Written by : Transcript – How Animals Help Us Heal with Dr. Joanne Cacciatore 

Transcript – How Animals Help Us Heal with Dr. Joanne Cacciatore

Follow along with the transcript below for episode: How Animals Help Us Heal with Dr. Joanne Cacciatore




[0:00:08] PF: Welcome to Happiness Unleashed with your host, Brittany Derrenbacher, presented by Live Happy.


In this episode, Brittany is joined by Joanne Cacciatore, better known as Dr. Jo, a professor at Arizona State University and Director of the Graduate Certificate in Trauma and Bereavement. Dr. Jo also is founder of Selah Carefarm near Sedona, Arizona, which offers 20 acres of farmland where grieving family members can heal amongst rescued animals that have been abused, neglected, or discarded. Dr. Jo is here to explain how animals and humans can help each other through their painful journeys as they recover from their grief. Let’s have a listen.




[0:00:48] BD: You’re doing something really unique and profound out in Sedona with animals. You’ve created an intentional community where people can come and heal from trauma and grief surrounded by animals and earth-based practices. Can you tell us more about that?


[0:01:06] JC: Sure. Selah Carefarm, we have been around literally seven and a half years, but in planning about eight and a half years, and we have 20 acres here, and we are on what’s called Oak Creek, which is more like a river. The headwaters are in Flagstaff. So, we have 2,000 or so feet on Oak Creek, and all of our animals are rescued. So, they’ve all been rescued from varying levels of abuse, or torture, or homelessness, or starvation.


We have goats, and sheep, and cows, and pigs, and horses, and donkeys, alpacas. I mean, dogs and cats, of course, and I’m sure I’m missing somebody. But we have a lot of different animals here. They are profoundly meaningful for the people who come here. That’s one of the things, I’m a professor at Arizona State University, and one of the things in my research that we have found is that people love the counseling they get here, because everyone is trained in traumatic grief, and everyone has their own – all of our counselors are required to have their own practice and do their own deep work, which is not something that you see across the board with therapists, right?


So, people love coming here for the animals and they love – I mean for the humans, the counseling and the nature and each other. But over and over and over again, in the research, the animals emerge as the number one most transformative thing for people. I didn’t expect that. I mean, I knew the animals would be meaningful for people. I just didn’t know how meaningful it would be for them to interact with animals, who also have known loss, and terror, and trauma, and grief, and sadness, and loneliness, and despair. It’s this sort of connection in capital O, Oneness that creates kind of almost – it is. It’s a magical, albeit painful interaction.


[0:02:54] BD: Have you always had a special relationship with animals in your life? Is there a reason that you chose to bring these two communities together?


[0:03:03] JC: Oh, man, that’s a great question that I don’t get a lot. Yes. I always have had a special thing with animals. When I was one and a half years old, a wild blue jay – we lived in Manhattan. My parents were immigrants. So, we lived in Manhattan and this wild blue jay flew into my house. I was one and a half. I have no cognizant memory. But a wild blue jay flew into our house and attached herself to me, and was with me, I think several days. So, my father called a reporter and they came out and took a picture. So, I have a picture of me, I believe, it was the New York Times, in the New York Times, with his wild blue jay sitting on my little dress.


I have always had a soft spot for animals. I haven’t eaten them since 1972. I have always known that they had some kind of existential self or soul. I’ve always seen in them deep emotions, and not just sort of the primal things that you would think of, and not just the domestic animals, but even in my limited interaction, because before the Carefarm, I had limited interaction with farm animals. But even before we had the farm, and I and I interacted so much with farm animals, which people kind of think of as these blobs with no personalities. I had a sense people were wrong about them. I had a sense that they knew.


Of course, I saw some videos early on, which is what converted me to stop eating animals. I was only seven years old when I did that. As I watched these videos of these animals, to be honest, in slaughterhouses, I could see the fear in their eyes and I thought to myself, “Oh, when I’m afraid, that’s what it feels like to me.” Those eyes, the wide eyed, all the whites around your eyes showing. The look of terror on your face.


And I had been afraid. I remember being afraid as a child. I was raised in an interesting religious cult, and they talked a lot about Armageddon. I remember being very, very afraid of Armageddon. So, I really related to these animals who also had this look of fear and terror in their eyes.


So, there was just always something in me that knew they were more than just blobs, and it wasn’t just dogs who had feelings, and emotions, and attachments. But it really wasn’t until we got the farm animals and we started rescuing them, because farm animals until they feel safe, they’re not free to be who they really are. That’s the interesting thing about them. So, like our goats, when we first rescue them, they run around terrified of you. So, you can’t see their personalities. All you see is fear. Same thing with human beings, by the way, who have been abused, right? Human beings who have been tortured or abused, you can’t see the full fruition of their character, their personality, because all you’re seeing is fear and terror. All you’re seeing is the flight, fight freeze response, and it’s the same thing with these animals.


