International Group Convenes for Learning on ‘Human-Animal Interaction’

Every two years, an international audience of social workers, occupational therapists, psychologists, equine and other animal-assisted intervention specialists of all kinds descend on The Farm & Wildlife Center at Green Chimneys in Brewster, New York for the Human-Animal Interaction Conference. The weekend is packed with information and serves to inspire thinking about how humans can live harmoniously with the environment, how animals can support typically and atypically developing children, and how people of all kinds can cultivate respect, responsibility, and reverence through relationships with animals.


As a farm-based educator who often works with children and animals together, I found many refreshing observations about how these moving parts interact. We learned from Nina Ekholm Fry about the power of using horses to enhance focusing skills, self-observation, and self-support for people. She shared a breathing and listening exercise where one syncs one’s breath with the rhythm of the horse’s 4 falling hooves. Sandra McCune of the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition shared how pet owners experience fewer minor health problems, such as headaches, mood swings, and depression. Zoe Weil, of the Institute for Human Education spoke to the group about engaging young people with global ethical issues. Calling it, “humane education,” Weil has been at the forefront of the movement to link human rights, environmental sustainability, and animal protection education and empowering people of all ages to be solutionaries for a more just, healthy, and peaceful world.


Green Chimneys’ Director, Michael Kauffman and Farm Program Manager, Maureen Doherty reminded us about the power of simply spending time with animals. “If we get too goal directive with the kids and animals together, we're getting distracted,” he said. “It's not always about being successful with them every day, rather it's about meeting them where they are. Sometimes just being with an animal is as important as ‘doing’ something with them.”


There’s little that Green Chimneys does not do on their farm and school campus. They are a special education school, wildlife rehabilitation center, residential treatment center for children, working farm, and site for public programming and events, dog training facility, just to name a few! The organization was founded in 1947 by Dr. Samuel “Rollo” Ross at the age of 19. It grew from an annual operating budget of nothing to 42 million today.  


Throughout Green Chimneys, animal-based metaphors abound. The most beautiful metaphor, and one could argue one of the reason's that the wildlife rehabilitation center is such a perfect fit for the school, has to do with adopting injured wildlife, rehabilitating them, and then releasing them.


"We help heal the animals and once they've received all the skills they need, we release them into the world where they can thrive," Farm Director Michael Kauffman told attendees. This approach, they suggest, is the same way they approach their students, who come to Green Chimneys for between 3 months and 3 years. We also appreciated the metaphor about moving sheep and leadership. Sometimes the leader is in the back, working from behind to help you find your way, Kauffman told us.


Attendees at the conference came from Japan, Chili, Puerto Rico, Bolivia, Estonia, France, Canada and the United States, and hundreds of settings in which animals and humans interact.  Whether they worked with dogs or guinea pigs, emus, snakes or livestock, their fascination with the mutually beneficial relationships between humans and animals was one common thread. Several attendees also shared a common story of having childhoods that afforded them ample outdoor, farm-based opportunities for work and play. The power of these experiences led them toward professional fields where they could cultivate these experiences for others, and examine the most promising ways to build places for children to be biologically, psychologically, and socially healthy.


Helpful Resources Gleaned from the Conference:

Green Chimneys Farm and Wildlife Center

Institute for Humane Education

Midwest Center for Trauma and Emotional Healing

Purdue University Center for the Human-Animal Bond

Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International

University of Denver Institute for Human-Animal Connection

Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition


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