Vet tech gives back healing to animals, abused kids

February 6, 2006 By Barbara Wolff

No one doubts anymore the therapeutic power of a purr or a whinny, or of a cold wet nose.

The role of animals in assisting the healing of physically or emotionally traumatized humans has entered the canon of medical science.

Photo of Toni Schriver sitting on the couch at home with her three pets; a dog, a cat and a parrot.

Veterinary technician Toni Schriver hangs out at home with her pets, Roxy, a German shepherd-rottweiler mix; Mousy, a domestic long-haired cat; and Phoenix, an eclectus parrot. Schriver is the founder of PAWWS to Heal (Passionate Animals Working With Survivors), a nonprofit organization that uses animal therapy to help abused and physically disabled children learn appropriate behavior and boundaries. Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart

Its arrival there has been long overdue, says Toni Schriver, a certified large animal veterinary technician at the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Large Animal Hospital. She acts as a nurse in internal medicine to the animal patients, assisting in treatments and procedures such as endoscopies and radiology.

She also is a survivor of a decade of sexual abuse when she was young.

“My saving grace back then were the family pets,” she says. “We had horses, dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, hamsters and gerbils. I found my safety, patience, support and unconditional love from them.”

Schriver’s story begins in Madison in the 1960s. “I truly lost my innocence at a very young age. I struggled with fear, anger, lack of trust and deception as I grew up. When I reached my teens I was very destructive, using drinking and drugs to help hide the pain I was dealing with,” she says.

As an adult, Schriver learned to ease that pain by trying to help others. For example, her job as a school bus driver, which she got in 1980, gave her responsibility for the safety of abused and neglected children as they traveled to and from school. She also started doing volunteer work at a safe house for abused children.

In 1986 Schriver enrolled in the Animal Health Technician Program at Madison Area Technical College. After graduation she worked at zoos in Oregon, Texas, Maryland and California.

“This job allows me to give the healing back to animals,” she says. Indeed, the sentiment reverberates in her every time she draws blood or takes the vitals of a patient in the Large Animal Hospital, she says.

Nonetheless, and not surprisingly, Schriver’s early trauma continues to haunt her. “It bothers me tremendously whenever I hear about a child being molested, raped or murdered,” she says. “I wanted so much to use my knowledge and experience to bring children and animals together.”

Schriver knew that the ugly childhood memories would gnaw at her until she took direct action to help others in recovery from trauma. In 2004 she founded PAWWS — Passionate Animals Working With Survivors — to Heal, a nonprofit animal-assisted therapy organization for abused and physically disabled children.

The sudden death of Schriver’s brother-in-law left her sister back in Madison a single mother of two teenagers. So Schriver moved back to her hometown in September and brought PAWWS with her.

“The way the organization works is, a therapist tells us the goals of each particular child. We then select an animal or animals that we think will best help us achieve those goals,” she says.

At present, insurance costs are delaying PAWWS-Madison from seeing clients here. “The policy from California doesn’t cover us in Wisconsin, and insurance for a year is about $3,000. I’m working on funding to have insurance in place very soon,” she says.

When the insurance is settled, clients will be able to work interactively with Roxy, the shepherd-cross dog (who was hit by a bus in Oceanside, Calif., but is now a novice agility contender after Schriver’s intervention); Mousy, the 18-year-old cat (who had himself suffered abuse as a kitten); and Phoenix, the parrot (“…who has amazing speaking ability,” Schriver says).

Photo of Schriver's pets lounging on the couch: Mousy the cat, Roxy the dog, and Phoenix the parrot.

Mousy and Roxy lounge at veterinary technician Toni Schriver’s house. Schriver is working on raising funds so the Madison chapter of PAWWS can begin taking clients.

Eventually, Schriver and an animal and human volunteer team will provide therapies for individuals, families or groups. “We focus 100 percent on providing emotional and mental health treatment,” she says. Her five-year plan includes an on-site ranch facility.

“That way we could have more animals available and an on-site therapist,” she says. “Children wouldn’t be limited to coming to the ranch for therapy — they could just come for a ‘ranch day’ and feed, groom or just hang out with the animals.

“This is so important to me. I would like to make a positive change in a child’s life so that child doesn’t have to struggle with a tragedy for many years,” she says. “Through animals, emotionally or physically traumatized children can develop trust, patience and a sense of safety, support and security so they can grow up to make good choices in life.”

Visit the PAWWS Web site for more information about PAWWS to Heal, volunteer work, or making a contribution.