Ranch provides therapeutic connections in Lakewood Ranch.
Growing up, East County’s Heather Perry was one of those kids who had virtually every kind of animal and loved them all with a passion.
Her hamsters did not bite — neither did her ferrets or her rabbits — and everyone always wondered why they were so loving and cuddly.
“I assumed all animals were friendly,” Perry said. “As I got older, I realized they weren’t.”
Perry eventually recognized she had a gift with animals and now is on a quest to share it with those who can benefit from the therapeutic affects animals have on people.
She and her friend Ada Dod, of Indigo, have partnered to form South West Florida Therapy Animals, a nonprofit aimed at providing animal therapy services to individuals with special needs, residents of senior living facilities and military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Our mission is to help those in need by sharing the remarkable interactions between animals and humans,” Perry said.
Her farm at 5115 Lorraine Road, just north of Oasis Church, has one horse, one cow, two teacup pigs, one goat, 10 chickens, two roosters, five ducks, two cats, four kittens and five dogs — all ready to supply love and entertainment to visitors.
Visitors can come by appointment only, and in the coming weeks Perry and Dod hope to bring in small field trips of children from special-needs schools and residents of senior living facilities.
Perry purchased the site in 2014 as part of a deal to save a larger overall 25-acre parcel from development and keep a church, now Oasis Church, on it.
Perry said the location is perfect because of its proximity to schools and churches — great resources for much-needed volunteers — as well as to those the organization hopes to service, with both senior living facilities and special-needs schools nearby. The exposure on Lorraine Road also is good. Last year, there were an estimated 6,000 vehicle trips daily in each direction.
Perry said the idea for South West Florida Therapy Animals came from the time she spent caring for her father, Scott Cameron, who had cancer in 2012. She trained a Yorkipoo named Riley for him and would bring Riley to his dialysis appointments. Soon, other patients were scheduling their dialysis treatments around Riley’s visits.
“Before he died, my dad said, ‘Please continue sharing this love with people,’” Perry said. “I promised I would.”
When Dod moved to Lakewood Ranch from the Washington, D.C. area a year ago, the women began planning their new venture. Friends for 20 years, they had dreamed of having a business together.
South West Florida Therapy Animals was the perfect fit. Perry could share her love of animals while Dod, a former caterer, would focus on events. The women plan to use the property as a site for weddings, tea parties, bridal showers or other activities that can help raise funds for the care of the animals and the property.
Expenses total about $7,000 per month, including a salary for a ranch manager. Neither are taking salaries currently.
Perry and Dod also are taking donations of solid wood furniture, refinishing it and selling it to help pay for the animals. It is sold on-site at the Shabby Sheep Boutique, which will also be a venue for events.