Other People's Words

Sara Childers, the animal whisperer

Posted in Uncategorized by Tera on March 17, 2010

This is an interview with Sara Childers for the Autism Women’s Network radio show.

Sharon daVanport: Welcome to AWN radio, everyone. Hope everyone is having a good day. My name is Sharon daVanport, and I’m joined today by Tricia Kenney. Hello, Tricia.

Tricia Kenney: Hi. How ya doing?

Sharon daVanport: I’m doing okay. I’m just a little bit rushed this morning. Had a couple changes in my schedule with the kids last minute, and that threw me just for about five minutes because that’s all I had to spare.[Laughter] How are you doing this morning?

Tricia Kenney: I’m really, really tired, but I’ll make it. I’ll be okay.

Sharon daVanport: Did the boys have you up late last night?

Tricia Kenney: Yeah. They’re still on their screwy sleep schedule, but we’re working on it.

Sharon daVanport: For all our listeners who don’t know—which I can’t imagine that they don’t by now—Tricia has twin boys on the spectrum. We know how tired Tricia can get. I can’t even imagine how tired she can get. [Laughter] Her boys keep her quite active, and they’re just so sweet. I always like it when they turn on the Skype and you don’t know it, and I’m sitting there going: “Hello? Hello?” having a good conversation with them. They’re just such sweethearts.

Well, before we get started with our guest Sara today, I’d like to send a shout-out to our sponsors b-Calm Sound. They offer high-quality Audio Sedation soundtracks. These soundtracks are helpful to chldren and adults who have ADD, ADHD, anyone on the spectrum. It helps them to relax, relieve stress, and it actually has been tested and proven to increase levels of concentration. That’s something that b-Calm Sound rep Curtis shared with us a couple weeks ago. Do you remember that, Tricia?

Tricia Kenney: Yeah, the actual study. Yes.

Sharon daVanport: Yeah. I thought that was interesting that they had that done. I thought: “Well, good for them!” I’m so glad. I knew that when we connected with them, I really believed in their product, and it was something that I knew that really worked for my son. So I thought: “We really have to see if we can hook up with them.” I’m just so glad that did.

Tricia Kenney: And we’ve had really good feedback from the peole who have won the b-Calm Sound system. Everybody just loves it, and loves the sound system that goes with it—the soundbites, or what do you call them.

Sharon daVanport: Right, yeah. I don’t know what you call it. I wanted to tell everyone in the chat room: what we typically do for our monthly giveaways—our next monthly giveaway is next week, right, Tricia?—when you sign into the chat room, your name automatically goes into the lineup for being drawn. Tricia always draws the names. She always gets to tell everybody who the lucky winner is.

But I don’t wanna waste any more time; I’m so excited about having Sara Childers on today. I’m not really gonna say much about Sara. I want her to be able to explain everything. I will say that she’s an 18 year old college student. She was diagnosed at a very young age with autism, and she bonds with animals. She has a very unique, special bond with animals. Are you still with us, Sara?

Sara Childers: Of course.

Sharon daVanport: All right. How are you doing this morning?

Sara Childers: I am doing just fine. I started my three-day weekend today. I have a three-day weekend every week, so I’m pretty happy about that. The weather’s warming up here in Jacksonville. We’ve had a bit of a cold and freeze spell, so I’m happy that it’s warming up. I’m from Florida, so I’m not used to cold.

Sharon daVanport: We’ve tried for several weeks now to get you hooked up on this show. I remember I scheduled one time with your mother, and I scheduled another time and you had to swim with the dolphins.

Sara Childers: Yeah. That got cancelled one week. I’ll do it tomorrow.

[Laughter]

Sharon daVanport: Are you? You’re gonna swim with the dolphins. Maybe we should start there. We know you’re diagnosed with autism. At what age were you diagnosed with autism, Sara?

Sara Childers: I was diagnosed with autism at 24 months of age. I’m not sure who my neurologist was at that time, but I know I also started seeing Dr. [unknown] at a very, very young age. I’ve seen him for most of my life, so he’s a great guy.

Sharon daVanport: Why don’t you start in by talking about the animals? I know that Tricia has some animals there at her house, and she swears by the love and affection and interaction with her boys, that it’s been really good for them. Can you start in about the kind of special bond that you started to create at a young age with animals?

Sara Childers: Sure. At a very young age, my mother started noticing that instead of imitating humans like most infants would, I would get down on all fours, for example, and start imitating a dog, or imitating some [unknown[ animal that I saw. She thought it was a little weird. And then that just started to grow, and now I can start communicating with animaals, mostly on their behavior. I can understand what they’re saying, almost, and be able to manipulate my behavior to say something back to them.

Sharon daVanport: Wow. So is it just like a feeling? Kind of a rhythm that you get? You feel you’re in sync with that animal, so you feel you know what it’s relaying to you at that time?

Sara Childers: It’s something like that. I can feel the energy, I guess you could say. It’s like [if] an animal’s stressed, they’ll give off a certain energy. If an animal’s relaxed, they’ll display a certain energy. If they’re stressed, the muscles may tighten up and they might show different behaviors. Like Temple Grandin said, when a cow is stressed they’ll start mooing more often. And I can pick up on those things.

