Super, furry animals

10th August 2007 at 01:00
The healing properties of having a pet to look after are well known. Emma Seith finds out more on a trip to Gorgie City Farm

TINA MURRAY had always been shy, but as she progressed through secondary school things got steadily worse until she became reluctant to speak at all. When she did speak, she stuttered, so she spoke even less.

Social situations easily overwhelmed her, often making her physically sick. Groups of more than three people were too much, even if she knew them.

School, therefore, was a nightmare and when she turned 15 she refused to return, only going back to sit her Standard grade exams.

In place of school, Tina attended the Royal Edinburgh Hospital's young people's unit where she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder. She was a patient at the hospital for around four years but made little progress. Then, in 2003, she was referred to Gorgie City Farm. She hasn't looked back.

"I never changed until I came here and then, slowly but surely, I started to stand on my own two feet instead of depending on other people," she says, without a hint of shyness or even a stutter.

Tina was one of the first youngsters to take part in the farm's Out of Bounds project for socially excluded young people, which started five years ago. The farm opened as a community project in 1982 on the site of an old dump.

Out of Bounds has 17 youngsters on its books. Like Tina, some have been referred by the hospital, others are introduced to the programme by teachers and social workers. There are those with learning difficulties, or behaviour problems, who suffer from anxiety, or who self-harm. One girl has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair.

Generally, youngsters join the project when they're in their early teens, but when they leave is up to them. Many stay for years Tina is 23.

"It's the animals that draw them here, but it's not just about learning how to look after a guinea pig," says Jenny Foulkes, project manager.

Rather, it's about becoming independent, more confident and developing skills for work, she explains.

Annmarie McGee is an occupational therapist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. She has referred youngsters to the project and feels it has the power to bring the withdrawn ones out of themselves and allows them to have some fun while learning new skills such as problem-solving.

Recruits work one-to-one with Ms Foulkes or Steve Boyd, assistant project manager, who put them through a month's induction training before sending them off to work independently.

"They often relate better to the animals than to people," says Ms Foulkes. "They know the animal isn't going to make them feel bad about themselves. And, for us, the animals give you common ground, something to talk about. They're a real tool that you can use to talk to young people."

Tina began by mucking out the animals. Gradually, she moved on to assisting during "cuddle corners" animal handling sessions run at the farm and eventually started to run them herself.

Now she looks after the farm's mobile pets unit, transporting her cargo of rabbits, guinea pigs and rats to nursing homes and nursery schools, to introduce residents and children to the animals.

Meanwhile, another youngster from the Out of Bounds project runs the boarding lodge, where pets come to stay while their owners are on holiday, taking bookings and sending customers their bills. And someone else manages the re homing service, designing and printing off adverts for pets that need new homes.

"It's about picking out their skills and finding the job that's right for them," says Ms Foulkes.

The mobile pets service seems to be the right job for Tina who now hopes to become a bus driver. After we meet, she is off for her last medical before beginning her 10-day training. Her experience driving the farm's van proved invaluable during the initial driving tests, she says not to mention the confidence she has gained since arriving at the project, which helped her through the interview.

Even when she's in full-time employment, however, you get the impression Tina will re- main a familiar face around Gorgie City Farm.

"I'm rather attached," she says. "It's been a saviour."

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