NEW PORT RICHEY — Every morning after breakfast, Barbara Long walks toward an enclosure outside Forest Glen Lodge carrying a bag of rolls on her walker. Mama Llama, Moo Cow and the dozen or so other grazing animals crowd near the wire fence as she approaches.
Long, 80, holds out bits of bread through the fence and calls out each animal's name.
"Chickie! Come here Chickie!" Long calls to a small chicken seated several feet away. A lively pig named Oinky jumps up and snatches the bread from her hand.
Long, a resident of Forest Glen Lodge, looks back and smiles.
"I talk to the animals, but they don't talk to me," she said. "I'm not Dr. Doolittle and Mrs. Doolittle."
Forest Glen Lodge at 7435 Plathe Road is home to 52 residents — and a small menagerie featuring four goats, three horses, a cow, a pig, a llama and various chickens and ducks that roam freely, plus seven dogs and three cats. They are an integral part of daily life for many residents, providing a kind of "pet therapy."
"They bring a lot of joy to the people here," said one resident, Eileen Jessey. "I enjoy them a lot when I get close enough to them."
Studies show that interacting with animals can ease the feelings of loneliness and stress for residents of long-term care facilities. Playing with pets can also help reduce the symptoms of physical ailments, such as high blood pressure.
The curator is Forest Glen's owner and administrator, Marge Coffey. Coffey moved to Florida from her native England in 1981, and has run assisted living facilities ever since.
At 69, the red-haired Coffey spends most of her day bustling through the hallways of the building and on the grounds. With the help of a small staff of groundskeepers, Coffey feeds and washes the animals and makes sure they stay healthy.
She purchased Forest Glen in June 2006. The goats, miniature cattle and other animals grazing in the enclosure were here when she arrived. She suspects the previous owners used them for pet therapy, too.
Coffey brought with her a family of toy dogs, which she named after British royals: Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Prince Harry, Prince William and Princess Fergie, as well as Diana's mother, Tessa.
The small, shaggy-haired dogs, of the Cavalier King Charles breed, live in a wire-rimmed house a few feet from the dining room windows. Coffey chose the dogs for their friendliness and calm demeanor. During Bingo games, one dog sits on the tables while the residents play. And at night, one dog sometimes sleeps on the same bed as a resident.
Coffey realized the effect pet therapy could have after a tragedy in her own life. Two months before she purchased Forest Glen Lodge, her elder son drowned.
In May of that year, she purchased the first two Cavalier King Charleses. She credits the puppies for cheering her up and helping take her mind off the death.
"They were marvelous therapy," Coffey said. "And then I realized how good they'd be for the residents."
Nomaan Merchant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6244.