Anna Lashbrook brings some of her Isa Brown hens to the local nursing home as part of an animal therapy process.
Anna Lashbrook brings some of her Isa Brown hens to the local nursing home as part of an animal therapy process. Andy Rogers

Cackle visit for good health

DOGS have long been used for human therapy, from helping autistic children to leading the blind.

Horses, too, are known for their therapeutic benefits (think Riding for the Disabled).

There's also swimming with dolphins, while cat owners will swear about the healing qualities of their moggies.

Chooks, though, have never really been considered to possess any kind of curative ability, outside the health benefits of an egg.

Until, that is, Anna Lashbrook and her Isa Browns came along.

Anna, a registered nurse who runs Cackleberries by Lashbrook egg farm at Old Junee in the NSW Riverina, is determined to change the world, one chook at a time.

For nearly two years the mother of three has been taking about six chooks - out of her brood of 550 - on visits to the local nursing home every few weeks.

"It's a bit mad, isn't it?” laughs the bubbly 31-year-old.

"I got the idea after I saw a TV program where a clydesdale was taken into a nursing home and I thought 'if they can take a horse, why can't I take a chook?'. It felt like a good thing to do.”

Transporting the chooks in an adapted cat carry box, Anna releases the brood to roam in the gardens of Cooinda Assisted Living, to the clear delight of about 20 residents.

"There's always a lot of laughter, photos, the chooks spark conversations, a lot of reminiscing,” says Anna, who adds that she only knows of one other similar chook therapy program in NSW.

"The residents really love it.

"One woman takes a chicken on her walker and takes it to the residents who don't come outside their rooms and to the nursing station.

"There's a lot of people in nursing homes who don't have family around so this is one way to make a link, a relationship to the community, so they continue to be a part of the world.

"I spoke to one recreational therapist who said that - especially for regional elderly people - chooks would have been part of their life and even if they have dementia the early memories will be there.

"It takes them back and relaxes them.”

Anna is clearly a good egg herself, having initially volunteered through a government-run community program at the nursing home before introducing her chooks.

For about a decade, Anna was a nurse at Wagga Wagga Base Hospital (now working casual shifts), buying 4ha in 2010 with her husband, Bryson - an environmental consultant - after they wanted a lifestyle property.

The couple added the chooks when friends needed eggs for their cafe, and now Anna sells about 40 dozen "bumbusters” and "big cluckers” around the district.

Chicks are bought in as one-day-olds and kept for 18 months before being rehomed to backyard chook lovers.

So successful has the chook therapy been, Anna is in talks with juvenile detention and correctional centres to take chooks to inmates, while Wagga Wagga preschools and primary schools are also benefiting from the fowl treatment.

"We've had plenty of interest from nursing homes in other regions also,” Anna says.

"If you can connect with and feel empathy for an animal, that translates through to people. It's about having respect for and responsibility for another life, understanding the life cycle.”

Anna and Bryson are also part of a NSW Department of Primary Industries trial project called Visit My Farm, launched this year, which is a platform for farmers to open their farms to visitors, to connect with the community.

Cackleberries at Lashbrook Farm plans to open next month as part of the trial.

"Traditionally farming is a big, broadacre investment but there are a lot of people farming on a different scale and we want to show that can be just as rewarding, especially for the younger generation,” Anna says.

"The chooks also teach children, learning their eggs come from a chook and not a supermarket.”

Anna says she is a strong believer in giving back to the community and being a role model for her children.

There is a growing need for connection in communities, away from technology, and chooks, she says, are the perfect link.

"Our family has an ability to do this and there's a need for it,” she says.

"Everyone is busy and at the end of the day time is the most precious thing you can give to anyone. I think chooks are a laugh a minute. You can't control them, or teach them to sit or do what you want. There's just a pleasure in watching these funny little creatures.”



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