Easter came a bit early for residents of local nursing homes in Santa Barbara and Goleta when they got a chance last week to spend time with a therapy bunny that is a certified pet volunteer for Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care of Santa Barbara.
Tucked inside a wicker basket, dwarf bunny Axel Rose made the rounds at several places, including Heritage House, where he was cuddled by residents.
Axel's owner, hospice volunteer and animal trainer Andrea Bratt, carried him around to say hello to residents, who each got a chance to pet the small bunny and hold him.
"At first they're a little hesitant. Sometimes people even ask me if he's real," Bratt said of the bunny, who has black rings around his eyes, making them look almost cartoonish.
Heritage House resident Martha Riel was glowing after getting a chance to hold Axel on the residence's patio.
"I love all little bunnies," she said. "It was wonderful to hold him."
Axel is a rescue bunny from Bunnies Urgently Needing Shelter, and is a certified therapy pet. Bratt, who has even trained Axel to do a dance routine, said sometimes Axel is able to connect with hard-to-reach people in ways no one else could.
Bratt became a volunteer while visiting the organization's loan closet, where people in the community can borrow things such as wheelchairs and crutches at no cost.
She was borrowing a wheelchair to help train her dogs when a volunteer for Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care told her about the program. Bratt went through the volunteer training and her animals, already certified as therapy pets, come with her on visits.
Arlene Stepputat, VNHC's manager of volunteer services, owns a certified therapy cat named Angel who also visits hospice clients and said animals often make an instant connection.
"Part of that is because animals are unconditionally loving," she said, adding that people also benefit from the kinesthetic experience of petting an animal like Axel. "They have a lot to teach us about being present and being still and listening."
She said the organization has four pet therapy dogs, but Axel is the only bunny.
Volunteers with hospice go through extensive training, she said, and the organization has about 120 people who currently volunteer.
Animal volunteers must be certified through an outside organization — dogs through Therapy Dog International and non-canines through Love on a Leash — and also be certified by their veterinarians that they are up to date on their vaccinations and have the appropriate disposition, Stepputat said.
To learn more about volunteering with VNHC, click here to visit its volunteer webpage.