Guinea pigs, rabbits, and birds, oh my!

New grant creates a foster pet home at Martha’s Vineyard’s Center for Living.


The Supportive Day Program at the Vineyard’s Center for Living offers a long list of activities: exercise, art, music, yoga, drama, discussions, current events, games, special presentations by local artists, companionship, and a snack and family-style lunch.

New to that rich list of activities is animals. The Supportive Day Program is now a Foster Pet Home, thanks to an Innovation Grant award from the I’m Still Here Foundation. The foundation is dedicated to helping persons living with dementia to flourish by supporting nonpharmacological engagement programs.

The purpose of the I’m Still Here Foster Pet Home is twofold, according to Mary Holmes, Supportive Day Program supervisor: first, to enhance the mood of clients; and second, to create a sense of purpose by caring for the animals.

The enhanced mood part was apparent when The Times visited. Bird song and peals of laughter rang out as we entered the Center for Living building on Breakdown Lane in Vineyard Haven. In the community room, we discovered the source of the happy sounds. Over a dozen clients and staff of the Supportive Day Program circle a large cage containing seven parakeets. Guinea pigs wrapped in little plush beds are being passed around the circle, creating smiles every time they land on someone’s lap. A rabbit is held by Litchmore Hall before being placed in a playpen on the floor to enjoy a carrot.

Watching the antics in the birdcage kicks off a conversation among clients: “Drama, there’s always drama in the birdcage,” volunteers one client as they watch birds kiss and groom each other. Another describes the activity as “necking.”

Supportive Day Care staffer Katie Viera leads a conversation about the animals, starting with the effects of bird song: “Studies show bird song raises levels of serotonin, the body’s feel-good chemical.” No wonder there was so much laughter in the room. How to tell the gender of parakeets? “Color,” Viera explained. “Males get the bright colors, the blues, the pinks; females get the less bright colors, the dull browns, the beiges.” Why is the rabbit digging? “Looks like he’s nervous, trying to escape some perceived danger, so we’ll put a little hut over him.” Once hidden under the portable hut, the rabbit calmed down and stopped digging. Good animal vibes, Viera concludes: “We love them and they love us.”

“When clients interact with our pet sanctuary, we see positive changes in their mood and in their health,” explains Holmes. “We look at the benefit of pet therapy by tracking the clients’ responses and interactions with the animals to research this as a valid intervention for clients’ restlessness and agitation.”

The program started with two guinea pigs, Happy and Harmony, according to Holmes. “Next we expanded with Stanley the rabbit and seven parakeets, acquired in cooperation with Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard. The parakeets were named through ranked-choice voting, after our favorite Island places. We would like to welcome more pets into our foster pet home.”

Caring creates purpose

Tending the animals creates a sense of purpose, formalizing the daily tasks of feeding and watering, and socializing with the animals, according to Holmes. “Monday is the Big Clean, the day we give the cages a good going-over and provide fresh hay. Everyone gets involved with the animals in some way. We see this program as a sanctuary for animals and clients.”

Just as the Center for Living would welcome more pets into their foster pet home, they welcome more human visitors. “The I’m Still Here Foster Pet Home is designed to attract intergenerational participation by bringing preschool, elementary school, and community members into our program,” explains Holmes. “The I’m Still Here Foster Pet Home creates an innovative way for the community to engage with us and the work we do.”

Open House at the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living happens every Friday morning from 11 am to noon. It’s a time to sample their programs, including Island musicians, special guests, and other activities, including the I’m Still Here Foster Pet Home. All are invited.