Tricia Kenney: Did you recognize it in that sense when you were a child? How did you see it when you were a child?

Sara Childers: I just had it all my life. As long as I can remember, I’ve been communicating with animals.

Sharon daVanport: Now that you can verbally express it, when you were a younger child—I’m interested in this because I see how Tricia’s children…I csn hear them in the background when we’re on Skype, and I can hear them interacting with the dogs that they have. Was it different as a young child, when you couldn’t maybe express it? How did you know you, personally, were connecting with them? You said your mother noticed it, but how did you feel? What were the feelings you got when you knew you were connecting with them?

Sara Childers: I just could tell that they understood me, whereas sometimes, even now, sometimes people will be speaking to me and I don’t get what they’re saying. But with animals, you can go up to them, and they’re not gonna lie or be sarcastic. What they’re saying is what they’re saying: they’re not gonna try to fake you out. With my autism, I can’t gauge if a person is being sarcastic. Sometimes I can’t read [unknown] as being sarcastic, and I’m very, very literal. With animals, they don’t know how to be sarcastic.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, that’s a good point. I like that. Isn’t that amazing, Tricia? I bet you’re gonna start watching little things now in your boys to see if they’re connecting with the animals. [Laughter] Isn’t that amazing to hear? This is fascinating to me.

Tricia Kenney: I think it’s a very natural thing, and I think as children, we do tend to tap into those things that aren’t explained to us and that nobody has talked to us about and told us about and told us that: “This doesn’t work that way,” or “This doesn’t exist.” I think our minds are free enough to make those connections. I recall as a child being like that, where I had a really great relationship with this one cat. I just knew how to communicate with this cat, and it was a strange cat that I’d never seen before.We immediately bonded, and I could always call this cat any time of day, and it would show up. It was, I guess, an openneness, an innocence that children have, and if you nurture that and you embrace that and keep that going into adulthood, I think that’s the rarity.

Sharon daVanport: Right. That’s what I think is so special about you, Sara. I think that’s what Tricia is saying: it’s so rare to see that. That you’ve been able to continue with this bond that you’ve had that, no matter what you might’ve overheard. Like someone’s like: “Oh! I’m scared of mice!” or “Oh, get that snake away from me,” you seem to gravitate towards the animals, no matter what. That’s just fascinating ot me.

I’d like to go through the different stages of your childhood, up until now that you’re 18. When you were a young child, and you first started bonding and noticed that you were natural around animals, were there any specific animals you started out being more drawn to than others?

Sara Childers: When I was young…I’ve always known what field I wanna go into, and that would be marine biology. When my umbilical chord came off, my mother immediately put me in the water, and I automatically gravitated towards it. By the time I was two years old, I started free diving, which [is when you?] hold your breath and dive underneath the water. I could dive to about 15 feet of depth by that time.

Sharon daVanport: Wow.

Tricia Kenney: That’s amazing. I have to give credit to your mother, because I think a lot of moms would just be like: “No way is my toddler getting near water!” and would be having a heart attack. Here your mother was training you at such a young age and letting you learn how to do that. Thank goodness. We don’t have to worry about you drowning, right?

Sara Childers: Right. I am scuba-certified. My mom is amazing; she’s been with me every step of the way, and she’ll hopefully be with me every step of the way from now on. She is just amazing. I have to get out the obligatory: “Hi, Mom!” She can [probably hear me?] in the other room, so.

[Laughter]

Sharon daVanport: Give a shout-out to Mom. Awesome. That’s neat. Sara, now we’ve got to the two-year-old, which is around the age you were diagnosed as well. Let’s move on to when you were in elementary school. I’ve noticed some of the different pictures, different YouTube videos I’ve seen of you—the interview you did on CNN—I’ve noticed that you bond not just with marine life, but also wild animals. That’s fascinating. Tell me at what age you started walking up to wild animals.

Sara Childers: I was really young. I mean, my mom wouldn’t let me go near the tigers and lions that I do right now, out of [unknown.] If you watch big cats, you know that if you have a little child around them, they get interested and think it’s a toy.

I started doing things through 4-H at six or seven, and I started showing sheep. I had sheep for maybe like a year, and I wanted to “upgrade”, in a way, to cattle. I was the youngest person in my 4-H club to start showing cattle. That very first year, I had possibly one of the toughest steers, which is a castrated bull.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, wow. So you started with sheep, then a little bit later, around eight or nine, with the cattle?

Sara Childers: Yeah. I was just over four-foot, and I worked and gave love and trained this steer, to the point where I could get up on his back and ride him. I’d go in his pen, and he’d come right up to me and lick me on the face.

Sharon daVanport: A bull?

Sara Childers: A steer. But he still weighed over a thousand pounds and could seriously do damage. I was in 4-H for nine, ten years, if not more, and I showed cattle throughout that time. If I didn’t live in a house right now and I had land, I’d still have a few cattle.

Sharon daVanport: Really. So then, Temple Grandin’s movie must’ve been amazing to you. What did you think about that? They did actually feature the time in her life where she was going through all of her inventions and stuff with cattle.

