Learning Disability Week 2021 -The special relationship folk with PMLD may have with animals

This years Learning Disability week is about relationships and we continue to look today at  ‘family’. Many of us would consider an animal as part our family. This led us to start talking about the relationships people with pmld have with the animals around them. We asked our Vice Chair Jenny Whinnett to tell us about her son Craig and his love for animals. Jenny also talks about work being done at the moment which recognises this special relationship at a new tactile farm in development in Angus.













I wish to share with you my experience of the special relationship I have witnessed that people with PMLD can experience with animals. Over my son’s lifetime, I witnessed Craig have several wonderful moments with animals that showed how the animal appeared to understand Craig’s gentleness and lack of risk.  

When quite young we took Craig and his nephew and niece to a circus which had the last elephant in circus captivity. People were invited to go up and have a photo with the old girl! I took Craig up, not to be photographed, but for the experience of feeling her skin, and seeing her close. Standing close to her with Craig in my arms, was extremely heavy, but the easiest way for Craig to be close to the elephant. Next thing the old girl put her trunk around Craig and appeared to be helping to support him. I was really moved and stopped the ringmaster from moving her trunk. I knew she had no malice, and there was no risk. Craig appeared to be quite happy with the elephant trunk around him! 

On another occasion when we visited Brechin Castle country park, to see their new Clydesdale foal, the other youngsters in our party ran up to the fence to stroke the foal, but Craig in his wheelchair could not reach up to touch him. The foal’s mother of course was standing close, keeping a watchful eye on the situation. She slowly lowered her big head down to Craig, and I of course although nervous, gently lifted Craig’s hand so that he could gently feel her head. It was another lovely experience for him with a beautiful animal.  

Returning from Iona one year, we were queued at the ferry car park, and noticed 2 beautiful dogs on the back seat of the car next to us. The owner encouraged his dogs to get out to stretch their legs, and these 2 beautiful large elegant grey dogs stood up. They had the appearance of Irish Wolfhounds, but the indignant owner informed us they were Scottish Deerhounds. They were so gentle, and following a good conversation with the owner, I knew that breed would be a perfect companion for Craig. I spent several months learning about them and trying to locate a breeder. At last, I found a gentleman farmer in Moffatt who had a litter and could give me a female puppy. I duly went down with Craig and my foster child to pick up the puppy and get information from the breeder. He was delighted that his puppy was going to support Craig, and the 2 bonded right away! Nevar proved to be a beautiful dog, full of character, and so gentle. She also had the advantage of being Wheelchair height!  

I love Raptors (Birds of Prey) and enjoy any occasion to see them in action, whether in the wild, or at shows. Craig also shared this enjoyment which was evident when I bought a Birds of Prey Experience for him for his birthday. He was fascinated to have large birds of pray sitting on his gloved hand on his wheelchair table, and beautiful owls. He giggling when the owls were turning their heads right round. He was so happy to feel their feathers and displayed no fear or concerns. What a special day for all at that event! 

Because of my experience with Craig and his genuine love of animals, I was delighted when my PAMIS colleague spoke about the proposed Angus farm. The owners want to create a place for people with PMLD and their families and carers to visit and experience the farm animals and all the senses that go with a farm visit. I knew how much it could enrich the lives of folk and enable families to share experiences together. 

Future development of a new tactile farm experience  

Recently I took Liam (a young adult) who I care for under Shared Lives, along to a local farm to consider, with my PAMIS colleague, how accessible the farm was for a wheelchair user. While there we chatted about the ideas the farm owners had to make it the best experience it could be and create a meaningful “Farm Experience” for people with PMLD. Liam really enjoyed meeting the donkeys and seeing the beautiful horses. He enjoyed being shown the cattle, and I think all the prospects of future carriage rides, a sensory garden, animals and the opportunity to enjoy a sensory story and crafts during a day visit will be a wonderful experience for him and his peers. The farming family are working extremely hard to create a fully inclusive experience for any visitor to the farm. Importantly, personal care needs will also be met during a visit to the farm. The open day to be held later this month will have use of the Pamiloo, and a Changing Places Loo is also being envisioned for the future. The day will give family carers the opportunity to help contribute to what they would most like to see offered at this new farm venture. Ideas already considered and feedback from those who visit and take part in the consultation event will help ensure that the farm can move forward knowing that the wishes and hopes of a meaningful activity can be developed further and meet the needs of everyone.