Where Children Discover the Healing Power of Animals

In this sanctuary, at-risk kids begin to understand the parallels between their lives and the lives of injured wild animals.

A senior member of Wildmind’s education team with a serval named Savannah.

Photo by Wildmind

Luna, a small great horned owl, was just learning to fly when she flew into the road and hit somebody’s car on their way to work. The person pulled over, wrapped Luna’s injured little body in a jacket, and rushed her to a wildlife center to save her life. Although she lost an eye, Luna survived the accident.

Today, Luna is a “wild teacher” at Wildmind, a sanctuary for more than 50 nonreleasable wild animals in Half Moon Bay, California. She helps heal and inspire children and young adults who visit the sanctuary to participate in its At-Risk Youth Program, which works with homeless, foster, and juvenile detention center youth in the Bay Area.

One of those youths was Cory Dodge, who left home in Ohio at age 18 to “find himself” and travel the country. He ended up in San Francisco, on the verge of homelessness, 2,400 miles away from his friends and family.

Dodge connected with a social services organization, Larkin Street Youth Services. That group in turn steered him into Wildmind’s At-Risk Youth Program.

"When they come out here, the goal is to help them see those connections and understand the parallels between their lives and the animals’ lives."

Being at the sanctuary reminded him of his small, rural hometown. The environment allowed him to bond with his peers at Larkin Street, he says.

“A lot of times we don’t get to just sit and absorb the energy of the environment around us,” Dodge says. At Wildmind, “you get to stop everything you’re doing, put everything on pause, enjoy the moment, and take everything in,” he says.

“Everyone who comes to us has a different backstory,” says Michele Durant, the programs and wildlife manager at Wildmind, “but the one thing they all have in common is that they’ve lost their way or don’t see that they have a place in the big picture of things.”

“When they come out here, the goal is to help them see those connections and understand the parallels between their lives and the animals’ lives,” she says.

Like many of the young people who visit Wildmind, the animals who live there have been separated from their families or forced to relocate, they’ve been hurt, and they’ve had to learn to trust new people.

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Durant says that the stories of the animals and the traumatic things that happened to them before they came to Wildmind resonate with the youth at the program. She says that because the animals “lived through them and found another purpose, the kids begin to understand that that applies to [their lives], too.”

“We don’t tell them, ‘This is what you’re supposed to learn about these animals.’ We tell the animals’ stories, and these kids come up with these connections and aha moments on their own.”

Larkin Street Youth Services is one of 10 social service organizations that participate in the At-Risk Youth Program, providing thousands of homeless youth in the Bay Area with housing, education, health, and employment services.

“Many of [the kids] have experienced abuse, trauma, neglect, or family disruptions at some point in their lives, or feeling disconnected from their community … which is usually what leads them to be in our services in the first place,” says Natalie Porter, program manager at the nonprofit. “[Wildmind] creates a space [for us] to have conversations on a deeper level that we don’t normally have in our lives.”

Luna, a great horned owl, was blinded in one eye in a collision with a truck when she was just a fledgling. Photo by Wildmind.

Being surrounded by the quiet stillness of nature—a contrast to the bustling streets of San Francisco—brings out a different side of people, Porter says. Whether it’s someone who’s usually defiant in the group suddenly taking on a leadership role, or someone who’s usually quiet suddenly becoming talkative and animated, the sanctuary is a place where beautiful transformations can occur.

"There are days where we never get past sitting around the fire because all of the kids are in tears, supporting each other as they’re telling their stories."

“When you see someone every day in a certain context, and you take them out of that context and put them in this place where they’re safe and invited to express different sides of themselves and respond to a different environment, then you see people in a different light,” Porter says. “It gives our students a chance to open up if they choose to, and to take a step back from the immediacy of everyday life.”

Although the lessons and activities for the program vary depending on which group is visiting, during every visit to Wildmind the kids participate in a “friendship fire,” where they work together to build a campfire, then huddle around it and share stories.

“There are days where we never get past sitting around the fire because all of the kids are in tears, supporting each other as they’re telling their stories,” Durant says.

“Their parents are incarcerated, they’re living in a car, they don’t eat except for what they’re provided at school that day—all these things no one was aware that these kids were burdened with, they get to come here and they can share if they want.”

At 12 inches tall and weighing 1 1/2 pounds, Luna is smaller than the average great horned owl. However, in one night she kills up to five mice, which adds up to around 35 mice a week, 140 a month, and more than 1,000 in a year. Each of those mice can produce hundreds of offspring. Though she may not look like she can do much, her impact on the environment is huge.

“Just like Luna who no longer lives where she’s supposed to live but still has an important job, these kids no longer live where they used to live but they still have an important job,” Durant says. “And they’re still part of a bigger community and they still have a future and a second chance.”