Tortoises are slow and steady, each step made with great intention. Not too dissimilar to the counseling process. For Catheryn Robinson, that’s a good thing.
Robinson was a school counselor for 13 years, working with students in grades K-12 with physical and emotional problems. As a way to help reach the children who were teen moms with eating disorders, youth struggling with depression and those at risk of academic failure, Robinson was urged by her principal to bring in her three young infant tortoises. She had found a male and female desert tortoise wandering the city streets of California and was not able to release them into the wild, so she obtained permits from the Department of Fish and Game and cared for them.
The three turtles lived in a terrarium on a table next to her desk. Many students stopped to visit the turtles before heading to their classes each day ¬ holding them, flipping them over and stroking their ‘bellies.’ Robinson shares a couple of stories of how her tortoises helped her reach students and clients in need.
“I had a little third grade girl with a very serious illness. She was so ill most of the time that she didn't want to leave the house. Once the tortoises began coming to the sessions, her mom said she couldn't wait to get to school. She would come and sit on the floor, and the 3 babies would crawl around her, and she would laugh and pick them up and stroke them. Her mom said she hadn't laughed for many months. Eventually, she had to move away to be near a large hospital back east. I sent pictures of the 3 babies with her that she said would always be with her.
Then there was the 16 year old student who had a baby. Her parents, despite her objections, made her give the baby up for adoption. She came into the office a few days after giving up her baby and was hysterically crying. I got one of the tortoises and put it in her hand. She stopped crying, looked at me, and said "thank you so much," and proceeded to stroke the tortoise, who nestled into her warm hand.”
Also similar to the counseling process, turtles (and tortoises) require a gentle approach. “If you want play with a turtle, you can't get it to come out of its shell by prodding and poking it with a stick. Be gentle not harsh, hard or forceful” (anonymous).
In these instances of animal assisted activities, the tortoises were able to provide a sense of novelty and fun which the brain loves, build a relationship between the student and clinician and offer opportunities to focus on the care and needs of another living being -- allowing for greater therapeutic healing.
Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.