Jefferson launches an animal therapy program during the fall semester.
Titan, a fluffy double mane lionhead rabbit, hopped into students’ hearts at his official debut as Jefferson’s therapy animal.
“They just see this guy and melt completely,” says El Hyder Kim, a counselor at the East Falls Student Counseling Center and Titan’s owner. “He was born to do this. I knew it from the moment I met him. He’s a sweet guy who loves everyone.”
Titan has served as a therapy animal for schoolchildren and senior citizens before, but this fall, he met about 50 University students as part of a new joint program with the Jefferson Psychology Society and East Falls Student Counseling Center.
Over a brisk November afternoon, small groups of students visited Titan in a Hayward Hall classroom. They sat in a circle to be closer to his eye level, and the 4-year-old bunny then bounced around and interacted with the students, who could pick him up and feed him treats. Hyder Kim and Lauryn Hall, a psychology junior and Jefferson Psychology Society president, facilitated each session.
“The animal acts as a social lubricant,” Hyder Kim describes. “We can get to know each other and have conversations in ways that we might not otherwise if Titan wasn’t in the room.”
Beyond helping students engage with their peers and Hyder Kim—a certified animal-assisted therapist through Pet Partners—the experience helps people de-frazzle, especially during stressful times.
“Students can come in very distressed, but they’re just calm, quiet and gentle with Titan,” Hyder Kim says. “That’s just the magical thing about him.”
Biopsychology freshman AJ Wellner enjoyed the relaxing half-hour gathering with Titan, saying she felt better after meeting the rabbit.
“He was adorable, friendly and well-trained enough for everyone to circle around and share some fun facts about themselves,” Wellner says. “He really does make a bad day a better one.”
We can get to know each other and have conversations in ways that we might not otherwise if Titan wasn’t in the room.
–El Hyder Kim
Chloe Smith, an MS in occupational therapy student, says she and others also benefited from their time with affectionate and cuddly Titan.
“Many people are away from home and without their pets, which can be hard,” says Smith, adding the session taught her about rabbits, therapy animals and the benefits of therapy animals in general. “Animals can make people feel more comfortable.”
Animal therapy dates to the 1960s when child psychologist Dr. Boris Levinson found he could better reach a withdrawn 9-year-old boy when his dog was in the room with them. Dr. Levinson gained the child’s trust, something that other therapists couldn’t do.
The psychologist and others continued this research. Since then, a wealth of studies has shown the myriad benefits of animal therapy, including lowering blood pressure, encouraging communication and decreasing isolation and anxiety. Schoolchildren can gain confidence in their literacy skills by reading to animals too.
Having a trained and certified animal-assisted therapist, such as Hyder Kim, plays a crucial role in the process. Along with guiding the sessions, they act as an advocate for their four-legged friends.
“They recognize when the animal is stressed out or overwhelmed,” Hyder Kim says. “They also explain certain behaviors that some people might take personally. For example, if the animal doesn’t want to be petted at that moment, the student may think they’ve done something wrong or the animal doesn’t like them. Really, Titan just needs a break.”
Many different types of creatures can be therapy animals, including dogs (the No. 1 choice), guinea pigs, birds, pigs, horses, and of course, rabbits, Hyder Kim says. On the other hand, cats generally don’t have the demeanor for the job.
Based on the success and interest of this first animal therapy event, expect to see Titan around campus more, says Hall, who hopes to pursue a PhD or PsyD in clinical psychology. The Jefferson Psychology Society and East Falls Student Counseling Center plan to host additional sessions—open to all students—in the spring semester.
“We’re excited to see where it goes,” Hall says.