In his 12 years as an animal-assisted therapist, Ken Perlis has seen miracles.
Once as he worked with a group of stroke patients, one among them who had not spoken for months suddenly said the name of a childhood pet while stroking one of Perlis’ dogs. That one word, Perlis said, was enough to put the patient on track to recovering the use of his voice.
In another case, a teen-age football player had completely withdrawn and could not speak after a sports-related head injury. The boy first came out of his shell when he was near a dog, Perlis said, speaking to the animal in guttural sounds. Within two months, the therapist said, the athlete had his voice back.
“It’s incredible what these animals can do for people,” Perlis said.
The miracles Perlis brought Monday to a group of developmentally disabled children were less dramatic perhaps, but judging by the wide smiles and squeals of delight, no less memorable.
About 15 children, ranging in age from 6 through 16 and with a variety of disabilities, were at Heideman Elementary School in Tustin as part of a weeklong day camp partially funded by the nonprofit Easter Seal Society of Los Angeles and Orange counties.
“The kids can really connect with these animals in ways they cannot connect with humans,” said Alicia Switzer, program coordinator for the camp. “It teaches them to be gentle, and it teaches responsibility. And for some of our severely handicapped kids, feeling different textures such as the rabbit’s fur is important.”
The session was one of many volunteer outings for Perlis, 40, who has developed animal therapy programs for several hospitals and convalescent homes and who visits Easter Seal camps monthly.
On Monday the Westminster resident brought two dogs: a dachshund named Samuel Nathan Frankfurter, who goes by Sam, and a mixed breed named Perky. Other visitors were Guinea pigs Roscoe and Shaggy, and an assortment of rabbits.
“Seeing these kids smile, it’s a really satisfying sensation,” Perlis said as he watched Perky roll over, wave and beg a treat from one of the campers.
In an hour, the children learned to groom, pet, hold and feed the animals, tasks they performed with obvious glee.
Rholan Wong, an official with the Easter Seal Society, said, “This is a unique chance for kids who don’t normally have the opportunity to interact with animals. Our goal is to integrate kids into the community, and interaction with domestic animals is an important part of that process.”