Pet therapy with a twist: Capybara, kinkajou and owls soothe stressed students

We’ve all heard about pet therapy — bringing a gentle Labrador or friendly golden retriever into a school, hospital or nursing home to provide relaxation to people who are stressed out or lonely.

But what if you replaced that dog with a 100-pound giant rodent?

It’s called “exotic pet therapy.”

Instead of a friendly cat or canine, you can spend a relaxing afternoon with a chill capybara, owl, skink, kinkajou, a fancy chicken, or even a skunk.

Students at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ont. are able to get up close with animals like this sugar glider. The Toronto-based animal shelter specializes in caring for exotic animals, the majority of them who started out as pets in private homes but couldn’t be cared for. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Exotic creatures a ‘stress buster’ 

“It’s a stress buster,” said Seth Falk, owner of the Toronto-based business Hands On Exotics. 

A group of students at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ont. crowds around Falk to get a look at Ruby the eagle owl, who sits calmly on his arm.

“We’re going to teach the students some cool facts about them,” Falk added.

Seth Falk from Hands on Exotics with an eagle owl named Ruby. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Capybara is a hit

Hands On Exotics travels to schools, seniors homes and hospitals — and bring everything from birds to lizards to mammals and insects.

Cambrian College invites him and his unique creatures to campus every few months.

“One of our other special animals is Willow the capybara,” Falk said, as the giant rodent trotted around the room taking pieces of lettuce and cantaloupe from students’ hands.

Willow looks like a hamster but is as big as a medium-sized dog.

“She’s basically world famous.” 

Willow the capybara is very easy-going. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Listen to the interview on Up North

Different people connect with different animals

Falk says the exotic creatures offer something different for stressed-out students that a regular therapy dog can’t.

“Different types of animals connect with different types of people,” he said.

Second-year student Aireal Mackenzie says she never expected to meet a silkie chicken or a scorpion on her campus.

“It’s a calming thing. You get to take yourself away from everything and focus on something you might never come into contact with again, and you just take that experience with you,” she said.

Reptiles like this skink are great creatures for people who want some animal therapy but have allergies, says Hands on Exotics owner Seth Falk. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

‘Wow, these things really exist’

Self-professed workaholic Kenneth Greene is in his third year at school. Engrossed in his work, his professor convinced him to check out the animals.

“It’s something different,” Greene said.

“It’s not something you see everyday. You go around and you see dogs and cats every day. This is a shock to the system where it’s like, ‘wow, these things really exist.’ And it’s so different.”

Greene says the exotic animal therapy session brightened his day.

“I want to take them home. But who doesn’t.”

A kinkajou enjoys a grape snack while a Cambrian student snaps photos. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

A student pets a skunk from Hands on Exotics at Cambrian College in Sudbury. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)