Stroll around San Francisco International Airport long enough and you’ll bump into LiLou, a tutu-wearing pig. But the 5-year-old pet isn’t traveling — she’s there to make your trip easier.
LiLou is one of many certified therapy animals (typically dogs) who frequent airports around the country, putting smiles on the faces of stressed passengers contending with major snowstorms, increased airline passengers and flight delays during the holiday season.
The practice is pet therapy, or “animal-assisted therapy,” which uses animals to help treat physical or mental conditions. According to UCLA Health, interacting with animals causes the joyous hormones serotonin and oxytocin to flood the brain and lowers anxiety and blood pressure.
The Juliana breed is a member of the airport’s WAG Brigade, which partners with the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA)’s Animal Assisted Therapy Program.
Before LiLou came along in 2016, the six-year-old program only featured dogs – so the pig has prestige. Her owner runs the animal’s Instagram page with the bio “City Girl/Socialite pig” depicting her pink bows and pilot hat. As stated on LiLou’s website, she is a “curvy model who knows when it is time to strike a pose” and rocks “Hoofdicures,” a manicure applied with non-toxic nail polish.
Doug Yakel, a public information officer at San Fransisco International Airport, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that after WAG Brigade animals pass the SPCA program, they’re subjected to an on-the-job exam called “familiarization” to acclimate them to the busy airport environment.
“The test is immersive — the animal and handler are taken to the gate boarding areas for a 90-minute shift,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. There, the animals are observed interacting with passengers and if they prove gentle and at ease in the stimulating environment, they’re in.
Lucky travelers can watch LiLou perform on a toy piano (and bow at the finale), twirl around and stand up on her hind hooves. But she’s not the only therapy animal passengers can come into contact with.
Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Hebron, Kentucky is “horse country” so miniature horses are found roaming the premises. Since May 2016, the airport has worked with a farm called Seven Oaks Miniature Therapy Horses in Hamilton, Ohio to include the horses who dress up as unicorns or in themed holiday costumes.
Through the Lift program, the mini horses are trained to navigate the airport and twice a month, help travelers “combat some of the stresses associated with flying,” reads the website.
“We know from external research that passenger anxiety elevates at security checkpoints between the long lines and having to remove shoes and liquids,” airport spokesperson Mindy Kershner tells Yahoo Lifestyle. That’s why horses Willie, Windy and Dakota are posed to greet passengers at the gate among other areas.
“People do a double-take when they see the horses and stop to take selfies,” says Kershner. To avoid spoiling the mood with a bathroom break, the horses are suited up with a plastic bag, which functions as a diaper. Otherwise, they relieve themselves in designated spaces.
Denver International Airport, which on Monday, housed more than 1,000 stranded passengers due to a severe snowstorm, operates an animal therapy program with more than 120 dogs — and one 12-pound cat named Xeli.
Despite the lone feline, the program is called Canine Airport Therapy Squad (CATS) and works with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and Pet Partners to ensure certification. According to airport representative Emily Williams, once a month Xeli struts around in a leash wearing a vest that reads “Pet me.”
In December 2017, the airport briefly introduced “goat yoga” classes for people to retreat from the bustling crowds. Akin to doing yoga in a barn, live goats walked around the former “Den Zen Room” amid rows of people in downward-facing dog. The goats weren’t certified therapy animals, but the interactions provided relaxation and humor to the holiday travel experience.
Although she only arrived in November, Stitches the certified therapy cat is a big hit at Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport (MSP). The tabby-calico mix, along with dog teammates ranging from a pit-bull mix to a Great Dane, and a teacup poodle, march along the airport offering stress-relief.
As the only cat, Stitches, 11, rides a modified stroller for easy access to petting. “She has a sweet, relaxed demeanor and is comfortable with up to 10 people hovering around her at once,” Laura Sartain, director of travelers assistance at MSP tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Every Friday, Stitches works at five airport stations for a two-hour shift, interacting with as many as 500 people in that timespan.
Travelers have shared with Sartain that airport animals provide immeasurable relief. “These are people who have lost a pet or a family member or have children with autism for whom the dogs helped them on their travels,” she says.
“One man put his arms around a golden retriever at the airport and sobbed,” she says. “Another said interacting with our dogs was comforting when his own was diagnosed with cancer. I’ve teared up at these moments.”
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