The farm offers cuddling therapy as a way to cope

He’s one of those therapists who doesn’t say much, really. No in-depth questions about his mood or concerns.

But her body was warm and soft, and her stomach twisted with a soothing, rhythmic growl.

As Chico ruminated, a visitor could kneel beside him, hug or pet the 1,500-pound bovine. It’s a ticketed gig that helps fund hay and care at an animal sanctuary in Dittmer, Jefferson County.

The Gentle Barn, one of three founded by Ellie Laks and her husband, Jay Weiner, has been offering “cow hug therapy” for two decades in California. The sanctuary also promotes hugs as a way for visitors to the St. Louis area to learn about five animals that escaped from a northern St. Louis slaughterhouse in 2017.

“You see them in the fields, but there aren’t many opportunities to be with cows,” Britt Johansson, 26, said on a recent winter’s day. Her partner, Philip Masini, 25, had bought a private session with the cows as a Christmas present. The couple grew up in Chicago and attended colleges in St. Louis. Now they live in Tower Grove East with a dog, which happens to be an Australian Cattle Dog.

The couple has no experience in farming, but they have always found the cows charming. All smiles, the couple’s interest was sparked by a desire to reconnect with nature during the pandemic, and they were delighted to go to a barn and mingle with the herd, who were having lunch at noon. The five guys (neutered males but referred to at the barn as cows) at first paid little attention to their human observers. They chewed hay on racks, then two of them walked around to lick a block of salt and drink water. It was an opportunity for Johansson and Masini to approach the cows, who seemed indifferent to the attention.

In addition to Chico, the cows are Eddie, Houdini, Johnny Cash and Roo. A sixth, Spirit, did not survive the breakaway but has a pond named after him.

As the five finished eating, they mostly stood placidly while Johansson and Masini, clearly captivated, patted their dusty coats or brushed them. Johnny seemed a bit more aloof than a few others, notably Chico, who led the crew through steel bars in the famous slaughterhouse escape that involved running through city streets for hours before leaving. to be surrounded (so to speak). Eddie batted his long eyelashes, while Houdini, identified by a white stripe across his face, turned to see who was wrapping his arms around his 5ft back.

Occasionally, one of the boys would unceremoniously push away another, while the humans, who included a few guides, backed off a foot or two if a large animal needed room to pass. (Because of the docents, no cowpies threatened the boots.) For observers unaccustomed to cattle, it took a few minutes to relax, to recognize that the herd seemed unlikely to suddenly trample passers-by.

In fact, no one was hurt visiting the Gentle Barn cows, Laks said. The first time she rescued one from the slaughterhouse was a miniature Hereford in California that she named Buddha. In her memoir, “My Gentle Barn”, Laks writes that Buddha stopped immediately when a “sea of ​​children” surrounded her. While lying down, Buddha curled around her neck to encircle Laks, making her feel at peace, “so totally accepted by this animal.”

She decided she needed to introduce the hug to the suspicious and at-risk children who were brought to the barn. Laks writes that children should hug the cow closely, showing their vulnerability: “It was in that hug – I was sure – that they would begin to shed their survival armor and heal.”

Laks and his family live in California, but every two months they visit barns in Missouri and Tennessee. While in Dittmer in January, she explained that for 22 years, “we’ve been doing cow hug therapy with people in real crisis. We work with foster children, families in domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, veterans centers, probation camps, alcohol rehab centers.

“Anyone who was in real crisis, the agencies would bring groups of people to the Gentle Barn to feel the healing amongst the animals and of course while they were there everyone had to have a cow hug. And during of the past 22 years, we’ve had some really wonderful feedback about how they brought in people who didn’t want to talk, who weren’t responding to traditional therapy, they were angry, they were shut down, but like magic in the barnyard among the animals and in those cow hugs, it would reset them, open them up and help them be vulnerable and allow them to progress through regular therapy.”

During the pandemic, many more people have felt traumatized, she says. Thus, last year, the Gentle Barn opened cow hugs to individuals.

In addition to the rescued cows, there are three large pigs, as well as chickens, turkeys, donkeys, goats, sheep, and a duck. Each animal’s story is told on

Jay Weiner, who tracks finance, says the three sanctuaries have a combined budget of about $3.1 million. Revenue comes primarily from grants or large donations, which have dwindled during the pandemic.

Animal studies

Scientific studies of animal-assisted therapy have mushroomed over the past two decades, but few focus on farm animals, says Gretchen Carlisle, a researcher at the faculty’s Center for Human-Animal Interaction Research. veterinarian from the University of Missouri.

She can cite a 2011 study that found improvement in psychiatric patients who had work-related tasks related to dairy cattle.

Many other studies show measurable physiological changes in people who interact with animals, especially dogs, cats and horses. The studies measure not only decreases in blood pressure and cortisol, but also increases in oxytocin, the “love hormone” active in nursing mothers, Carlisle says.

“But we don’t always know the dosages,” she says. That is, how long and how often does a depressed or anxious human need to interact with an animal to show improvement. Another question scientists want to know is how long the positive effects last and whether patients might just need an occasional “booster”.

During the pandemic, people who are alone or in distress have adopted pets in record numbers, notes Carlisle. They have an innate desire to “connect with nature in some way, whether it’s plants or animals.”

But finding the right animal is important, she says. She participated in a study of families with autistic children. Families adopted a cat, choosing it from among some pre-selected for calm and friendly temperaments. During the study, the children showed a decrease in anxiety and an increase in social skills, Carlisle says, but she wasn’t sure louder animals, like large dogs, would have brought the same results. .

“It’s all in the game.”

Escape into nature

Laks loved animals as a child and says she knew she wanted to save them when she was 7, long before she had a budget for homeless or abused creatures.

Her family lived in Chesterfield for a few years and she spent time in a garden behind her house with her dog. “It was really there that I discovered the absolute paradise bliss of nature and animals, and I spent every free minute I could in those woods and by a lake with animals.”

If she was upset at home, she would go to the garden or a nearby lake to watch tadpoles, bats and birds. She remembers lying in a field surrounded by monarch butterflies. “I think that’s really where I got obsessed with animals; they’ve always been there for me.”

In her memoir, she says her mother rarely let her keep and raise the animals she brought home, and she writes about the trauma she suffered as a daughter. Later, a drug-addicted boyfriend led to a few years of crack addiction.

After her own courses in therapy and psychology in college, Laks began earning money by walking, grooming and boarding dogs. Soon she would be heading to animal shelters to bring home and rehabilitate sick or neglected dogs and cats.

Today, the three Gentle Barns house approximately 200 animals. The Dittmer site was purchased with donations to house slaughterhouse escapees from 2017.

Laks says cows have learned to trust humans. “They left their past far behind them. And they are all happy to offer healing to people.” She is convinced that rescued animals can give traumatized children a “sense of hope”. In the meantime, people unfamiliar with farm animals may feel more empathy for what has so often been treated primarily as food.

At the Gentle Barn, the animals decide how many pets they receive. Laks says, “We always let the cows choose to do this work.

While Johansson and Masini were in the barn, no animals lay down. But after the couple left, the cows came out and several decided to relax. The couple were allowed to go back and see them again. Kneeling next to the big animals really made their day, even though the couple didn’t seem to need any real therapy.

Johansson said the whole experience was “wonderful”: “I’ll be floating in the air all day.” Chico was a favorite because “he’s such a big hug”. But don’t tell that to the smaller Roo, who patiently lay back, allowing Johansson to stroke his head and body.

Masini felt honored: “It was very humbling for such a dominant creature, in terms of size, to let you love it and be comfortable.”

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