Sara Childers: I saw that, yeah. I admit that I’ve actually been put in the cattle chute that they had, where you squeeze the cattle. I put myself in that before my mom told me that Temple Grandin did that. I’m like: “Oh! Okay.” I found a lot of the stuff that she picks up about cattle [is] the same stuff that I pick up. I’d really like to sit and talk to her about cattle. I know we could probably go on for days about how awesome cattle are.

Sharon daVanport: See, I’m lost right now to even ask you a specific question about cattle. Do you have one, Tricia? [Laughter]

Tricia Kenney: All I really know about cattle is A1 steak sauce works well with them. [Laughter]

Sharon daVanport: Aw, Tricia! [Laughter] For all the animal lovers out there and vegetarians, we’re really sorry. But you know what? I’m fascinated by people like Sara that know this.

Tricia Kenney: Temple’ll even say that she’s an avid meat-eater.

Sharon daVanport: She is, I know. She was joking about that. That’s true. That’s a good point to make. We’re not meaning to be rude.

Sara Childers: No; not at all.

Sharon daVanport: Are you really a vegetarian [Sara]?

Sara Childers: I am a vegetarian, but ironically, I have raised animals for slaughter in my 4-H club, so it was a [difficult?] process for me to raise this animal, bond with this animal, and fall in love with this animal that I raised for an entire year, got to know it, and know its personality, its likes, its dislikes, and give it up to the slaughterhouse and say: “Here. I’m selling my animal to you for meat.” The first year that I had Rodeo, I’m still not over it.

Tricia Kenney: It’s a weird transition.

Sara Childers: It’s so weird, and I’m still not over his loss.

Tricia Kenney: It’s hard. If you ever go to a farm or a ranch or anything like that as a child, it gets pretty devastating when you see where the eggs come from, and where all this stuff happens. All these thoughts start going through your head, like: “Oh, my God! I’m eating an animal!” Most kids love animals, and want to be close to them and love them, so it’s a very weird shift when you finally get to that point where you have to realize we eat these animals, too. It’s tough to process that—it really is. I didn’t eat steak; I didn’t eat beef till I was 18 or so, because I was just so freaked out about it.

Sharon daVanport: I like a point, Sara, that you made. You said that it’s taken you almost ten years, and you’re still not over the loss of that animal that you raised for an entire year and you bonded with and you gave it up to the slaughterhouse. It’s ten years later, and you still think about that all the time. I think that’s real important for us who are parenting children on the spectrum, and a lot of people—teachers, everyone—to know that when autistics are said to not be able to bond or have feelings or have empathy or carry these emotions with them for years and yesrs, it’s just simply not true. Sara said it right there. Maybe at eight years old she couldn’t articulate how she was feeling, but at 18, she can.

I think that’s so important, Sara, that you’re out there and you’re talking to people about your experiences. You’re willing to do radio shows like this, and interviews. I think that’s just wonderful, so that more can understand. I know that I’d like to have your mom on sometime, too, and talk about the parental side of it—about raising a child like you. This is just fascinating. You said you are studying biology now?

Sara Childers: I’m majoring in marine biology, to be more specific. I’m going to hopefully keep my grades up and go to the University of Florida to become a veterinarian for whales and dolphins.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, wow. Isn’t that amazing? With your goal towards marine biology and towards college, can you tell us if there are any specific guidelines or goals you’ve set for yourself to pace yourself, to get to each one of your goals, like, to accomplish them, step by step? Are you on a part-time schedule now? A full-time schedule? How have you incorporated college into your life?

Sara Childers: Basically, my mom’s really good about this. She just lets me go to college, and if I get good grades, then I can basically have whatever I want. I’m rewarded with whatever I want.

Sharon daVanport: What about your schedule at college? Is it full-time? Is it part-time?

Sara Childers: I go to college full-time. I’m there four days a week, and I have four classes right now. Each class is worth four college credits, so that comes up to about 16 college credits.

Sharon daVanport: Wow. That just is amazing. I’m just so happy. Now, with marine biology, tell me some of the other classes—besides biology, obviously—that you have to take. As somebody who’s taking marine biology, what courses do you have to take?

Sara Childers: I’m not entirely sure, because right now I’m just working to get my AA so I can go over to an actual university. But I can tell you that right now I’m taking Bio 1, algebra, English, and anthropology. But, like I said, those are just to get the AA. For marine biology, to work with whales and dolphins, it’s usually required that you take things like psychology, so you can know how to train and work with these animals, ’cause they’re very intelligent. You need child psychology, behavioral psychology, and marine biology.

As far as being a veterinarian, you have to go an additional four years of college to learn anatomy; how to draw blood; how to read an animal [unknown];how to autopsy or necropsy an animal, and just a whole slew of different things.

Sharon daVanport: Wow. I’m tired just hearing about it. What about you, Tricia? That’s a lot of work! But I’m just really amazed at hearing that you’ve got such great goals for yourself, and a good support system surrounding you—that’s got to mean so much to you, Sara.

