Owl power swoops into animal therapy

Owls are highly sensitive birds that can hear heartbeats so clients have to learn to control...
Owls are highly sensitive birds that can hear heartbeats so clients have to learn to control their behaviour if they want to handle them. Photo: Getty Images
A barn owl silently glided through the sky, landing on the trainee falconer's arm.

"Isn't she beautiful?" he remarked, his other hand holding on to a crutch. "Owls really are the wonders of the sky."

Working with owls has helped nature enthusiast Alexander Goodwin (12) stay positive over the past three years as he has undergone physiotherapy, treatment and surgery for a rare form of childhood bone cancer.

"They were so calm with me that I just felt so safe around them," Goodwin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the Cheshire Falconry in Sandiway in northern England, with Willow, a barn owl, on his arm, tilting her head inquisitively.

Goodwin, who lives in central England, was initially misdiagnosed at the age of 8 and was told he would not survive when doctors realised he had cancer a year later.

After chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery in the United States to replace his femur with a prosthetic extendable version, Goodwin's prognosis is better but with a 50-70% chance of the cancer returning up to maturity.

His experience has left him suffering from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder so he has been receiving "owl therapy" since 2016 through Hack Back, a British social enterprise - a business that seeks to do good.

Goodwin - who has an encyclopedic knowledge of birds and reeled off owl facts at speed - feels a particular affinity with two-year-old Willow, who was attacked by a dog when she was a chick, leaving her with a broken leg.

"She's an amazing bird and I just feel like we have that connection ... she had to recover, just like I did," he said.

Goodwin, who hopes to open his own bird sanctuary one day, will be taking Willow home in about a month's time when she is fully trained and an aviary has been built there.

"(Alex) needed to believe in the future, he needed something that would distract him from the gruelling treatment that he had to go through," said Anita Morris, a psychologist who founded Hack Back seven years ago in the north of England.


Hack Back is one of a handful of social enterprises offering animal-assisted therapy in Britain as part of a wider movement to provide non-medical health and wellbeing services to communities where public spending often falls short.

Morris uses the owls alongside talking therapy to help adults and children dealing with a range of issues, from autism to anxiety.

Her clients can spend time with the birds, watching, holding and encouraging them to fly or land, with her sessions taking place at the Cheshire Falconry, a visitor centre for birds of prey, and other locations, such as schools.

"Taking responsibility for flying a bird free has a really positive impact on mental health and well-being," Morris said, occasionally interrupted by hoots and shrieking sounds from the various owls kept in the aviary at the falconry.

Owls are highly sensitive birds that can hear heartbeats so clients have to learn to control their behaviour if they want to handle them.

"Birds of prey will only work with you through a bond of trust ... it helps us to help the young people to understand about trust and how to build trust and how to stay calm and how to be patient," she said.

When clients meet Willow and the four owls Morris owns - Mango, a barn owl, Murray II, a burrowing owl, Axel, a white-faced owl and Idris, an African spotted eagle owl - they are often taken aback by the birds' big eyes and cute faces.

"Owls are a wild animal and so they bring a bit of a wow factor ... I think people find owls so magical because there is a lot of mythology around them," said Morris.

"If I'm having a bad day spending a couple of hours flying the owls ... just really helps to relax me."


Animals have long been used to support people with various health issues, with advocates claiming a range of benefits, such as easing loneliness and releasing endorphins.

Dogs are frequently seen in hospitals and care homes.

But Morris - who became interested in birds of prey when she was a psychology lecturer researching emotional intelligence - said people thought she was "completely bonkers" when she wanted to start an owl therapy business.

Misunderstanding the nature of her work made it hard to raise funds, with investors assuming her social enterprise was purely about animals, rather than humans.

"My focus is the people and the birds are a methodology. But because what I do is very new and hasn't been done in the way I do it before, funders can't get to grips with that," she said.

Rather than set up Hack Back as a charity, Morris founded it as a Community Interest Company (CIC) - a type of social enterprise - to enable her to earn a salary from the business.

It is mostly funded through donations and commissions, such as projects with local schools or charities.

She also sells owl-themed children's books she has written and souvenirs but admitted it has been hard to keep the business afloat. She expects her 2019 turnover to be £25,000 ($NZ48.000) 

As social enterprises are typically small, agile and community-focused organisations, it makes them well positioned to deliver these sort of services, said Tim Lages, ventures manager at UnLtd, a charity that supports social entrepreneurs.

Other examples include Canine Perspectives, in central England, which uses dogs to help survivors of rape and sexual violence, and The Horse Course, in southern England, which runs a horsemanship course for socially excluded young people.

"Social entrepreneurs look at what they think is missing and what will change lives and make impact and are naturally drawn to early stage interventions, like animal therapy," said Lages.

"They often seem to be on the outer circles of what health and care is doing so that means they are quite quick to change and adopt new practices ... they can be really creative."

- Thompson Reuters Foundation 

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