Critter drive-ins, pet pen pals, Zoom and window watching combat COVID blues

Alpacas from the Helen Woodward Animal Center gaze through the glass door of a skilled nursing facility in Poway.
Alpacas Kronk and Kuzco, from the Helen Woodward Animal Center, gaze through the glass door of a skilled nursing facility in Poway as residents interact with them at a safe COVID-friendly distance.
(Courtesy of Helen Woodward Animal Center)

The color purple will not deter Helen Woodward Animal Center’s pandemic pet therapy programs


As San Diego zooms into the dreaded purple tier, further isolating residents, a just-released study estimates that half our seniors won’t take part in family get-togethers or holiday events this season.

Even as this chilling news was in the making, folks at the Helen Woodward Animal Center have been thinking “outside the pen” to bring some animal joy to the hardest hit segments of our population.

Since late April, staff and volunteers have instituted three new programs and tweaked a fourth to reach out to seniors and children shut-ins in hospitals, assisted living facilities, memory care units and mental health centers.

The outreach started with an outdoor visit by Helen Woodward’s alpacas, Kronk and Kuzco, to Boulder Creek Post Acute nursing home in Poway.

The alpacas were stationed outside dining room windows. “We set up a microphone outdoors and were able to talk about the animals,” explains Robin Cohen, Helen Woodward’s manager of Pet Encounter Therapy. Small groups of residents rotated into the dining room.

“We were so touched by how much they enjoyed the interaction. Some backed up wheelchairs and took selfies out the window,” Cohen says.

She and her staff had hit upon a safe and meaningful COVID-safe way to reach their target audience. So they ramped up their window watch visits, going from window to window on the ground floor. Sheets with animals’ photos, names and stories were taped to the windows.

Lita DeAndres, the Poway facility’s activity director, said the alpaca visit went viral. “The response of my residents was unbelievable — and not just the residents but our (healthcare) heroes, too.” It is especially meaningful to former COVID patients who have to be kept in isolation for 15 days.

“It’s really a blessing — what a wonderful way to bring comfort and therapy to patients,” says DeAndes.

Zoom visits were the next program rolled out. Cohen got the idea after Zoom video calls during COVID with her 95-year-old aunt.

They could use Zoom chats to reach residents on convalescent facilities’ upper floors, where window visits were impossible.

During a Zoom session, Cohen walks around Helen Woodward’s barnyard or simply opens her office window. She has trained various animals — miniature horses, donkeys, goats — to stick in their heads so those online can get an up-close look.

Have you ever Zoomed with a goat? Helen Woodward Animal Center puts animals on video chats with seniors.
Have you ever had a Zoom video call with a goat? Helen Woodward Animal Center puts its animals on online video chats with socially isolated seniors.
(Courtesy photo)

Activity directors at facilities carry an iPad from room-to-room so residents can interact with their four-legged Zoom visitors — sometimes meeting five or six animals.

During Zoom rounds at a mental health facility for seniors the other day, residents popped out of their quarters grinning and began asking questions.

The recreational therapist retired to her office afterward. She broke into tears. “I haven’t seen smiles on their faces in weeks, and they haven’t left their rooms,” she confided to Cohen.

In addition to Carlsbad, Santee, Poway and throughout the city of San Diego, the animal shelter has responded to requests from homes for children with special needs as far away as New York and Cleveland. If the calendar has an opening, all such requests are filled.

Helen Woodward’s fourth post-pandemic program began in May — critter drive-ins or drive-bys.

Mister Ed? No, just an inquisitive horse visiting with drive-by passengers at a Helen Woodward critter drive-in event.
(Courtesy photo)

Alzheimer’s San Diego was the first group to send vehicles with families and caregivers to the Rancho Santa Fe shelter.

Similar to an African safari, visitors stayed in their vehicles as the animals — horses, donkeys, goats, alpacas, dogs, snakes, blue-tongued skinks and parrots — were paraded by.

“We put a hook outside on the windshield and hung laminated sheets with facts about the animals,” explains Cohen. The visitors just observed or opened their windows and interacted. “The horses have tried to get into a car a couple of times,” she adds.

Helen Woodward now holds 15 to 20 Zoom show-and-tells a month, along with animal visits to five or six facilities and weekly critter drive-ins.

Last, but hardly least, is a new aptly named “pen pal” program.

The talented Helen Woodward animals are writing letters, some several pages long, to individual residents. They’ve done their homework, thanks to activities directors who share a few tidbits about residents’ backgrounds, former pets, favorite activities, etc., so the notes can be personalized.

Pups, parrots and bunnies all take letter writing to seniors seriously in a COVID pen pal program.
Pups, parrots, bunnies and blue-tongued skinks all take their letter writing to seniors seriously in a COVID pen pal program.
(Photo courtesy of Helen Woodward Animal Center)

Imagine getting a note and photos from a rabbit, a miniature horse or a cat. “We have about 50 seniors on our list right now receiving letters,” says Cohen.

Carly Gutner-Davis, life enrichment specialist at Seacrest Village in Encinitas, has 21 memory care residents in the pen pal program.

“They open their letters and their faces just light up with joy. They laugh. This brings so much enrichment to their lives,” she says. The residents often stash the letters in their walkers and all week long re-open and re-read them, so they experience the joy several times.

“It brings smiles to their faces, and they show off their letters to their friends. They love it. The care staff gets such a kick out of them, too. Everyone benefits,” says Gutner-Davis.

“It’s easy for people to feel invisible and forgotten right now with what’s going on, so we’re all finding ways to make San Diego smile a little bit more,” Cohen explains. Her secret? “You need to think outside the box: How can I make what was working before the pandemic work now in a COVID world?”

She is convinced these programs can continue as San Diego turns purple: “We will still be able to reach our clients in a really safe way.”

— Diane Bell is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune