Where the cat purrs, the dog frisks his tail, and the patients come to heal. This is the idea behind Israeli organization HAMA, engaged in animal assisted therapy (AAT,) and their success proves their philosophy – that humans and animals are meant to help and heal each other.
HAMA is short for Humans and Animals in Mutual Assistance, and it is a government registered non-profit organization committed to the healing and rehabilitation of people and animals alike through animal-assisted intervention. HAMA does animal-assisted therapy as a complementary therapy to conventional psychological and medical treatments. The organization is currently working with 30 dogs and 15 cats, most of which are themselves survivors of abuse, neglect, injury or abandonment.
“These cats and dogs, unlike other complementary therapies, like music, are not ‘therapeutic tools.’ They are in the truest sense of the word ‘co-therapists’ in their own right,” said Avshalom Beni, founder and director of HAMA. On HAMA’s website, there is a list of the human staff, the canine staff and the feline staff.
HAMA puts particular emphasis on children and families at risk and from disadvantaged backgrounds, but their large-scale projects also include animal rescue; working with the elderly and institutionalized survivors of the Holocaust; prisoners; children suffering from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and many more. Beni believes that Holocaust survivors in particular can find comfort and help in animals: “Animal assisted therapy provides something that has been missing in the patients’ lives – the gift of self-empowerment. By understanding, caring, and healing the pains, fears, or vulnerabilities of their canine and feline companions, the patients have demonstrated to themselves the value of their own lives and the ability to reach out and nurture another one.”
Ananu Samuel, 42, who works at HAMA, came to Israel from Ethiopia in 1984, with Operation Moses (a covert evacuation of almost 8000 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel.) She told NoCamels about her experience with animals: “When I grew up we had a dog, but outside of the house. In Ethiopia people didn’t really have pets. So we didn’t really have a connection. But with HAMA, I realized how good it is to have a dog.” She added: “It calms your soul, because it’s a responsibility to have a dog and they have amazing traits, like generosity. Especially with kids, the therapy works particularly well and brings out positive emotions.”
The often neglected cats in Israel also find shelter and treatment at HAMA. “Cats are far less common than dogs in AAT programs in Israel, because they have long been suspected by many of being capricious, unpredictable and inappropriate for animal -assisted therapy,” said Beni. “However, they have proven to be one of the great secret success stories of HAMA’s program.”
The director tells a story that took place in a therapy session with elderly non-communicational and schizophrenic Holocaust survivors. “We played recordings of old songs the patients might have heard in days before the Holocaust. The response to the music was overwhelming. There was absolute silence in the room, as some of the patients swayed to the music, while others sat rigidly in their seats. When the music ended, the purring of one of our cats was heard. One of the patients stood up, approached her, and began to caress her. Another patient slowly stood up and put his arm around the first patient’s shoulders.” Beni describes the moment as magical: “In a place where patients barely co-exist as walking shadows, without knowing each other’s names or venturing beyond their own silent torments, the purr of the cat was unforgettable.”
HAMA believes in being unbiased when it comes to both humans and animals. They work with pure breed animals and also with abandoned and disfigured mixed breeds. Beni explains: “These animals eat and sleep together, and they do not seem to feel the difference. And when kids love them, they don’t feel the difference either. For every animal at HAMA there is someone out there, who for a reason, only bonds with that one dog or cat. And every child of every age who feels he has helped his animal companion make it to a better place, he discovers in the process that he has come right along with him as well. That’s what mutual empowerment is all about.”
HAMA is in the process of exploring a partnership with schools and community agencies overseas. “We want to set up a program for foreign professionals in the field to come to Israel and work with us. We are currently looking in the NY, Baltimore, DC, Cleveland, and Dallas areas in the United States, as well as Amsterdam or Paris in Europe.” HAMA’s other plans for the future include establishing a permanent HAMA Center, a viable canine-feline geriatric complex and advancement of research in the dynamics of the human-animal bond.