So, once they started to feel safe, then they could become who they really were. So, now, we know that Gretel, the goat, is very timid and very shy, but also loves affection and warmth. And we know that Kurt loves affection and warmth too. But if food is available to him, he’ll take food over affection and warmth. Now, we know that Captain von Trapp, we call him Mr. Loverboy. He gets very jealous when another goat is getting more affection than he is. So, he’ll come and push the other goat away.


All of their personalities and character illogical propensities come out when they have the freedom to be who they really are. Again, which is the same thing as human beings, when we’re free to be who we are, and we’re accepted, and we’re liberated from coercion and pressure to be someone we’re not, then we can experience the full manifestation of what our true character is.


[0:06:42] BD: Both spectrum self. The name for the Carefarm in Hebrew, Selah means to pause and to reflect. I’m assuming that’s intentional.


[0:06:52] JC: It’s quite intentional. It’s an intentional space to pause and reflect on grief and those we love who died. It’s a word that I found many, many years ago, probably two decades ago. I always knew like something special has to come from this word, because it’s such a powerful word. So, it was quite intentional. It was quite intentional to give a nod to the poetry of feeling our feelings.


[0:07:18] BD: Yes. That’s beautiful. How do the animals at the farm teach us to live again?


[0:07:24] JC: Well, I think it’s a less direct path than that. Right? I think what it is we – our farm is built on a principle called Ahimsa, which is oneness, literally, and oneness and compassion, non-violence for all beings. Once we create this space where we can recognize that there is no capital O, Other. As Chief Seattle said, “What we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves.” And many religious and mystic traditions have always recognized this. But once you realize that, and you have an experience of oneness, it’s very hard. It’s like taking the red pill. You can’t undertake it. It’s very hard to see the world through the lens of an anthropocentric view.


So, when people come here, and they have this experience of this animal we’ve just rescued, who won’t let anyone within 12 feet of his space, because he’s so terrified. Then, they see him six months later getting love and cuddles, and opening his heart to the possibility of trusting in the world again, people start to see themselves reflected in this creature, who without any effort. I mean, I think that’s the beautiful thing about it. Animals just by being who they are, show us the way, because they’re non-coercive. They just do it naturally. If we can connect with that inner animals, we’re all animals, human beings, or animals, we’re just human animals, as opposed to non-human animals. So, we’re wired very similarly.


If we can see ourselves resonated in an animal who has been on death’s door, and literally had given up hope, for life. We can see that animal flourish and watch it flourish, watch him or her flourish, and deeper than that, maybe even be a part of that flourishing. Wow. I mean, it’s a profound connection for people. So, they start making these little linkages between what did that animal need, and what did that animal do to get where he or she is? Needed good support, tenderness, care, love, non-judgement. The animals don’t walk around judging themselves about their feelings. The animals don’t walk around going, “Oh, my gosh. I can’t believe I’m so fearful. I can’t – why am I so anxious.” They just work with what they have and people start making those linkages and it is incredibly profound when you see it happening. It’s beautiful, really.


Many of our clients in the outtakes surveys call it magical, what happens here.


[0:10:04] BD: Explain to the listeners what can clients expect coming in? What can participants expect coming in? What would a day at the farm look like?


[0:10:17] JC: Most people come here and average of four or five days. It’s a residential facility, so they stay on-site. If they come for an actual program, then it’s reasonably structured. So, they wake up in the morning, there’s yoga. They don’t have to participate in the program, but most people want to. So, there’s yoga. There’s time with the animals. Usually, a few hours with the animals taking care of the animals, brushing the animals, meeting the animals. They can do more with the animals too, if they so choose. If someone has horse experience, for example, and they want to go spend time with the animals or pick the horse’s hooves or something, then we can accommodate that.


A lot of people who come here don’t have farm animal experience, though. Then we have an art therapist on staff. We have group meetings. We have individual counseling in some of our programs. We have yoga. We have meditation. So, it depends on when they’re coming and what their needs are.


[0:11:10] BD: What’s some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned in your time at the farm?


[0:11:14] JC: I think getting back into your body, especially if you’ve had traumatic grief is one of those things that is very difficult for people, because we can’t get back into a body that doesn’t feel safe, or we’re much more reluctant to get back in a body that doesn’t feel safe. How do you feel safe in a body when everyone around you is telling you there’s something wrong with you? Because that’s always the intimation about grief. You’re grieving too hard. Not doing it right. You’re grieving too long. You should feel better by now. There are all these intimations that surround grieving people constantly, that create a feeling of unsafety and loneliness. So, why would they want to be back in their bodies?


Not to mention the trauma alone creates a sense of heightened fear and terror in being in our own bodies. I do think it’s a combination of things for sure, as you said, and I also think the animals are tantamount. They’re the centerpiece of everything that we do here.