I’d like to have you be specific about certain kinds of animals. Now, let’s start with what you’re gonna do tomorrow. You do bwlieve that the dolphin-swim will be on for tomorrow?

Sara Childers: Yeah. The reason it was cancelled last week is because it was too cold, and the water was too cold. But it’s actually warmed up now, so I’m happy.

Sharon daVanport: Take us through a swim with a dolphin. Can you tell our listeners not just what it’s like, but what you do to prepare for it and what you do with you’re swimming with a dolphin. I would love to swim with a dolphin one day, and I just can’t imagine doing it.

Sara Childers: It’s great. I remember last week’s show with Temple Grandin. One of the callers was talking about taking her son out to the aquarium every week, and I thought to myself: “Hey! Why don’t they go down to Seaworld, since they’re so close and do a dolphin-swim?” There’s actually a facility down in the Florida Keys called the Dolphin Research Center that has a special program for people with mental disabilities, especially autism. They do dolphin therapy, where the dolphins connect.

Tricia Kenney: Is it free?

Sara Childers: They have an occupational therapist on site, and they do behavior and therapy with autistic people involving the dolphins, and I’ve heard so many good things about non-verbal autistics saying their first words with the dolphins, and just [unknown].

Tricia Kenney: Do you have any idea how many programs like that there are in the US?

Sara Childers: How many dolphin facilities there are?

Tricia Kenney: Um-hm. Yes.

Sara Childers: I’m not sure how many there are, but you can probably look it up online. There are quite a few.

Sharon daVanport: I just love hearing that. Tricia and I’ll make sure we get some specific information from you after the show, so that we can make sure that we post it here on Blogtalk and over on our website. I’m sure anyone listening to this who wants to find some kind of dolphin therapy in their area, that would just be great to know. I’d love to talk to you more about that. You’re specifically talking about Florida, right?

Sara Childers: Yeah. The Dolphin Research Center is probably, in my opinion, the best place to do it at, but I know they have a really long waiting list.

Tricia Kenney: Yeah, and I always figured it would be $10,000 or something way out of reach for most families.

Sharon daVanport: Do you know: is it real expensive?

Sara Childers: It might be. I’m not sure [unknown] or anything. I’ve never done it, but I [unknown] on working with [unknown] whales, dolphins and porpouses, but I’ve seen videos and news articles on people who have done it through the DRC, and just sing their praises.

Sharon daVanport: Tomorrow when you arrive at the center to swim with the dolphin, walk me through it. What are you going to do? I wanna visualize this. I wanna know what you actually do. You get to the center, and then what do you start doing to prepare?

Sara Childers: Basically what you do is you check in and you go into a separate room, and they’ll give you a bit of an education portion. They’ll teach you what a dolphin is; how it’s a mammal; what it eats; where it is in the wild; what kind of species you’re gonna swim with; a little bit of dolphin anatomy; how you’re gonna teach the dolphin; how they teach the dolphins to do certain behaviors. Just a whole slew of stuff. So you’re in there for half an hour or more, depending on what program you’re doing.

When you suit up, you typically put on a wetsuit that’s usually 3.2 millimeters in thickness. It keeps you nice and cozy. Then, depending on your interaction and the interaction program you’re doing, you can either do a shallow-water interaction where you’re just waist-high and playing with the dolphins, or a dockside interaction where you just get on the dock and play with the dolphins, or you’re in deep water and you’re swimming with the dolphins.

But what I’m doing tomorrow is something that I typically don’t do, because I do more rescue rehab, where it’s much more intense and much more unscripted. I’m taking one of my good friends out tomorrow, and he’s never swam with the dolphins before.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, nice. Wow. Since you’ve done it before, you’re not just in the shallow water; you get to do more extensive swimming with the dolphins?

Sara Childers: Yeah. We’re going to be in the deep water, so we’re gonna have life jackets on.

Sharon daVanport: You explained how you would bond with other animals when you were younger. When you’re with a dolphin—say you’re with a dolphin tomorrow—you say you pick up their energy and how they feel and what they’re thinking. I don’t even know the questions to ask. I’m wanting to visualize this and know exactly what that’s like. Maybe it’s just impossible to put into words until you do it. But, say you go in there tomorrow: would you know if the dolphin isn’t feeling well? And how would you know that?

Sara Childers: If the dolphin is ill, you can tell. The trainers know the dolphins more than I do, obviously, since they’re around them every single day. If they’re doing a certain odd behavior that they normally don’t do, then they check the dolphin. But if a dolphin’s not feeling well or doesn’t wanna do something, I can pick up on that. The dolphin may tense up, or start snapping its jaw. Those are the behaviors that say: “Hey, I don’t wanna work right now, so leave me alone.”

The good thing about dolphin training is if the animal doesn’t wanna do it, you’re not gonna make the animal do it. You’re gonna wait a few minutes, and if the dolphin wants to interact with you, that’s fine. It’s all on the dolphin’s terms, and that’s why I really like dolphin training. It’s all up to them, and that’s how I interact with animals. It’s all up to them; I don’t force myself upon them.

