The surprising effects of talking to animals

PUBLISHED: 11:27 05 May 2016 | UPDATED: 11:28 05 May 2016

Maria chats to Miss Dinky, the pot-belly house-pig

Maria chats to Miss Dinky, the pot-belly house-pig

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

The positive impact animals can have on people is profound and beautiful, according to one Tonbridge businesswoman

Maria Cooper Harle, whose compassion for both the human and animal species comes in equal measure, has created a multi-faceted business which sees her 50-plus pets contribute to the lives of a varied list of clients as well to the life of her own family.

As the owner and head handler of Amazing Animal Encounters, Maria provides animal-assisted therapy (AAT) sessions for young people and adults via unique, tailor-made experiences based at her home in Tonbridge.

The mother of two is devoted to her pets, some of which are used in her work, while others live a life of leisure among her five and-a-half acres of land. The setting, which also encompasses children’s parties, filming and photography, is as enchanting as it is surprising – especially when you enter Maria and husband Ian’s kitchen.

There you may find Miss Dinky, the pot-belly house-pig snuffling around, Squirt the skunk asleep in the cat basket or Vincent the Siberian Fox peering in through the window from his enclosure in the garden. It makes Toodles, a handsome, friendly cat, look slightly out of place.

Vincent the Siberian foxVincent the Siberian fox

The house and surrounding smallholding is jam-packed full of creatures, from reptiles and invertebrates to mammals and amphibians; even marsupials called Sugar Gliders reside in a purpose-built aviary in the couple’s living room.

Maria says: “Dinky has her own settee, I have my own Edwardian settee and she’s not allowed on it. My house is full of animals, it’s exactly like Dr Dolittle’s, they’re everywhere.

“There’s a nearly seven-foot-long boa constrictor living in my bedroom – he does his own thing. He doesn’t work for the business, but he’s very big and I am very small and I’m not going to risk taking him out, so he’s just a pet. I have a walk-in wardrobe and he pulls all my shoes off the shelf and gets inside them.”

The favourite of former this Kent County Council youth worker, however, is Vincent the fox, whom Maria feels has contributed a lot in terms of educating people about English wildlife and is one of the pets particularly effective in providing the therapy her clients seek.

Cuddles for Squirt the skunkCuddles for Squirt the skunk

Maria has retained a connection with KCC’s social services as she now provides therapy sessions for young people typically aged between 11 to 14 at her home, providing a relaxed and comfortable environment. “I also travel to care homes, schools, Brownies, Guides, Scouts, youth clubs and special educational needs (SEN) schools all across the county with the animals, as well as doing a weekly extra-curricular class at Tonbridge Grammar School,” she says.

Maria covers Dartford, the Isle of Sheppey, Whitstable, Canterbury, Folkestone, Ashford, Tenterden, Medway, Maidstone, Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Sevenoaks, Edenbridge and Orpington. Most of her clients seeking therapy have learning difficulties and emotional issues, but she also helps psychiatric patients and people with a physical illness.

Typical animals involved in therapy sessions are four species of reptiles, seven types of invertebrates, 14 species of mammals, two species of marsupials and two species of amphibians. As well as Vincent, Dinky and Squirt, the main favourites for this work are Clementine the bearded dragon, Joey the duck, a chinchilla, rabbits, a chicken and giant African land snails.

“There are animals I prefer to use for therapy work, for example, I know that someone with severe special needs may not be able to control their arms and legs, they may shout out and that could disturb an animal, so I have to carefully, select those animals I know will not be phased.

Maria with lambs in her rural smallholdingMaria with lambs in her rural smallholding

“Animals are great for therapy in all sorts of situations because they are non-judgmental. They can also bridge the gap between a socially inward or physically disabled child and the rest of a group. As most of my animals are on their second or even third owner living here, children who have experienced rejection can relate to the animals and see hope, and how the animals, like them, have to learn to trust all over again.

“The children who visit from unsettled backgrounds don’t want to let go and enjoy themselves at first. Animals like Vincent the fox, who is a main therapy animal, take just as much time to learn to trust the young person as it takes them to show they are enjoying the sessions.

“When the young person has developed a level of basic trust with the fox, then they get to take him for walks across the fields. Myself and their carer can hang back a bit, while they stride off with the fox on a lead. That can be one of their most enriching and therapeutic moments.

“I am also a work-experience provider for Hadlow College, so if necessary I can provide the youngsters with that opportunity as well.”

Lambs waiting for milkLambs waiting for milk

When visiting care homes Maria prefers to take animals familiar to the older generation such as the pig, the chicken, the duck, hedgehogs and rabbits. She explains: “In dementia units you see some of the residents come to life as the animals stimulate memories. Other care home residents love to have a natter about the animals they had growing up as a child or tell me about the farm they worked on in their youth. Part of my service is not just to give them time with the animals, but to give them my time as well.

“Squirt the skunk is great therapy with adults. He is the animal that helps me unwind and de-stress. There is nothing quite like a cuddle with a sleepy skunk. He really helps lower blood pressure. He’s great with adults with chronic illness or anxiety issues.”

Maria, who has taken in many unwanted and abandoned pets over the years, is a huge advocate of animal welfare and she and her two members of staff only involve those animals who respond well to the public and to ‘working’ conditions. “People ask, what do you do with the animals that don’t work well for the business? Well, the whole point of the business is to fund the animals – so the animals that do it, do it to provide for the others. Those who don’t work get to live a life of leisure.”

At weekends Maria, who is also a pre-school music teacher, can often be found at children’s parties, but she says there are strict guidelines everyone has to follow. “First, the animals get to say when they have had enough. When we see the signs we stop. To us these signs are obvious, but they may not be to others and we have had situations where we have had to say ‘I’m sorry, the animal has had enough’ and parents will say ‘but he looks fine.’ But we can tell the creature has become tense – it’s in their body language.

Get in touch with MariaGet in touch with Maria

“Another rule is that once they go away in their container, we don’t get them back out again. We have upset members of the public by saying no, we can’t get them back out again, but our communication with the animals is very important for us. If we started taking them back out of their containers, they would never know when their turn is going to end. It’s very important the animals know what’s going on – it’s about trust and feeling a sense of security.”

For music graduate Maria, who now also has a diploma in animal psychology, the parties provide the perfect platform from which to educate children and their parents about animal welfare. “Little Bobby, who has never had any interaction with animals, will go home after the party excited and thrilled about what he’s seen and he will be the one to educate his family. I am planting these little seeds in the minds of these children that I meet at the parties to be compassionate and have empathy with animals.”

Maria finds therapy work the most satisfying, especially helping those with special educational needs. “If I could describe the business in two words, I’d say it’s animal education because even if it’s the therapy side of things, that’s helping you to get in touch with your particular thoughts or feelings and dealing with issues you may have – that’s education about yourself.”

Get in touch

Maria Cooper Harle, proprietor and head handler at Amazing Animal Encounters, Brook Bungalow, Green Lane, Tonbridge TN12 9RB, call 01892 730883 (8am-5pm onl) or email

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