A few weeks ago, a student at Western walked through campus on the brink of tears. She cut through Red Square, trying to keep her composure after a midterm that went less than stellar. That’s where she ran into Ashley Hurlbut and Olivia Sund, both juniors in the human services program at Western, out in Red Square working on a class project.
The project? Sund and Hurlbut worked with Animals as Natural Therapy, a local nonprofit organization that uses animal assisted therapy to heal and empower people. Sund and Hurlbut were able to partner with ANT and bring therapy animals into Red Square to help students de-stress during midterms. Over the course of a week, Sund and Hurlbut were amazed to see how many people they touched. They can share story after story like the one above, of people who sat down to hold, pet and cuddle with animals and unload whatever problems were bothering them.
The event that touched hundreds of students began with a simple class assignment: Hurlbut and Sund were tasked to create an event that would raise awareness about a local organization or cause. They reached out to ANT with an idea of bringing therapy dogs onto campus during midterm week and were floored by the response.
"They said they had mini-horses, a rooster and bunnies we could use too," Hurlbut said. "It just kind of went from there. We made a Facebook page, invited everyone we knew and it got a lot bigger than we ever thought it would."
Sund, Hurlbut and staff members from ANT were in Red Square Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the week of February 11 for about two hours each day. For the first four days, a dog, two bunnies and a rooster named Juan were available for students to interact with. On Friday, for the grand finale, there were two dogs, two bunnies, Juan and two mini horses.
Ariel Haustveit saw the event on Facebook and kept hearing her friends talking about petting bunnies and roosters, so she decided to check it out.
"I was stressed like everyone here at Western during midterms," Haustveit said. "But I was also missing my family pets, like my dog Farley and my cats. This is my second year here and I still miss home especially around finals and midterms."
Haustveit said even just seeing other students interact with the animals put her in a better mood.
"When you see others in a good mood it just brightens your day and it really helps you breathe easier," she said.
At the event, Hurlbut and Sund passed out volunteer packets and other information about ANT. They also had a donation basket to raise money for the organization, which is entirely powered off of volunteer effort and fundraising.
"We started the project to raise awareness for ANT, but in a way, I feel like it was more for the students," Sund said. "People would be coming up to the group looking upset and asking, ‘What is this? What are you guys doing?’ We’d explain that we had animals and instantly, it was like a light went off. They would leave smiling and running off saying they had to go tell their friends."
Sund and Hurlbut say they were shocked by how much the animals seemed to impact the students.
"It was something so simple," said Hurlbut. "It just shows you how much something so small can go so far. Honestly, I was expecting there to be 15 people a day, but we had crowds."
The idea that began as a simple class project exploded into an event that captivated campus for a week. Hurlbut estimated hundreds of people stopped by every day of the event. Reporters showed up daily, snapping pictures. The Bellingham Herald ran a front-page photo about the event. Now, Sund and Hurlbut laugh about how they get recognized around campus.
"A lot of people come up to me and just say, ‘You were that girl! With the animals!’" Sund said. "So now I’m Animal Girl, I guess."
"People just wave at me and I wonder who they are at first," Hurlbut added. "Then I imagine them holding a bunny, and I’m like, oh yeah, they look familiar."
The popularity of the event surprised everyone, even ANT founder Sonja Wingard.
"Sonja was at the event on Friday at the end of the event she came up to both of us and almost started crying and was just saying that ‘this was so beautiful and you guys have touched so many people and I’m so proud of you,’" Hurlbut said. "It almost made me cry."
The effect the animals had on campus is well documented by several psychological studies looking at the impact of therapy animals. A study done at the University of Pittsburgh concluded that even brief visits from therapy dogs significantly reduced pain and emotional distress in patients at a university clinic. Studies have also shown interacting with therapy animals has been effectively used to treat mood disorders, depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s, patients recovering from serious trauma, at-risk youth, geriatric patients and those recovering from substance abuse.
Still, seeing the animals have such a real effect on students was a profound experience for Sund and Hurlbut.
"I don’t even have words for it," Hurlbut said. "Amazing doesn’t do it justice. It was beyond anything I imagined it to be."