Tricia Kenney: Since you were diagnosed at such a young age, what types of treatments or therapies have you done in your lifetime? Did you do very much, or did you just seem to progress through your connection with the animals?

Sara Childers: My mom can actually tell you more about the therpies I did, but I was in therapy seven days a week when I was young. I did speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, hippo therapy. She actually went to different speech therapists and she was taught by them, so when I got home from the therapy session, she could still do therapy with me at home. That was a lot of what happened during my [youth?] I’m not in therapy right now.

Tricia Kenney: When you got your diagnosis, then, speech was a definite issue for you at the time—otherwise you wouldn’t be getting speech therapy and so on. It’s just really curious to me, because so many people wanna get their kids in ABA and all this other stuff, but a lot of people are seeing the benefits of having an animal companion for their child. We had that Horse Boy movie that came out, and a lot of people talk about the benefits of being around horses, and, of course, dogs.

We’ve heard very little about dolphins, though: I think because there are probably so few places where that could even occur. You’d have to be by the ocean, and in a facility that would house dolphins. So it’s really neat to get another perspective on this. What you’re talking about’s such a different creature than a dog or a horse. You’re in the water, and some people say just being in water is therapeutic. So do you think it’s a combined benefit—both being in the water like that and being around another living creature like a dolphin?

Sara Childers: Well, I don’t think the water is specifically therapeutic for me, because I was raised on it and it’s just something that I like doing. But being with a dolphin, and being able to connect with them, to me, that’s therapeutic. I cannot describe how amazing it is to see that the dolphin is understanding you. For instance, when you hold up a sick dolphin, because it’s so weak it can’t come to the surface to breathe, sometimes you’ll have to roll it over. And it will look at you in the eye, and it seems to understand that you’re helping them. And they will look you in the eye, as if to say: “Thank you.” It’s just so connecting, and I can’t describe it, no matter how hard I try. I’m always asked this question, and it’s truly something far greater. There are no words to it that I can describe. You just have to go in the water with a dolphin and experience it for yourself.

Sharon daVanport: Wow. It makes me want to move somewhere where there’s a coastline and I can get in and swim with the dolphins. It really does. I’m not joking about that; it’s amazing.

Tricia Kenney: I also heard that sometimes the dolphins get very forceful with people who go into these swims with them. Can you explain why that might happen?

Sara Childers: Sometimes they get boisterous. It depends on the animal, its personality. Sometimes, just like you. I know sometimes I get really moody and I lash out at people, even though I don’t mean to. It’s the same with animals. I’m sure anyone who’s listening can recall a time where your pet isn’t in the best of moods, and they’ll either snarl at you or hiss at you or bark at you. It’s the same with any other animal.

Usually it doesn’t happen that much when you’re working with a dolphin, because the trainers work with these animals every day. They’ll pick up that: “Hey, the animal doesn’t wanna work.” Like I said before, if they don’t wanna work, they’re not gonna.

Tricia Kenney: Right. You just have to make sure that the trainer is paying attention.

Sara Childers: Right. And the dolphins are still wild animals. And just like any other wild animal—like even the tigers I work with, whenever I go in a cage with a tiger or lion or panther or what have you, I’m basically playing Russian roulette. These animals are capable of killing me, and even the little 100 pound leopard that I work with, he could bite me on the back of the neck and drag me up a tree if he wanted.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, my.

Tricia Kenney: That is just unreal. Why do you do this work with the big cats? Is that just part of what you’re doing for training?

Sara Childers: I’ve been working with [unknown] for about ten years now, and it’s just something I do for a hobby. Those animals, all of them, have come to know me as either a good friend, or…I’ve raised a lot of these animals, ’cause they look at me as “Mom,” so I can go over there and, and wherever they are in the cage, they’ll come right up to me and start moaning and chucking, which for tigers is a sign that means: “I love you.” And they’ll just start coming up to me and greeting me and interacting with me. They want me to go in there and pet them.

Sharon daVanport: Now, you were nine years old when you started working at a wild animal park? Is that what it was?

Sara Childers: It’s a privately-owned wild animal sanctuary. It’s currently not open to the public. I just started out small with some of the smaller animals, and then I “upgraded” to big cats. The owners were like: “Hey, you wanna start working with big cats?” We had an influx of baby big cats, and they’re like: “Hey, start bottle-feeding these baby tigers and lions”

Tricia Kenney: Maybe I’ve seen too much Animal Planet or something, but that’s just insane to me. They always show “When Big Cats Attack” or whatever, right? So I’m just like: “Oh, my God!” But if you have that confidence and you’ve known them for so long, I’m sure it’s a much different thing than: “Oops, somebody left the cage open at the zoo and somebody got attacked,” right?

Sara Childers: Right. If I were to hop in the cage of some random animal in the zoo, they probably wouldn’t be as warm and loving and affectionate as the animals that I’ve worked with for all of these years. Because they don’t know me.

Tricia Kenney: Right. We do have a question in the chat room. Rylan in the chat room was talking about how they’ve had a great bond with animals throughout their lifetime, and it seems to have dissipated since they’ve grown up. They’re wondering if you could give any suggestions on how to recover that ability to bond so easily with animals.

