December 16, 2002
By: Lisa Waterman Gray
Julia Kovac, RN, is also certified in mental health nursing. After 23
years at North Kansas City Hospital, she left to begin a master's degree
program in counseling. Kovac recently started a private practice in animal-assisted
As a child, she had several lifesaving experiences with animals, and she always thought highly of Saint Francis de Assisi, the patron saint of animals. Kovac visited the saint's hometown about four years ago and her master's emphasis on art therapy suddenly changed to animal-assisted wellness.
"The spirit of Saint Francis is very much alive in Assisi," she said. "Experiencing his spirit knocked me off my feet."
Animal-assisted therapy incorporates human and animal bonds to promote wellness and bring about recovery. Studies have shown positive results with this type of treatment among people who have a wide variety of physical and psychological ills, from learning and behavioral disorders, to cardiac and Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, head traumas and strokes. People who interact regularly with animals typically require fewer doctor visits and medication, experience less depression and live longer lives.
"Unconditional love and acceptance come from an animal," Kovac said, "and there is therapy in touching animals."
Kovac has a special interest in refugees. She completed a practicum through Saint Benedict's Refugee Services, a program of Catholic Community Services in Kansas City, Kan., for which she serves on the board. Kovac has since volunteered many hours to work with the refugee children and her "critters."
"These children are still very shell-shocked," Kovac said. "They come from countries that have suffered more grief than most of us can imagine. All they have is their skin, bones and souls.
"Everything in their lives has changed - sometimes including their names. Some children have lost family members or their family members have been tortured.
"When I first visit a child in his home, he often hides in a corner. On the first visit I communicate with the adults in the family while the child observes. I don't bring an animal on my first two to three visits. I gradually introduce the children to animals in a way they know they won't be harmed."
Kovac's list of service animals includes three dogs and two horses, as well as several hermit crabs, rabbits and baby chickens.
"During my first visit with an animal most of the younger children are less cautious," she said. "By my second visit I'm starting to have some children hold a dog on a leash as I educate a new group of kids about the dog. Sometimes we'll walk one of the dogs on a double leash. The children can exert some 'control' in dealing with the animals.
"A lot of education takes place. You must observe that these kids don't have tendencies toward animal abuse. I have children work with cotton balls to prepare them for managing baby chicks. And we compare animals' needs to human needs."
By four to six weeks after Kovac's first visit with a child that has had difficulty making friends in his new school, he may be allowed to take an animal he has worked with and do a demonstration for the other children.
"Some kids eventually help me manage my dog or my horse," she said. "It brings them out of their shells. They answer questions about the animal. They become an authority and grow in their knowledge. Other kids begin to look at them in a different way."
Kovac is grateful for the European trip that changed her therapeutic
focus - and her life.
"I have a passion for animals and for bringing animals together with people," she said.
© Kansas City Nursing News 2002