SILVERDALE, Wash. – As every kid who grew up with a dog knows, there’s no one better to come home to after a bad day than your trusty companion. After all, animals don’t judge.
Spurred by this philosophy, Silverdale resident Drea Bowen opened the nonprofit One Heart Wild Education Sanctuary in 2015 with the hope of bringing healing to anyone who has experienced trauma or stress. And by anyone, she means anyone – human and nonhuman alike.
Unlike some traditional animal-assisted therapy programs, where animals are used to help humans struggling with trauma, the animals at One Heart Wild don’t have to work with human clients if they don’t want to, Bowen said.
“What we’ve evolved to be since 2010 when I started to do this work is to be less human-centric and more relational-centric,” Bowen said.
Bowen’s work is informed by trans-species psychology, a branch of science that argues that animals experience the same emotions and have the same capacity for connection as humans do. People who have experienced severe trauma, have post-traumatic stress disorder, suffer from mental illness or are just stressed find comfort in the myriad different animals at the sanctuary, Bowen said, because horses, goats and chickens don’t judge. Rather, they use body language to evaluate whether someone is “connectable.”
For example, Bowen said, if a horse senses that someone is stressed or uptight, it won’t approach. Bowen, who is a certified health and life coach, might ask a client to take a personal inventory and find out where that stress is coming from. Take a deep breath. Relax their shoulders.
“The thing that happens that helps people make shifts is that the horses respond immediately,” Bowen said.
On the other side, animals suffer from the effects of abuse and trauma in a similar way. Connecting with human clients can help alleviate some of their stress.
“Their healing path is no different than a human’s healing path – they have to be in a safe place, and we have to be trustworthy and we have to show up and be available for connection,” Bowen said.
Before opening the sanctuary, Bowen was in business administration for 25 years. After she “hit the wall and burned out,” she said she knew she wanted to do something with horses and began to look into equine therapy. Her hope is that those who need help – animals and humans – can become comfortable with one another and overcome their fears.
“It’s a place for people to explore ‘What does it feel like to let my guard down and be open to connection?’ ” Bowen said.
Pamela Laeger, of Bainbridge Island, Washington, started going to the sanctuary after “things came to a head” in her life last year. Laeger said she had been abused and neglected as a child, and her therapist referred her to One Heart Wild. As a lifelong animal lover, it turned out to be a good decision.
“Right from the beginning I was comfortable, and I knew that it was a place that was going to be a sanctuary for me as well as a sanctuary for the animals,” Laeger said.
The experience is different for every client and doesn’t take the form of a traditional therapy session, Laeger said. For her, speaking with Brenda Newell (a member of the One Heart Wild board of directors and social worker) and petting the horses is enough. Her daughter prefers to take horses into the arena and train with them.
“I think that’s what is so great about it, though, there’s just so many different ways that you can go about this kind of work,” Laeger said. “You’re not sitting on a couch sitting face-to-face with a therapist.”
Outside of therapy, Bowen also runs classes for elementary school students and teens focused on empathy. Students read books about human-animal interaction and cap it off with a field trip to the sanctuary. Volunteers from Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard come out frequently to work with the animals.
“They love it,” Bowen said.
“I want people to understand, it’s not just this woo-woo out there, fringy thing, it’s the science of who we are biologically and who we are as social animals,” Bowen said. “That’s why connecting with another social animal is impactful.”