Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Guido the Therapy Cat of San Francisco

Therapy dogs are popular and I encounter them all the time in the city, but cats that perform therapy are fairly unique. So, when I had a chance to see an Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) cat in action, I seized the opportunity. And I can tell you one thing—this feline walks the walk and meows the talk when it comes to therapy. His name is Guido and he definitely has a connection to human beings that is real and he knows it.

Guido is owned by Judi Basolo, a commercial real estate sales and leasing agent in the city. She’s his handler, his agent, his media liaison and a full-time manager for this special cat as he performs therapy work throughout the Bay Area.

How did Basolo adopt this four-year-old cat or was it the other way around? “Guido obtained me in 2006,” Basolo said. “I went to Maddie’s SF SPCA to find Guido! That day at Maddie’s in the midst of kitten season, I was surrounded by hundreds of kittens, and this striped little cat stuck his paw consistently out of the cage, like ‘Hey look at me over here!’ The rest is history!”

When did Basolo first recognize Guido’s innate ability to help humans? “A dear friend that lives in Pacific Heights told me she was feeling seriously ill,” she said. “She stopped leaving the house and was not feeling her normal self. So I tossed Guido into his kitty backpack for the first time ever! When we got to her house, she didn’t look good at all and I was ready to take her to the hospital.”

Suddenly Guido jumped out of his backpack and surprised the sick woman on the bed, Basolo said. “Suddenly my ill friend came to life and Guido accompanied her for breakfast that morning and at that moment, I realized there was something for Guido’s future. Guido was roaming around her apartment as if he was on the job. I saw his attitude change almost instantly and I knew right then therapy was going to be his career.”

Once Basolo recognized that Guido could provide significant therapy to people who needed it, she took further steps to introduce her special cat to the world. “A few weeks after that miraculous visit, I talked to the great people at Animal Assisted Therapy and found the San Francisco SPCA’s program, which is run by the wonderful Dr. Jennifer Emmert. Guido had to go through a battery of tests and I learned that only particular pets perform well in AAT work. Guido passed the test and we were official and ready to provide therapy.”

Guido’s paws hit the ground running and pretty soon the accolades and awards started coming his way. A major highlight in Guido’s therapy career took place in 2008, when Guido was honored at Herbst Theatre with The Purring Cat award by Pets Unlimited for his work in Animal Assisted Therapy!

It was a big night for Guido and his owner in more ways than one, Basolo said. “At the reception after the award ceremony, a woman came up to me and said ‘Your cat has inspired me to get my Labrador into Animal Assisted Therapy.’ Well, it’s amazing that a little cat could inspire a dog to do this work, but that’s the magical rewarding side of what we do.”

One of Guido’s regular therapy sessions takes place at The Arc of San Francisco, an organization that provides a primary resource for over 500 people with developmental disabilities in the Bay Area and to empower their clients to make the most of their abilities--learning new skills, holding productive jobs and living ordinary lives with dignity and pride in our community.

When I went to The Arc for one of Guido’s weekly visits, I almost instantly got a distinct feeling that he knows what’s he’s doing and enjoys it. To see the clients greeting Guido and interacting with this cat is amazing. Experts say that continual exposure to pets can help people to live healthier lives, and after sitting down with Guido one morning and watching him work, he has made me a believer.

Being the owner of a popular therapy cat with a jammed schedule is a job in itself, Basolo said. “Guido goes to fundraisers, store grand openings and benefits for his favorite causes. In many cases, he gets invited instead of me! For the past two years Guido has appeared at Saks Fifth Avenue with Jan Wahl benefitting Pets Unlimited. The people want to see Guido and I’m just his chauffeur in most cases.”

Basolo is proud to say that Guido has his very own publication. “The Guido Gazette is sent out each Monday to every continent on the planet. He’s in his fourth year and he’s never missed a deadline. He’s got feline fans everywhere, and the most common note Guido gets is from people who are commending him for his Animal Assisted Therapy work – it amazes people worldwide. He continually amazes me and I live with him!”

(Photo credit: http://www.markrogersphotography.com/)