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The healing power of fur and four legs Carlos R. Davalos | Sat, Mar 26 2011 12:00 PM

Somewhere in heaven, St. Francis of Assisi is leaning back in a faux leather chair, his sandals propped up on his desk.

"See," he says, blue smoke from his Partagas rising lazily over his head. "I told you. Blessed are the animals."

The patron saint of beasts has reason to gloat. After all, at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center a soft white bunny and a 110-pound Bernese mountain dog are doing what some might argue is the Lord's work - easing pain.

The animals are part of the hospital's pet therapy program. China, the 6-year-old California mix rabbit, is a relative newbie having joined the program last fall.

Dakota the Bernese mountain dog is the veteran, roaming the halls and visiting hospital rooms since 2007.

China is afforded minor celebrity status as she's pushed around in a pink stroller by her owner, hospital volunteer Blanca Unguez.

Employees clamor for their cell phone cameras when they see China coming, and in the Birch Patrick Skilled Nursing Facility, patients coo and lovingly stroke her ethereally soft fur.

The vacant, distant gaze in one patient's eyes is replaced by a glimmer of ... joy? love?, when she runs her bony fingers through the rabbit's hair. All the while China sits passively on the woman's lap.

Dakota, on the other hand, brings a woman to tears. She specifically requests the dog and his handler Sharon Ussery visit her husband in the intensive care unit.

Unsure if the man will be responsive, Ussery nevertheless prompts Dakota to nuzzle the man's hand. It takes a few attempts but when he does, the patient's fingers move as if to pet the dog.

His wife apologizes, wishing that he were a little more aware to have appreciated the visit. She asks if Dakota can visit again. Of course, Ussery tells her.

Dakota's presence is as much for the woman as it is for her husband. Maybe more so. At home they have two dogs. And it's that home and those two dogs which, presumably, symbolize life before whatever it was that brought this family to the intensive care unit.

Dakota, all 110 pounds of him, is a link to happier times.

It's in a hospital where minutes callously drag, morphing into hours, then into endless days.

And it's in a hospital where the stress of watching a loved one suffer can wear you down to the point where you didn't even realize how happy you'd be to see a dog that reminds you of home and a life before things went awry.

Blessed are the animals.


This article was updated at 10:53 a.m. on March 26, 2010.

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Angela Yamaguchi Says:

Sat, Apr 02 2011 10:45 AM

I live in Canmore,Alberta, Canada. I have a pet mini lop rabbit named Hoppy, he is 8 years old. He is a friendly and curious bunny and is a joy to have in my life. I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading the article "The healing power of fur and four legs". I loved reading about China, the therapy rabbit. It was touching to read about how the patients responded to China and enjoyed petting her. It's inspiring to see positive articles about rabbits. I hope you will continue to publish more articles about rabbits that show what wonderful animals they are.

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