[0:12:13] BD: How do the animals on the farm model that safety to feel? What does that interaction look like?


[0:12:21] JC: I just think there’s a spaciousness about them. They’re not in a hurry. They don’t hand you a Kleenex and say, time to move on. They just accept people for who they are and how they feel in the moment. If we have somebody on the farm and they go sit underneath the willow tree, and they’re crying, Gretel or Captain von Trapp, some of our more affectionate goats will just go and sit next to them and lay next to them. Or a dog will do that. The horses are incredible beings. Horses, there have been several studies that show that horses more accurately interpret and predict human emotion than even our closest relative, non-human animal relatives which is primates.


Our horses help people be more aware of themselves, and themselves in space, and their own emotions. For example, Chamaco, my horse, he’s the whole reason the farm exists. He can tell when someone is extremely anxious. And if someone is very fearful around him, or is having high anxiety, which is the same thing as fear, he’ll back up, he’ll take several steps back away from them. Not toward them, but away from them to give them space. Then they noticed that he does that, and then usually what happens is, they’ll look to me, and I’ll say, “Just notice how you’re feeling.” And they’re saying, “My heart’s beating really fast. I’m having a lot of fear. I’m afraid of horses, or I’m thinking about my son and his love of horses, and I’m missing him. And I’m having a lot of fear come up.” Or whatever. But it helps raise their self-awareness of their own current emotional state in the moment, emotional state. And as they talk about it, and process it, it starts to dilute it or dissipate. And as it does, Chamaco will come toward them.


So, I mean, and the beautiful thing about it is it says without any words at all. Words get human beings in trouble. Brittany, I don’t know if you notice that. But word get human beings in a lot of trouble. We have way too many words, that when we should just, “Sshh, sshh.” Animals just naturally communicate compassion and care, and also boundaries without any words at all.


[0:14:28] BD: Animals show up for us so differently than humans do, which is, I mean, it’s humbling, right? Because as a therapist, I can watch my emotional support dog, Violet, go lay on my client and sooth them in a way that I cannot.


[0:14:45] JC: Myself and colleagues conducted a study and we asked – we wanted to find out who was providing the best grief support subjectively from the experience of grievers. I mean, there’s all kinds of talk about grief support in the empirical literature, but very few studies allow grievers to define what good support is.


So, we asked about the actions and actors of good grief support. One of the first things that we found was that emotional acts of caring and emotional support were the types of support that grievers most often wanted. They also appreciated practical support, like meal trains, people cleaning their house and help with childcare. Those were helpful. But by far, in the data, emotional support and emotional acts of caring were significantly more important than any other kinds of support.


That was the action. And then we asked, who are the people who are providing the best kinds of support? You name it. We asked about every human group there was. Then, just before we were getting ready to hit publish on the survey, I had a thought. I said, “You know what, I’m going to throw pets and animals in there. Just to see what happens.” I can tell you that pets and animals blew every human group out of the water, blew every human group. They came in at 89% satisfaction. The next highest group, the second highest group came in at 67% satisfaction and that was support groups. That’s one of the things I say when it comes to good grief support, be an animal. Just sit and stay.


[0:16:11] BD: Yes. That’s beautiful. How has your work with animals empowered you in your grief journey?


[0:16:19] JC: Oh, wow. Well, there’s somewhere out there as a video, where someone was interviewing me and I said, pretty much every adult around me abandoned me. That’s how it felt. They all wanted me to be who I was before, they wanted me to be better. They wanted me to stop crying. They thought I was going on and on and on. Just have another child, it’ll be okay. You can’t interchange kids, guys. That’s not how it works.


[0:16:45] BD: It doesn’t work that way.


[0:16:47] JC: So, I remember that my dogs, I had two dogs at the time, and they were amazing for me. I would just be in a moment of absolute utter despair, sobbing on the couch, and my dogs would come up, and just put their heads on me and just sit with me. They didn’t say, “Oh, you should stop crying or you should feel better by now.” Or, “You’re taking this too far.” They just sat with me and accepted me. And the other being who sat with me was my three-year-old who is smarter than every adult around me.


I remember the time when she sat on the arm of the – I was crying and it was a hard morning. And she came and sat on the arm of the couch with me. She said, “Mommy, it’s okay to be sad. And it’s okay to cry because babies aren’t supposed to die.” I just looked at and I go, “You’re a genius. You’re a genius. All the adults around me are idiots, but you are a genius.” So, I guess I realized, I mean, I’ve always had a love for animals. But I guess I realized in that moment, that the smarter people, the more sophisticated people around me didn’t really know what was happening. We’re not emotionally intelligent, and that animals and children seemed to be much more emotionally intelligent to me.


