Visits From 4-footed Friends

January 11, 1995|By Consella A. Lee | Consella A. Lee,Sun Staff Writer

Golda, a 2 1/2 -year-old black-haired Vietnamese potbellied pig, snorted and flared her wet nose at Fairfield Nursing Center residents yesterday as she made her way down the hallway as part of Anne Arundel County's Pets on Wheels program.

The private, nonprofit program provides a sort of pet therapy for the residents of nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and adult day care centers by bringing volunteers and their pets to visit.

The one-woman operation is run by Karen Martin from a cubicle in a fourth-floor office at Arundel Center North on Crain Highway in Glen Burnie.

Ms. Martin helps supervise visits by 174 pets, including an iguana, rabbits, cats and dogs that range in size from Chihuahuas to a 198-pound bull mastiff. The program has had hamsters, too. But Golda is the only pig.

The tips of Golda's tail hairs dragged on the floor as she made her rounds at Fairfield with her owner, Debra Schnier, 34, who had attached a red bow to the pig's harness.

"I've seen everything now. I've seen everything," said Abraham Johnson, 72, laughing and shaking his head as the 75-pound pig flicked out her tongue to take an apple wedge from another resident. "The first pig I saw that's alive. I eat them."

Norma Hanback, 75, abandoned her walker to follow Golda and stroke her. "Hi, sweetheart. Hi, sweetie," said Ms. Hanback as she bent over to rub Golda's jowls. "You've got big feet."

"It brings them out of their shell," said Ms. Schnier, a state social worker, who lives on Bacon Ridge Road in Crownsville with Golda. "You can't measure the joy this woman is getting."

The program began in Baltimore in May 1982 and soon spread to Anne Arundel and other counties. It also operates in Fairfax, Va.

In Anne Arundel, Pets on Wheels was part of the county's Department of Aging until it was privatized two years ago.

It is financed by a $25,000 grant from the county, a $6,000 grant from Baltimore Pets on Wheels and the proceeds from fund-raisers, Ms. Martin said.

Pets in the program must have all their shots and must be examined once a year by a veterinarian.

To get into the program, animals are given temperament tests. Handlers touch them around the face, ears and tails and remove them from their owners briefly to see how they react. Animals that growl, snap or jump at people are rejected, Mrs. Martin said.

Pet owners must take a one-hour orientation class to prepare them for what they may encounter at the places they visit. Ms. Martin or an experienced volunteer accompanies each new recruit on the first visit to a nursing home.

But that may not be enough to help some people cope with seeing many elderly people sitting around listlessly, some of them disconnected from the world because of diseases.

One man dropped out of the program 30 minutes into his first visit.

"We lose 62 percent of our volunteers because it's hard to visit a nursing home," Ms. Martin said. A lot of people are shocked at how frail the people are."

But others have stayed with the program for 10 years, she said.

On a recent day, Joanne Swansiger, 43, and her dog, Rosie, made their rounds as they have for the past four years at Bay Meadow Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Glen Burnie.

The 8 1/2 -year-old brown and white Cavalier King Charles spaniel jumped up on 78-year-old John Ford's bed and raised up on her hind legs to accept a beef dog treat from him.

Mrs. Swansiger also caught Rosie munching a few cookies that some children had left on Mr. Ford's bed.

Rosie wagged her tail and put her paws up on 65-year-old Marion Lipscomb's wheelchair. "I'm going to sit on you and ride you like a horse," Ms. Lipscomb said.

This "brightens my day, honey," she said, smiling at a visitor. "I call [it] my baby pet."

"You don't want a shy pet," said Mrs. Swansiger, who lives on Burwood Avenue in Glen Burnie. "You want one that's going to respond to the people."

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