Sara Childers: Well, it depends on what type of animals they were working with, to begin with. Some animals just lose interest. Like, with felines, I’m sure even your housecat—when they’re kittens, they wanna be all over you.I can tell you the three adult housecats I have right now, they really don’t have interest in me unless I’m giving them food. So it depends on what kind of animal you have, and what you’re working with.

Also, just being around animals—animals that you like. If you’re a dog person, go hang around dogs more. That might rekindle a flame, so to speak.

Sharon daVanport: So maybe not even start back where you were, but start back somewhere else and try to go back to that gradually? Is that what you’re saying?

Tricia Kenney: Right. Yeah, ’cause Ryland was saying that they could essentially pick up any animal that they came across, and the animal would be just totally relaxed and into them, and they could bond. Now that doesn’t seem to be there.

Sara Childers: It could be a different life experience—something traumatic happened. They got attacked by an animal. You could have developed a fear of an animal. Like, last night, I had the opportunity to play with one of my friend’s [unknown] cockatoos. My mom was next to me, and she was very afraid of me working with this big bird, because when I was little, I had lovebird that bit my lip. Now she’s afraid of working with the animal. The cockatoo can sense that, so she was all excited. If my mom were away, and it was just me being calm and happy, [unknown] reacted differently.

So animals do sense your emotions. They can sense truly what’s in your heart. If you’re angry or irked, the animals will behave differently towards you than if you’re calm and happy with them.

Tricia Kenney: It’s like parenting.

Sara Childers: Think about what’s happened in your life. Think about when you’re approaching that animal, what are you feeling? Are you feeling calm? Animals really like it when you’re calm and relaxed. If you’re all angry and tense and even if you’re really excited, a lot of animals don’t like that. When you approach an animal, you have to be calm and relaxed and not threatening. A lot of the animals that common people work with are either prey animals, like cows. Even though they’re domesticated, they’re still prey animals. Or they’re small animals like dogs and cats, that are smaller than us. They’ll think: “Hey, you’re bigger than me and might eat me.”

Tricia Kenney: They don’t like that unpredictability, I think, that comes with somebody who’s sort of erratic and hyper, or anything like that.

Sara Childers: Right. I’m not sure if you’ve watched a lot of what Temple Grandin does with the cows. She’ll go out in the middle of the field with cows she doesn’t even know, and she’ll lay down. What [a cow thinks] is: “Hey, you’re not taller than me, you’re not gonna eat me; you’re on the floor, so I can trample you if I want. So, hey, I’m curious, and I’m gonna come up to you and sniff you.” If you’re completely still, they’re still gonna be afraid but usually their curiosity will overpower. If you’re just calm, you can go up to a cow that you don’t even know. And Temple’s a great example of that.

Sharon daVanport: Right. You know what I like so much, Tricia, right now as I’m hearing Sara talk? Sara’s 18 years old; Temple Grandin’s in her 60s. And through this entire interview, I’ve heard excitement from Sara every time she feels a connection that she has with someone that she looks up to, like Temple. It shows that the generations can be bonded together with the unity that we share in so many ways. What is it so much about [Temple]? Is it the understanding of animals and just knowing that there’s someone out there that thinks so much like you do, that it means so much to you?

Sara Childers: Yup. That’s it. Another person I really look up to is Steve Irwin. He is my idol, and he’s the person who when I was really little I would watch his shows every day. He helped inspire that passion in me. He could go up to the most ridiculously dangerous or people would say “ugly” animal, like a crocodile and go and kiss it on the nose and say it’s the most beautiful animal he’s ever seen. He inspired me because he’d go and do what I do, and I hope that I’m able to carry on his legacy by educating people about animals, and show them: “Hey! These animals aren’t ugly. They were put on this earth for a reason, and they each have their own special job. Each and every animal on this planet is beautiful in its own special way.

Sharon daVanport: Right. Sara, I wanted to ask you: Are there any animals at all that you don’t feel as comfortable with? I know that dolphins are your favorite, you said.

Sara Childers: Right. I’m really comfortable around any animal. There’s certain animals that don’t like me and I can’t change that. I don’t like primates much. They tend to not like me. I’ll be friends with them, but…Most primates don’t wanna be my friend, for some reason. I’m nice to them, but they’re not nice to me. But I do like the prosimians, which are the lemurs and stuff. Those are still primates, and I like those, and they like me.

Sharon daVanport: Monkeys freak me out, Sara; I understand. Monkeys freak me out really bad. I can’t help it.

Sara Childers: There are also a lot of birds that don’t like me as well, even though I’m nice to them. So I guess each animal has their own personality, just like humans. Some [animals] like me, and some like other humans. I don’t hold it against them. They just don’t like me.

Sharon daVanport: Sara, is that something your mother helped you to gradually understand: Listen to the animal? Or is it something that you naturally picked up on? How did that come about within you, to understand that? You continue to say throughout the interview: “It’s the animal’s choice. It’s up to the animal.” You don’t take offense at that; you don’t try to push yourself upon the animal. I just think that’s amazing—you talk about it so naturally. Is it something you had to learn, or is it something you felt you just always knew?

