couple of them wandered over to lick a salt block and get a drink of water. It was an opportunity for Johansson and Masini to approach the cows, who seemed unconcerned by attention.

In addition to Chico, the cows are Eddie, Houdini, Johnny Cash and Roo. A sixth, Spirit, did not survive after the breakaway but has a pond named for him.

Chico

As the five finished eating, they mostly stood placidly while the clearly captivated Johansson and Masini patted their dusty coats or brushed them. Johnny seemed a little more aloof than a couple of others, notably Chico, who had led the crew through steel bars on the famous slaughterhouse escape that involved running through city streets for hours before being corralled (so to speak). Eddie batted his long eyelashes, while Houdini, identified by a white stripe down his face, turned to see who was wrapping arms around his 5-foot-tall back.

Occasionally, one of the boys would unceremoniously push away another, while humans, who included a couple of docents, just stepped back a foot or two if a large animal needed space to pass by. For observers not used to cattle, it took a few minutes to relax, to recognize that the herd seemed unlikely to suddenly trample bystanders.

In fact, no one has been injured visiting the Gentle Barn cows, Laks said. The first time she rescued one from slaughter it was a miniature Hereford in California that she named Buddha. In her memoir, “My Gentle Barn,” Laks writes that Buddha stood still immediately when a “sea of children” surrounded her. While lying down, Buddha would wrap her neck round to encircle Laks, making her feel at peace, “so totally accepted by this animal.”

She decided she needed to introduce the hug to wary, at-risk children who were brought to the barn. Laks writes that the children needed to hug the cow closely, showing vulnerability: “It was in this hug — I was sure of it — that they would begin to shed their survival armor and start to heal.”

Laks and her family live in California, but every couple of months they visit the barns in Missouri and Tennessee. While in Dittmer in January, she explained that for 22 years, “we’ve been doing cow hug therapy with people in real crisis. We’ve been working with kids in foster care, families in domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, war veterans centers, probation camps, alcohol rehab centers.

“Anyone out there that was in real crisis, the agencies would bring groups of people to the Gentle Barn to feel the healing among the animals. And of course while they were there, everyone had to have a cow hug. And over the last 22 years, we’ve gotten really wonderful feedback on how they brought people who wouldn’t talk, who were not responding to traditional therapy. They were angry, they were shut down. But magically in the barnyard among the animals and in those cow hugs, it kind of would reset them, open them up and help them be vulnerable and allow them to progress in regular therapy.”

During the pandemic, many more people felt traumatized, she says. So last year, the Gentle Barn opened up cow hugging to individuals.

In addition to the rescued cows, there are three large hogs, along with some chickens, turkeys, donkeys, goats, sheep and a duck. Each animal’s back story is told at gentlebarn.org.

Jay Weiner, who keeps track of finances, said the three sanctuaries had a combined budget of about $3.1 million. Income mostly comes in the form of grants or large donations, which decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Animal studies

Scientific studies of animal-assisted therapy have increased over the past two decades, but few focus on farm animals, says Gretchen Carlisle, a research scientist at the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri’s veterinary college.

She can point to a 2011 study that did find improvement in psychiatric patients who had work-related tasks connected to dairy cattle.

There are many other studies that show measurable physiological change in people who interact with animals, especially dogs, cats and horses. Studies not only measure decreases in blood pressure and cortisol, but also increases in oxytocin, the “love hormone” active in breastfeeding mothers, Carlisle says.

“But we don’t always know the dosages,” she said. That is, how long and how often does a depressed or anxious human need to interact with an animal to show improvement? Another question scientists want to know is how long positive effects last and whether patients might just need an occasional “booster.”

During the pandemic, lonely or distressed people adopted pets in record numbers, Carlisle noted. They have an inborn desire to “connect to nature in some way, whether plants or animals.”

But finding the right animal is important, she said. She was involved in a study of families that included children with autism. The families adopted a cat, choosing among some screened for calm and friendly temperaments. During the study, children showed decreases in anxiety and increases in social skills, Carlisle said. She speculated that more boisterous animals, such as big dogs, might not have brought the same results.

“It’s all about the match.”

Escaping to nature

Laks loved animals as a child and said she knew at age 7 that she wanted to rescue them.

Her family lived for a few years in Chesterfield, and she’d spend time in a garden behind her house with her dog. “That’s really where I discovered the absolute heavenly bliss of nature and animals, and I spent every spare minute that I could in those woods and by a lake with animals.”

If she was upset at home, she took to the garden or a nearby lake to watch tadpoles, bats and birds. She remembers lying in a field surrounded by Monarch butterflies. “I think that’s really where I just became obsessed with animals; they were always there for me.”

In her memoir, she says her mother rarely let her keep and nurture animals she brought home, and she writes about trauma she suffered as a girl. Later, a drug-using boyfriend led to a few years of crack addiction.

After her own therapy and psychology courses in college, Laks started making money by walking, grooming and boarding dogs. Soon, she would head to animal shelters to bring home and rehabilitate ill or neglected dogs and cats.

Now, the three Gentle Barns are home to about 200 animals. The site in Dittmer was purchased through donations to give a home to the slaughterhouse escapees from 2017.

Roo

Laks said the cows had learned to trust humans. “They’ve left their past far behind them. And they’re all happy to offer up healing to people.” She’s convinced the rescued animals can give traumatized children a “sense of hope.” In the meantime, people unfamiliar with farm animals may feel more empathy toward what so often has been treated mainly as a food product.

At the Gentle Barn, the animals get to decide how much petting they receive. Laks says, “We always leave it up to the cows’ own choice to decide to do this work.”

While Johansson and Masini were in the barn, none of animals lay down. But after the couple left, the cows went outside, and several decided to relax. The couple was allowed to go back and see them again. Kneeling next to the large animals really made their day, even if the couple didn’t seem to require actual therapy.

Johansson said the whole experience was “wonderful”: “I’m going to be floating on air all day.” Chico was a favorite because “he’s such a big cuddlebug.” But don’t tell that to the smaller Roo, who lay patiently, allowing Johansson to caress his head and body.

Masini felt honored: “It was very humbling for such a dominant creature, size wise, to let you love it and be at ease.”

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