Just north of Bellingham, off of Hannegan Road, is an unassuming plot of land that houses the offices and barns that make up Animals As Natural Therapy. The organization was founded in 1999 by a small group helping young people recover from drug use.
“Folks started rallying, and said, ‘This needs to be something that more kids have access to,’” says ANT’s Director of Outreach Jessie Pemble. “The model has been to take in horses that need a new home because of abuse, neglect or the horse-show life, and have them be the therapists for the kids, veterans and families that come here.”
From its humble start with just a couple of horses and some lofty goals, the non-profit has continued to grow. Today there are about 50 animals on the farm, including 13 horses—three of whom were born on the farm—a cat and some dogs, rabbits, chickens, goats, a llama and a turkey.
“We see between 350 to 400 kids every year through our after-school program, our individual private sessions and our day camp,” says Pemble. But not all of the work takes place on the farm. “We have a curriculum that we take into the middle schools in the district that covers leadership, anti-bullying and suicide prevention. We also work with a number of the tribes, including Swinomish, Lummi and Nooksack.”
Kids in crisis make up the majority of ANT’s clientele, referred by schools, counselors, psychiatrists and other service organizations for a variety of reasons. “We get a lot of kids here because they’re really angry, or they’re bullying, or they’re skipping or dropping out of school,” Pemble says. The animals don’t care about background; they focus on what these kids are going through in the moment. “There’s a lot of posturing going on, but horses don’t let you lie, or get away with anything. You really have to be honest with them, and if you aren’t they’re going to call you on it.”
ANT are at work in the community in a pretty unusual way, as well. “We have a van with a stable in the back that fits three miniature horses, and we can fit goats, chicken, rabbits and the dogs in the van with the horses,” says Pemble.
Their mobile program is centered on assisted living and nursing homes, and heading up these efforts is Pemble’s favorite part of her job. “A lot of the folks we’re visiting are part of a generation that grew up on farms, so when we bring in a goat or a horse, there’s a really visceral connection that happens. Folks might not remember their name or their kids’ names, but they’ll start talking about the horse they had growing up like it was yesterday. We can go inside, and the animals can walk right up to people’s beds. This year we’ve done 100 visits, and I have four more coming up before the end of the year.”
Their hard work has paid off with some special recognition from the community, as ANT was just recognized by the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce as 2019’s Nonprofit Organization of the Year. “We’re still riding that high—-hat was so amazing for us; it felt so validating,” says Pemble. “A lot of people are taking a chance on us. It felt like such an honor to all the families who place their trust in us.”
All of that work is done by a small core group. “Right now we have six program staff, and a lot of volunteers that make all of this possible,” says Pemble. Most families that come to ANT for help are low-income, and the organization basically survives on donations. “Our donor base is mostly older, so I’d love to galvanize younger people and the business community. Sanitary Service Company just signed on at the $10,000 level for 2020, which is amazing.”
The door is always open for more community members to step forward, and volunteering or donating can be as simple as a visit to their website, or as exciting as attending their annual fundraiser. “‘Hope is Found on Stable Ground’ is our gala and auction. On March 14th, we’ll bring the horses out to the Holiday Inn by the airport for photo opportunities, and it’s really fun. We’ll do our ‘Boots and Ball Gowns’ theme, with live music, silent and live auctions, and we’ll have a former participant come and speak,” says Pemble.
Animals as Natural Therapy has carved out an important niche for itself, and Pemble sees firsthand just how crucial their role in the community is. “Something I really wish more people knew about us is that we are servicing the same families that DVSAS, Lydia Place, Brigid Collins and the Opportunity Council are servicing. It’s not a horseback riding program, it’s not just an after-school hangout program. I really see ANT as a critical social services organization.”