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Comfort creatures

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Chock full of personality, Blackjack the rooster is one of the most-requested therapy animals on the nonprofit’s roster. SHANNON DOMINGUEZ photo

Bobby didn’t go to medical school. He doesn’t wear a stethoscope, and he can’t take your temperature. But when Bobby makes the rounds at Maui Memorial Medical Center, he’s just what the doctor ordered.

Bobby, a fuzzy white Lionhead rabbit, is one of nearly 50 animals — rabbits, guinea pigs, ducks, chickens, roosters, cats and dogs — who transform human lives through Maui Therapy Animals, a nonprofit organization that coordinates customized animal-assisted therapy visits to multiple locations on Maui.

When Bobby is on the clock, he doles out snuggles and unconditional love to patients in short- and long-term care facilities, children and adults with special needs, and individuals overcoming psychological or emotional trauma. At every stop, he’s greeted with open arms, big smiles and, occasionally, tears of happiness. The same goes for Bobby’s fellow trained therapy animals; each brings immeasurable joy to the humans they visit.

Maui Therapy Animals made its debut as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in June. The nonprofit may be new, but its co-founders, Shazara Bloomfield and Shannon Dominguez, have years of experience as animal-assisted therapy specialists.

Dominguez had coordinated therapy visits for nearly two decades through a program she’d created for another nonprofit. When budget cuts forced the nonprofit to eliminate the program earlier this year, she was left with two choices: take an early retirement or start a new program from scratch. She chose the latter.

Maui Therapy Animals co-founder Shannon Dominguez shares a cuddle with Bobby, one of the nonprofit’s trained therapy animals. SARAH RUPPENTHAL photo

Dominguez says the decision was guided by her love for the 45 therapy animals who would otherwise have been displaced.

“I couldn’t imagine them doing anything else . . . and I couldn’t imagine my life without them,” she said.

That’s when Dominguez and Bloomfield teamed up to launch their own nonprofit. A few weeks later, after a flurry of preparation (and with the help of many volunteers), all 45 animals were settled into their new digs on Dominguez’s 2-acre property in Kula.

And they are ready to get back to work.

The effects of animal-assisted therapy are nothing short of extraordinary — and in some cases, miraculous. Among other things, studies show it can lower blood pressure, boost cardiovascular health, increase serotonin and oxytocin levels, improve cognitive functioning, and reduce stress, anxiety and depression.

Animal-assisted therapy specialists Shazara Bloomfield (left) and Shannon Dominguez are the co-founders of Maui Therapy Animals, a nonprofit organization that changes lives — one furry or feathered snuggle at a time. SARAH RUPPENTHAL photo

“They help people heal,” Bloomfield said.

And what about the animals? Well, not only have they achieved rock star status in the eyes of so many, but nearly all were adopted from the Maui Humane Society and given a permanent home and a purpose. In addition to round-the-clock care and plenty of exercise, the animals (whom Bloomfield and Dominguez affectionately call “the friendlies”) get their share of cuddles, too. In fact, if you pay a visit to the nonprofit’s headquarters, it’s hard to tell who is enjoying life more — the animals or the humans.

In addition to facility visits, the fledgling nonprofit is gearing up to launch an interactive program that teaches kids how to care for animals. Dominguez and Bloomfield plan to add more programs in the months to come.

Donations are needed to help Maui Therapy Animals cover myriad expenses, including purchasing feed and supplies for the animals, veterinary care, structural maintenance and shelters, and overall operating costs. To learn more about Maui Therapy Animals or to inquire about volunteer or donor opportunities, visit www.mauitherapyanimals.org or email mauitherapyanimals @yahoo.com.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal @gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.

Otter, pictured with co-founder Shazara Bloomfield, helps people heal — simply by giving them unconditional love. SARAH RUPPENTHAL photo