My dogs played a really key role in helping me feel a little less lonely in the grief experience. And then fast forward to eight years ago, going on nine years ago, I met a horse named Tumaco. His video is out there as well. He’s sort of a famous horse. He was the most tortured animal we have on the farm. His entire back, had bones protruding from his skin. He was 600 pounds underweight. He had huge, this big, gaping wounds on both of his sides, where the metal of the saddle was strapped against his bare muscle. He was tortured, literally tortured beyond anything I’ve ever seen. And people just wanted to go on their vacation. They just wanted to have fun. And they walked past him over and over and I just came upon him.


But people literally were doing this as they walked by, so they didn’t see him. They were averting their gaze, literally averting their gaze, because they wanted to have fun. I remember thinking to myself, that’s what it felt like when my daughter died. People averting their gaze. They didn’t want to see my pain because it made them sad. Because it ruined their holidays, or their good time, or their football game, or whatever was happening. I knew I was going to have to fight to rescue him. I did. It was quite a fight to rescue him.


But I did because he was worthy of rescuing. And also, because he was me. I am that horse and that horse is me. We are no different. He was on death’s door, and hopeless, and terrified, and uncertain he could live, and I was the same way in 1994, 1995, 1996, right after my daughter died. I was the same way. No one wanted to look at him. No one could bear to really see him and many others could not bear to really see me.


So, rescuing him, saving his life, very worthy life, was saving my own life. My decision every day to live a compassionate life, and to make choices that don’t harm others. Others broadly defined, both human and non-human animals. Both the planet that we live on. My decision to live that way, is a decision to also take care of myself, because I am one with everything, and they are one with me.


I think animals taught me that. Again, I’ve always had a soft spot for them. But I think they taught me that. I think they helped me awaken from this very human-centric model of the world and see that what we’re doing to this planet, we’re doing to ourselves and our descendants, and all beings with whom we share this planet. And what we do to a baby cow and her mother we’re doing to our own babies, and to ourselves. That, for me, is the only way I can live my life. I can’t live my life any other way. So, I would say animals probably have played more of a role than anything in my life more than spirituality, my spiritual practice, more than my academic studies, more than friendships and family relationships even, because it’s helped deepen all of those things. It’s helped me really stay awake.


[0:21:12] BD: We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how animals show up for us. How animals can teach us mindfulness. How they can teach us to feel. How they can support us through our trauma and grief. How can we show up for them? How can we better show up for them?


[0:21:28] JC: Well, I’ll be honest. We have to stop exploiting them. We have to – so, here on the farm, for example, we don’t ever say use animals. We engage our animals. We invite our animals, but we don’t use them. The animals are never haltered and never forced to interact with anyone they don’t want to except for the vet. They don’t love the vet, but they have to get their health care, and they don’t always love it. But they’re never coerced, they’re never forced.


This is an egalitarian model. Egalitarian is built into our model. It’s called the attend model. And it’s an acronym and, the E stands for egalitarianism. That means that we balance power. The humans here are not more important than the animals. So, the animals well-being is prioritized just as high as the human well-being. We try, we make every effort never to exploit our animals, and to give them free choice, and free will around with whom, and when they interact.


If they’re tired, and they don’t want to come out, they don’t have to come out. Having said that, this is a unique place. So, how do we live in accord with nature and in a way that respects the autonomy of our animal brethren? That’s a tricky thing, because our agricultural system is set up in such a way, our research system is set up in such a way, our beauty system is set up in such a way that animals are routinely exploited for human benefit. That’s a tough thing. It’s a tough system to crack and all we can do is vote with our dollar and change.


So, what I tell people is just start educating yourselves. Just start slowly. We move mountains. The Chinese have a saying, “We move mountains one stone at a time.” And so slowly, slowly start to learn about the agricultural system, about big agriculture, and how animals are exploited and what they do, for example, to ducks for down. Or what they do to sheep for the wool. Yes, of course, sheep need to be shorn because they’re bred to have too much wool. But the ways in which we do it matter. There are several videos that people can watch. Start with something like what, the health. The beautiful thing about animals is when we treat animals with respect, our bodies end up benefiting from it.


The same beauty that we give to animals, if we choose with our dollar, to eat differently, to put our makeup on differently, or do our hair differently, or wash our bodies differently. It happens to also benefit us.


[0:23:58] BD: Dr. Jo, thank you so much for coming on Happiness Unleashed. This has been an honor to talk to you and thank you so much.


[0:24:07] JC: Thank you for having me.




[0:24:08] PF: That was Brittany Derrenbacher talking with Dr. Jo Cacciatore. If you’d like to learn more about Selah Carefarm, follow Dr. Jo on social media or discover her book, Bearing the Unbearable. Visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.


Of course, Brittany will be back here next month to talk more about how pets can bring us joy, help us heal, and be some of our best teachers. Until then, for everyone at Live Happy, this is Paula Felps reminding you to make every day a happy one.


(Visited 7 times, 1 visits today)