Therapy animals bring health and joy to veterans and community

Most people have heard about the benefits of therapy dogs—they can help reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure and even encourage children to read.

Originally published in Taos News

But at Not Forgotten Outreach—a nonprofit dedicated to facilitate the healing process for veterans and Gold Star families— they have more than just dogs.

There is a whole array of therapy animals that include five ducks, eleven chickens, three peacocks, two miniature horses, six goats, a llama, a huarizo (a cross between a female alpaca and a male llama), two pigs and two dogs.

All the farm animals have been donated to them.

“Research done in Animal Assisted Therapy with farm animals suggests that the combined effect of both contact and work with the animals can affect the participants positively,” said Don Peters II, Executive Director of Not Forgotten Outreach. “They provide a source of physical contact with a living ‘other’ and increase coping abilities and self-esteem.”

Their work with the therapy animals began totally by chance, in a very “Taos fashion.”

“A veteran had four goats he couldn’t take care of anymore,” said Kym Sanchez, founder and president of Not Forgotten Outreach. “He gave them to us and once we had them here, other veterans started taking care of them and enjoying their presence. It really made a difference in their attitude! Then more animals came along and we ended up with a kind of a petting zoo. Everybody has fit in really well.”

A big happy family

The llama and the huarizo (Mamma Llama and Dali Llama) are both pregnant. They share a huge pen with the six goats.

“They are one big, happy family,” Sanchez said. “The llama and the huarizo have been here for four months and are still a little shy, but they like to have people around. It’s a joy to see them interact with each other and the goats, which are all really playful.”

The llama and the huarizo also have a special mission—they protect the rest of the livestock.

“We don’t need to worry about coyotes because they will chase them off,” said Peters. “They are actually dual-purposed: they are fun to watch but they are guard animals as well.”

As for the birds, they are so used to people that they can be held and petted.

“At least the chickens and the ducks,” Peters said. “The peacocks would rather be left alone.”

From Amarillo to Taos

Dena Russo is a veteran who served twenty years in the Navy. She and her husband Brett Russo are from Amarillo, Texas. They currently live in the intern room at Not Forgotten Outreach.

“We were camping in Pilar and decided to search for my ancestors, who came from this area,” said Dena Russo. “Nita Murphy, from the Southwest Research Center, told us to visit Not Forgotten. We are so happy that we found out about it!”

The couple has stayed here for two months, working on the house, gardening and planting apple trees. Dena Russo was also invited to an agricultural seminar for women veterans in Alamosa.

“I love the animals,” she said. “One of my favorite tasks is taking the miniature horses for walks, feeding and brushing them.”

The miniature horses are named Dulcinea and Don Quixote. They were donated by the Equine Sanctuary and a grant paid for their adoption.

“I always wanted to have my own ponies so it is wonderful to take care of them,” Dena Russo said. “This is very relaxing and the horses give so much back to me.”

What’s new at Not Forgotten Outreach

A lot has been going in the organization recently. Three different teams from AmeriCorps worked at Not Forgotten Outreach for the last nine months.

“They put fences in the fields and built ‘Duckingham’ Palace and ‘Big Hen’ chicken coop,” said Peters. “They also built two pig pens, painted the main house, and reroofed seven thousand square feet. We have been busy!”

This summer Not Forgotten Outreach harvested almost 900 lbs. of organically grown garlic as well as pumpkins, cucumbers, onions and other produce. Vegetables grown by the Taos Veterans Project just won three blue ribbons and one white ribbon at the Taos County Fair.

“We want to thank all the veterans and community volunteers that helped in the garlic fields at Sunset Park,” said Peters. “If you want to harvest, come every Monday and Friday morning. We still need help.”

In the end, it is all about building bridges and connecting people.

“The therapy animals, the gardening project, the outreach that we do…. all that contributes to our communal healing,” said Peters. “We help each other reintegrate into society, getting civilian and military families together so new friendships are developed. Come by and spend time with us. Our doors are open to the entire Taos community.”

Not Forgotten Outreach is located at 461 Valverde Commons Dr. (follow the Veterans Memorial Garden signs on Camino de la Placita and Valverde.)

Phone: (575) 224-1503