Photo courtesy of Kay Gabriel

The face of therapy animals is changing

Jonathan Kaupanger
March 13, 2018 - 2:51 pm

Winston Churchill once said, "I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” Well, there’s a woman in Florida who’s doing everything to not just prove him right, but also to prove that pig are here for veterans, too.

Kay Gabriel is working to change the face of therapy animals, which is why she started Kadoosis Military Veteran Therapy Pigs, and in her opinion pigs are the future.  “They are different,” she says.  “They are cognitive thinkers, problems solvers.  And very little goes wrong with a pig.”

The idea to use pigs as therapy animals hit Kay several years ago. She got her first pig after her husband told her that she couldn’t have one.  Long story short, she got the pig but no longer has the husband!  One pig led to another and soon, she had her own pig rescue going.

At the time, she was a paramedic and when she had bad days at work, she found that her pigs had a calming effect on her. “I’d have a bad call and I’d come home and just chill out with the pigs,” she said.  After a while, word got around to her friends that Kay had a secret weapon for dealing with stress.

Some of the people who came to her pig farm had their own issues: some drinkers, some on pills and some with anger issues, “People just trying to cope,” said Kay.  According to Kay, back then, going to a counselor was unheard of,. Instead, they would go to her house, play with the pigs and calm down. 

Something switched on inside Kay’s head. She realized that she needed to do something to help, but exactly what could she do? She went to a VA medical center close to her house and asked veterans there what they needed. “There’s not a lot of help out there, except for drugs.  We want to get off these damned drugs,” the veterans told Kay. “They make us goofy and it doesn’t help.”

Kay grew up on a farm, so she immediately thought about therapy animals. She did some research and found that there are therapy dogs that could help, but there are long waiting lists and they are very expensive. 

“Honestly, besides dogs, I didn’t find a whole lot,” she said.  “Let me go in a different direction for people who need the help. I want to take it a step further and get an animal that could deal with people with PTS.”

Kay has been training pigs to be therapy animals for about two years, specifically Kunekune pigs. They are an old world breed of pigs, originally from New Zealand. 

Kay Gabriel photo

She likes these pigs because they haven’t been inbreed much. As a matter of fact, they hadn’t been bred much at all, in the 80’s the breed was down to just about 50 and were on the verge of extension.   

Kay does obedience and harness training with her pigs as early as three weeks old.  She says they love to be stimulated and are cognitive thinkers.  “Training them is similar to dogs,” says Kay. She did point out that pigs are highly food motivated.  Kunekune pigs aren’t as food motivated as other pigs, but “I’m trying to break mine of doing that much,” she admitted.

A big hurdle for Kay and her pigs is the Americans With Disabilities Act.  According to ADA, there are only two types of animals that qualify as approved service animals, dogs and oddly enough, miniature horses. Emotional support animals are slightly different.  To be designated as an emotional support animal, the pet must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional for a person with a mental illness.

“We can lobby to have a Million Pig March in Washington, DC in about five years,” she said.  “You think I’m kidding?  I’m serious!  I’m just hoping one day that this will be an alternative.”  Zoning is the issue right now. Many areas don’t differentiate between a small pig and a farm pig, but Kay says they are easier than a dog.

“Dogs are wonderful, too,” Kay said. “I guess I’m a little bit prejudice.”  When you hear how she trains her pigs, you can understand why. She starts her training by bonding with the pigs. She has an enclosed porch on her house and many of the pigs stay there. Some actually sleep in the bed with her.  She has a few piglets right now who are just about two weeks old.  “I can train these babies in two weeks, a dog would take about six to eight weeks to train.”

Kay Gabriel photo

Another benefit to pigs, according to Kay, is very little goes wrong with a pig. They don’t get sick very often, can live for about 20 years and can work up until the day they die. The Kunekune pigs are hardy animals, they don’t suffer from arthritis and don’t have genetic issues like some other types of pigs.

The next benefit is the cost to train a support pig. Emotional support dogs can cost anywhere from $10k -$20k. And the cost goes up for more specific training to help out with things like PTS and physical therapy. 

Pigs though, come in at a much lower cost. Kay believes that she can get an emotional support pig fully trained and out the door for $1,000. Pigs trained to help out with PTS or physical therapy would cost $2,500.  “And that’s with me training and making sure the people know what they are doing too,” she adds.

Basically you get more for your money with a pig!

Right now, Kay only is holding demonstrations on what a therapy pig can do for veterans. She moved to Florida to be around more veterans and has recently received a call from the U.S. Navy to demonstrate what her pigs can do for sailors.

Kay is supporting the pigs on her own right now. She’s the cook, midwife, cleaning crew and trainer all wrapped up in one,  but before she will sell a pig, she wants to test them working for veterans first.  “It’s going to take a lot of convincing, besides the bacon and ham jokes,” she chuckled.  “I want to prove that we’re serious. I don’t want donations until there are veterans working with my pigs!”

She is in need of blankets, fruits and veggies though. She’s working off of her Facebook page right now and that’s the best way to reach her.

There are really only two ways to end this article.  One could quote musician Roger Miller, “If you took a notion, I bet you could teach a hog to smoke a cigarette.  Well, it might take a little bit of time, but hell, what’s time to a hog.”

But maybe Miss Piggy said it best, “I am a pig, and as a pig, I have always stood out.”  Who knows, maybe in five years, after the Million Pig March, she’ll be Miss Piggy, veteran.