Pets teaching severely mentally ill how to feel affection

March 24, 1995|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff Writer

Mirage finds herself closed in a room and surrounded by six dangerous, insane men. What does she do?

She wags her tail.

Being a Doberman pinscher -- a good-natured and gentle one at that -- Mirage makes no judgments about these men, no matter what crimes or mental deviancy landed them here at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup. Killers, rapists, paranoid schizophrenics -- it makes no difference. Mirage likes them all.

And they like her, too. They follow her with their eyes. They pat her. They kiss her. They feed her dog biscuits from their mouths.

The hope is that Mirage can help lead some of these men away from madness and into something approximating normal human behavior.

For many of the patients here, that will be a long journey. Perkins is where the state sends those who once were called "the criminally insane." Now they are described as "not criminally responsible" for their actions -- usually violent actions -- because of their severe mental illnesses.

As tormented as the patients are, a Perkins occupational therapist named Lisa Reid believed they could benefit from "pet therapy" just as others have in prisons, nursing homes and conventional hospitals. If nothing else, Ms. Reid knew that animals could provide some relief to those in misery.

"Perkins is often an isolated, cold physical environment," she said. "I knew people were starving for affection, and there was no outlet here to either give or receive affection."

As Mirage circulates on the hospital's wards, patients flock to her as though she were a celebrity. In the cheerfully appointed medium-security wing, David, a pudgy, 40-year-old man in a checked shirt, becomes bubbly when he spots the Doberman, whom he wraps in his arms.

"It's the highlight of Monday afternoons," said David, who asked that his last name not be used. (Patients whose full names are used in this article gave their consent.) "Dogs give so much but don't ask anything in return. Other than a dog, who else will stand beside you other than God?"

Before Mirage and the other pet visitors to Perkins, David said he hadn't touched an animal in 25 years, a statement that isn't quite true. While in prison for the 1971 murder of a child, David developed a predilection for torturing mice that wandered into his cell. After his prison term, he voluntarily entered Perkins for treatment of a mixed personality disorder.

Like David, a number of Perkins patients have a history of violence against animals as well as people. But, Ms. Reid said, none of the patients has ever tried to hurt one of the visiting animals.

Mirage, David said, has opened him to feelings that were unfamiliar to him. "I had been away from those feelings of love and vulnerability for so long," he said. "I cried the first couple of times Mirage was here."

Wearing a Perkins photo identification card on her collar, Mirage arrives every Monday afternoon with her owner, a veteran of Pets-on-Wheels named Allen Holmes. Four years ago, Mr. Holmes, who had often taken Mirage into schools, hospitals and nursing homes, was contacted by Ms. Reid about bringing Mirage to Perkins.

Mr. Holmes was eager, though it took three more years to win approval from the Perkins administration. Mirage has been coming to Perkins for a year. Two other dogs, including a Rottweiler, and a cat also are regular visitors.

Dobermans and Rottweilers are not known for their gentle sides. "They are two of the most aggressive, stigmatized dogs," Ms. Reid said. "It's kind of funny that in this institution where people have been violent, the dogs brought in are the ones most associated with violence."

It's a bad rap, said Mr. Holmes, who describes Mirage as good-natured, "outgoing and stable."

Ms. Reid recalled that one woman patient suffering from schizophrenia became upset when she noticed Mirage's ears twitching. "She thought Mirage was picking up signals from outer space and wouldn't come anymore," said Ms. Reid.

Some patients are much more grounded than that and can appreciate the pleasures an animal brings them. Tom, a handsome young man who killed his mother while in a delusional fog, sketches quite realistic drawings of Mirage on all her visits.

"It's said that pets have a way of bringing down our blood pressure," said Tom, who suffers from a form of schizophrenia. "They have a way of making us feel comfortable. I guess they won't reject us."

Scientists have attested to those positive effects of animals for nearly three decades. In 1979, researchers discovered that heart attack patients had a better chance of survival if they owned a pet. Since then, scientists have found that animals have a soothing effect on inmates and patients in hospitals and ursing homes.

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