Sara Childers: I think it’s just something I’ve always known. Like I said, as far back as I can remember. And in my mind right now is when I was like two or three, when I was first able to swim with a dolphin. I was just [unknown,] minding my own business, and this dolphin came up and gave me a piece of kelp and started interacting with me. I was three years old at the time, and I could communicate with this dolphin. Not to say that dolphins are my favorite. I’m sure there are many other examples that I have forgotten, where I have communicated with animals. I’m sure my mother could tell you millions of things.

Tricia Kenney: We again should give some credit to your mother, because I think a lot of parents would be like: “Oh, my God! Get my baby away away from that thing!” you know, and just be completely freaked out.

Sara Childers: I know. My mom has been 100 percent supportive. Of course, she’s Mom, and she’s always going to be afraid if I walk across the street or get in a cage with one of these big cats. But she saw how passionate and how much I love doing this, and she’s been able to support me and back me 100 percent on something I really love and show interest in. So I’m really thankful for her.

Tricia Kenney: Do you ever go to schools with animals and introduce children to being around animals at all?

Sara Childers: I do that. I do a lot of public outreach, where I’ll take a few different animals and go to a school or a club, and present the animals and do hands-on experiences with the animals. I’ll give them a little bit of a lecture on what the animal is, where it comes from, what it eats, et cetera. And then I’ll go around the room and let the animals be petted.

It’s something that not only children like—if they’re calm and gentle, of course—but it’s something that a lot of the animals seem to enjoy. They seem to enjoy the interaction, and being shown off, because they’re the star of the show. That’s what I do when I go and present them. I make sure that the animals know that they’re the star of the show. It’s not about me; it’s their show. I’m just talking about them.

Sharon daVanport: Right. I just think that this is so important for all of us to hear. I know that there have been times—with all my children, not just my child that is on the spectrum. There have been times when some kind of animal is brought in from the outside, and I just about had heart failure: “Oh, get that thing out of here!” It freaked me out; it was my first gut reaction. Just hearing you talk about how it meant so much to you, it just makes me realize…

I have a son who bonds really well with snakes. And at first I was a little bit hesitant, but I ended up purchasing him his first snake. I made myself get over that, and now I’m glad, because I’m okay with snakes. But it took me a while; it really did. Now, how are you with snakes?

Sara Childers: I love snakes. I’m actually thinking about getting my [unknown] a snake permit soon. It’s been a thought that I have had in my mind. I got my first rattlesnake when I was six at a Girl Scout camp. The owner of the sanctuary has told me that reptiles are like potato chips—you just can’t have one. So I’ve been in that state of mind ever since I have discovered reptiles. Even though I don’t have one right now, I still go out to reptile shows and meetings. I’m just in love with them. Snakes are really awesome. And lizards and geckos and other things. Reptiles are so low-maintenence, and they have just as much personality, if not more, than dogs or cats.

Tricia Kenney: Really?

Sharon daVanport: You know, my son says that. Explain that to me. Through his eyes, I kind of understand what he means because I know him. But in general, I do have a hard time tapping into what you just said. I don’t know if it’s just a barrier that I personally have that I just grew up not seeing snakes that way, and I’ve had to force myself to get over this fear and I’ve been able to. I’ll hold his snakes and I’m fine with that now.

However, when you say that you can pick up and see into a snake’s eyes and sense that they’re feeling things, is there a way to explain that? I don’t understand that, because when I look at a snake I can’t see the same thing as when I see a dog or a cat—like, the feeling. ‘Cause I do pick up on feelings with dogs and cats, but not with snakes. That’s amazing to me.

Sara Childers: What kind of snake does your son have, out of curiosity?

Sharon daVanport: He started out with a redtail boa; he’s had a Columbian redtail and then a rainbow boa.

Sara Childers: I love those.

Sharon daVanport: And now he wants to get a ball python. He’s just going for them all. When he was younger, starting around the age of six and seven until I got him his first snake around the age of 11, he would have snakes just come right up to him. We would be taking a walk. I would never see a snake in my entire life, unless I was with him when we were taking walks. It’d just come right up to him—like, wild snakes. I’d be like: “What is going on? Every time I’m with you, I see a snake.” [Laughter] And that ends up being the animal he loves. That’s the one thing he bonds with.

Sara Childers: If he really likes snakes and reptiles that much, you may consider having him go into a herpetology career, where basically what he does all day is play with snakes. That may be something of interest to him.

Sharon daVanport: We have talked with him about that with his counselor on doing stuff like that, his therapist. Yeah. Good idea. I’m gonna keep pushing him towards that.

Tricia Kenney: Well, that just creeps me out. It’s not that I think that all snakes are evil, or anything. For me, it’s just the way that their skin feels.

Sharon daVanport: Is it really? Have you really ever touched one, though? When I first did, it wasn’t anything like I thought it would be. I thought they would be slimy, but they’re not.

Tricia Kenney: No, no.

Sara Childers: A lot of people think they’re slimy, but to me, they feel like a really fine leather purse that’s really polished. It’s just really smooth, unless you go against the grain. Then it kind of feels weird, but [unknown.]

