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Mentis Napa’s newest “staff member” has a freckled snout, loves Cheerios and can twirl on demand.
“He has the sweetest little face, and he’s very friendly,” said Mentis employee Mackenzie Lovie, about her new colleague.
“He” is Obi — a 1-year old therapy pig that recently joined the animal-assisted therapy program at the Napa nonprofit.
Animal-assisted psychotherapy utilizes a trained animal to help a client work toward their goals in therapy, Lovie explained.
Mentis has offered types of animal-assisted therapy in the past, but this is the first time a pig has joined the team.
Lovie said that the first time she saw Obi, a miniature pig, she knew he was “something special.”
“We met him, and we fell in love with him.”
Obi — a metaphor in Nigeria for “heart” — connected with Lovie thanks to Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch in the Carneros region.
In that first encounter, “I looked into his eyes,” and thought “you have that thing that makes people happy,” Lovie recalled.
The timing was perfect. Lovie, who is a licensed clinical social worker and a housing manager at Mentis, is currently studying to become a certified animal-assisted psychotherapist.
She’s also no stranger to animals. Lovie spent years in 4-H, raising everything from pygmy goats to rabbits. She later adopted Pandora, her yellow lab guide dog, who is now 16.
“My clients have loved my therapy dog Pandora,” said Lovie. “She’s brought a lot of value to everything.”
Mentis Executive Director Rob Weiss embraced the Obi-idea.
“Animal-assisted therapy has been proven to be an effective way to engage our clients in mental health treatment while building trust in a fun and supportive way,” said Weiss.
Of course, there are limitations sometimes to what can be accomplished through traditional talk therapy, and animal-assisted therapy “is a way of helping people of all ages address issues that can be hard to talk about,” he said. “Additionally, animals reach us in ways that people can’t.”
Monica Stevens from Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch said she’s quite proud that Obi is helping others.
“The power of healing that an animal can bring to a human — it’s magical,” said Stevens.
This is also a good example that shows that pigs can be more than food, she pointed out. “It’s the power of a pig.”
Obi recently started making public appearances around Napa Valley. For one of his first outings, he and Lovie, along with representatives from Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch, visited a third-grade class at Napa’s Bel Aire school.
“It was a huge success,” said Lovie. “He loved them, they loved him.” Wearing his harness and leash, Obi “walked right into the classroom,” like he was in hog heaven.
“I know he made a lot of third-graders really happy and had a day they will not forget,” said Lovie.
She plans to introduce Obi at other schools and gatherings, as well as taking him to meet her clients at their homes.
It’s important to be creative about what it means to “do therapy,” she said. “It’s not just sitting in an office lying on the couch.” Obi can become a part of role-playing interactions, act as a buffer during therapy, encourage outdoor time, or help to reduce stress by being touched, or even watched.
“One thing that I hope people get is how emotional and smart he is,” she said.
Lovie officially adopted Obi, but because she lives in downtown Napa, Obi doesn’t stay with her. Two other experienced guardians care for Obi. His accommodations include a well-appointed pen and yard, including personal wading pool. Lovie and Obi see each other quite regularly.
Obi, who weighs about 80 pounds, eats a balanced diet of pig pellets and fruits and vegetables. Another favorite?
Cheerios, said Lovie. “It’s a special treat.”