Some animals earn hero status by dramatically pulling children from fires or leaping at a gun-toting criminal. Others work more quietly, out of the spotlight, dispensing the kind of potent medicine that has no prescription.
Four special “service'' and “therapy'' animals – trained to help physically and emotionally disabled children and adults lead freer lives – have won well-earned applause. They were the winners of Beyond Limits Awards, an honor bestowed annually by the Delta Society, a non-profit organization that encourages the use of companion animals to promote human health. The events of Sept. 11 postponed the 2001 awards to April 2002.
Lucky, the Teacher
Lucky was born deformed, the runt of a litter of cats delivered in the barn of Donna Francis' family farm in Texas. With one side of his face disfigured, a cleft palate and only one eye, the kitten wasn't given much hope of survival. But survive he did, and it was just those qualities that gave Francis the idea of introducing Lucky to the Fairview Elementary School in Sherman, Texas, where she teaches hearing-impaired children.
Francis said she thought it would be a good idea to bring Lucky to her class because, like the children, he was "different," but had a positive attitude. He also tags along with Francis to the Reba McEntire Center for Rehabilitation in Denison once a month, to visit physically disabled kids.
Lucky greets each child with a loud “meow'' and paws their legs until they pet him, Francis said. He draws laughs when he decides their study time is over – by lying down on their desks, in the middle of their papers, so they can't work. The kids compete for PAWS points, granted for good behavior, which are redeemed for time with Lucky.
The hearing impaired children have occasional lessons that center on Lucky, and they've written books about his antics. Lucky has also been the star of a classroom slideshow and a movie. Francis said that he seems to possess an intuitive sense of what the children need.
“They get so excited when Lucky purrs because they don't have to hear it to know that they are making Lucky happy – they can feel and see it,'' Francis said.
Sable, the Lifesaver
Marybeth Waltman's spinal muscular atrophy kept her dependent on a wheelchair and ventilator for decades, but her condition further worsened in 1996, leaving her virtually helpless to meet her basic needs. Then, Sable, a black Labrador, entered her life.
Waltman, 40, depended on being connected to a ventilator at night. Her husband, Jim, is a heavy sleeper, so she counted on Sable to stand guard in case Waltman has difficulty breathing. “When I trigger an alarm with my head, Sable is alerted that I need help, and she immediately responds by jumping on the bed and by barking until Jim is awakened,'' Waltman told the Delta Society.
She credits Sable with saving her life on three occasions. Once, when Jim was outside the house, she lost her balance, fell backward on her bed and found she couldn't draw a breath. Sable immediately started barking, checking on Waltman every few seconds. When she realized that no one responded, Sable ran to the other end of the house to alert Jim, who raced to Waltman's rescue with Sable right behind.
Sable accompanies Waltman to her job at the Social Security Administration in Seattle and to the mall. It's Sable who opens doors, pushes elevator buttons and retrieves items she drops. Now, “I have so much freedom in my life,'' Waltman said.
Zorro, the Lover
Zorro was rescued from the pound by Megan Wolf. The mixed-breed dog was too out-of-control to get adopted, said Wolf, a volunteer there. But she took a chance and found that Zorro blossomed into a gentle, loving soul, with an overflowing supply of love. He now shares it with children suffering from autism, cerebral palsy and other neurological problems, as well as senior citizens.
“We have seen children take their first steps, smile and laugh for the very first time, make eye contact, use sign language for the first time and speak for the first time,'' Wolf wrote Delta. “I have heard the magical phrase from an autistic boy who never before spoke: `Zorro's turn! Zorro's turn!' I have heard seniors say, `He likes me – somebody likes me.'''
Mame, the Adventurer
Mary Sexton's world had been narrowing from her continual battles with cerebral palsy and lupus. But with the golden retriever Mame at her side, she's regained her optimism and is planning a trip from her Seattle home to England or Japan to spread the news about companion animals. “Our life is so different now, totally different,'' she said.
Mame has become an outgoing alter-ego of Sexton, who was shy and introverted before the dog's arrival. “People I don't know aren't generally going to reveal their feelings to me. But on a train trip, Mame was a natural icebreaker!"
Sexton said she grew so emboldened by her companion she ventured a cruise to Alaska. The experience made her realize that her disabilities had made her withdrawn and shy as a child. It took Mame to re-ignite her interest in the world, Sexton said.
How They Won
Sable, Lucky, Zorro and Mame were nominated for their awards by the human companions and were selected from among animals across the country whose owners had written Delta about how their treasured helpers have quietly transformed their lives.
The society gave each winner $500, but the money was just a token, said society spokesman David Frei. It was excruciating to try to single out the most deserving animals, because all were remarkable, he said.
The society certifies and bonds animals that local instructors have tutored in rigorous training courses.
Researchers continue to find more evidence that animals help humans live fuller lives. A 1995 study found that people with disabilities who had service dogs scored higher in psychological well-being, self-esteem, interaction with others and the amount of control they could exert over their environment, according to Delta. And research has suggested that contact with pets lowers blood pressure, eases stress, improves motivation, eases loneliness and even lowers cholesterol.
For more information on therapy dogs, please see the article A Helping Paw.