Back to your question, Sharon. A lot of people, when they’re young their parents don’t like snakes, and they’re raised to not like these animals. I know that my grandmother hates snakes and reptiles. Even the little bearded dragon that I had who was as sweet as she could be and never bit anyone, she would hate to get anywhere near it. She taught her kids to hate these animals or dislike them. And even then, I broke that generational lineage.

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Sara Childers: It’s possibly something that you had when you were young, and you grew up with it. But if you open your mind and open your heart and say: “Hey, these snakes aren’t bloodthirsty predators, and they’re not slimy and gross,” and just give it a chance, you may fall in love with a snake and you’ll be able to pick up on whether the snake likes you or what it likes. If you spend a lot of time with an animal, you start to pick up what it [likes.]

Sharon daVanport: That’s such good advice, Sara. Thank you for sharing that, because I know as a parent…and Trish and I have talked about this just on a personal level when it comes to animals with our children, that sometimes just seeing how much they like it, even if that animal is a little bit irritating to us. Just seeing how much our child likes it means so much to us. For you sharing that from your perspective, knowing that you were allowed to engage in animals no matter whether your mother might’ve felt uncomfortableness about, she still supported you through it. That says everything right there. It’s really good.

Sara Childers: My mom’s really awesome.

Sharon daVanport: Well, we’re gonna have to talk to her and get her on, aren’t we, Tricia? I see that we’ve almost got just about five minutes left, so I wanna make sure that we get to have Sara share with us any contact information, like an e-mail that people can contact you for speaking engagements. Do you have any contact information, or do you keept that locally?

Sara Childers: I keep that low-key, but I can give you the wildlife sanctuary that I volunteered for down in south Florida. They still do that…organizations throughout the country who do that. If you wanted to contact me personally, the best way to do that would be probably through my Twitter. I’m always happy to do radio interviews with you guys, if you guys want me and if my schedule’s free.

Sharon daVanport: And I know Tricia has a radio show that she does—Embrace Autism Now—where she’ll have different guests on throughout the year with stuff like this, so yeah. We’ll have to keep this in mind, and spread the word around to the different people we know around Blogtalk. This is just a great topic.

Tricia Kenney: Like I said before, it’s such a big part of what people are starting to realize with their children, and how much they do grow and progress just by having that unconditional love that having a pet around offers. Or even going to somebody’s farm or somebody’s ranch and being around animals. It is very therapeutic, and I think more and more people are realizing that.

Sharon daVanport: Absolutely. Well, listen, Sara, I wanna thank you so much for being with us today, and sharing your story, sharing your experiences, and the bond and love you have with animals that comes so naturally. We definitely want to have you back to share this with us. Tricia and I, as we said earlier, we’d like to talk to you more about being involved over at the forum.

Sara Childers: Cool.

Sharon daVanport: We wanna be able to get more of the younger generation involved in the Autism Women’s Network. We have some directors—Savannah, Director of Advocacy and Corina, who actually does most of the moderating over at the forum. They’re in their early 20s, isn’t it, Tricia?

Tricia Kenney: Very early.

Sharon daVanport: Right. And they’re just fantastic; they’re really great leaders over at the Autism Women’s Network, and we’d really like to ge you hooked up with them, to kind of start pulling in some of the younger generation over there at the forum. That would just be fabulous. We’re so glad that you’ll be talking to us more about that. So I’ll be in touch soon, okay?

Sara Childers: Of course.

Tricia Kenney: Thank you so much; it was really nice meeting you.

Sharon daVanport: You have a wonderful swim with the dolphins, okay?

Sara Childers: Thank you.

Sharon daVanport: Okay, bye.

[Sara hangs up]

Okay, Tricia. She was just fantastic, isn’t she? Very inspirational.

Tricia Kenney: I would be having a heart attack. I know she’s used to the animals and I know that her mother is used to this. They’ve been doing this for a long time. But in my current mindst, I’d be having a heart attack.

Sharon daVanport: Well, your boys are the same age that my son was when snakes specifically just started coming up to him. They always gravitated towards him. I know you well enough, Tricia. I know you would for your boys get over it. You’d find a way.

Tricia Kenney: Oh, yeah. You do learn to overcome that, as a parent. I had to stop screaming when I saw spiders and stuff, becaue my kids would imitate that. They were picking up: “Oh, when we see insects we scream, because they’re scary.” I had to get over that, because you don’t want boys running around screaming every time they see a butterfly, so I had to get real brave. I think that’s a big lesson we learn when we have kids. It’s a growing experience for all of us.

Sharon daVanport: It is. It’s been great, everyone.

Tricia Kenney: Thanks everyone for being here today, and I’ll talk to you later, Sharon.

Sharon daVanport: All right. You too, Tricia. Bye, everyone.

Tricia Kenney: Bye.

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One Response

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  1. Adelaide Dupont said, on March 18, 2010 at 6:10 am

    All this is pretty remarkable.

    I have been aware of the dolphin-autism link for some 20 years now.

    And it’s great to hear the snake tales.


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