Does animal therapy work? I sought therapy from a giraffe to find out

As a long black tongue extended downwards to take a piece of chopped lettuce from my hand, I was transfixed. 

It’s not often you get the opportunity to be up close and personal with a giraffe. And as I stood there, inches away from the beautiful animal, I was grounded in the present moment, completely focused on the task at hand – getting slurped. 

Thoroughly enjoying my wild lunch date, I was at Port Lympne Safari Park and Wildlife Reserve in Kent, who offer several experiences like the Giraffe Safari (£90, suitable for all ages), allowing the public to safely – for both them and the animals – to spend time in the presence of some of nature’s most incredible creatures. 

Working in partnership with The Aspinall Foundation, a UK charity devoted to the conservation of endangered species, Port Lympne is home to lions, tigers, bears and more, aiming to return as many of their animals as they can back to protected areas in the wild.

It’s a special place for all the family, and made even more so by encounters like my giraffe meet, experiences more popular than ever thanks to the rise of animal therapy. 

It’s a simple idea: humans spending time in the presence of animals as a way to boost mental health. Interacting with animals – be it being close to them, stroking them, or in some cases, even embracing them, has been shown to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure and reduce loneliness to boot. 

“Oxytocin (or the ‘bonding hormone’) rises when you stroke an animal, and that can contribute to overall feelings of positivity and happiness,” says psychologist Dr Audrey Tang. 

“Therefore, being in the presence of animals is very powerful. But even watching videos of them has benefits too as they can make us laugh, and laughter can create a pain relieving effect. Some people ground themselves within a stressful situation by watching videos of rabbits eating too.

“And, recently it was suggested that the ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian) response, the deep relaxation and pleasant scalp and neck tingling some people feel in response to certain sounds, may occur as a result of listening to animals nibbling.” 

As a busy (and often somewhat frazzled) mum of one, with another sprog on the way, I’d certainly been intrigued. Would a touch of animal magic be the stress relief I was looking for? 

In short, yes. 

Indeed, once in the presence of my giraffe friends, it was hard to argue with how I felt: totally immersed in the present moment, and completely in awe.

A sense of wonder is a wonderful thing. Psychologist Dr Jonathan Rhodes says: “A sense of awe and insignificance means that, while worries don’t fade away, for a moment they seem smaller.”

And they really did. As I fed Gary the giraffe his lettuce I forgot about my looming work deadlines and house renovation woes back home. 

This feeling was compounded later that day too when it was time to meet more of Port Lympne’s residents, trying out the Baboon Scatter Feed (£15, suitable for all ages). Launching peanuts into their enclosure, watching their human-like hands pick them up, and hearing the noise of them munching and crunching was as relaxing as any spa I’d been to. 

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