Luke the domesticated rabbit is minding his own business, eating his breakfast in a back room at the Bergen County Zoo. Above him a couple of chinchillas sleep. Around the room, chickens make some noise and two ferrets scurry about in their cage.
Meanwhile, Ridgefield's Karen Riede gets ready for an outing with Luke. Today, they are going to visit the Armenian Home for the Aged in Emerson as part of the zoo's Animal Encounters program.
Riede has been volunteering for more than a decade, taking animals from the zoo to visit nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Most people think of these kinds of visits and immediately picture a therapy dog. But the Bergen County Zoo sends out a rabbit, chinchilla, lizard, turtle, hedgehog, ferret and chicken (yes, chicken) on a rotating basis to nursing homes throughout the county.
The Animal Encounters program makes 19 visits a month and has a waiting list of facilities that want to participate. Volunteers like Reide are trained by the zoo staff before being sent out on one weekday visit a month.
"He doesn't need much preparation," Riede says after pulling Luke the rabbit out of the cage and taking some extra wood chips out of his fur. "He's ready to go."
She puts him in his cage, covers it with a blanket, moves his name (officially "Bear Luke") to "Out" on the zoo board, and heads for the car.
Ideally, volunteers work in pairs, but since her regular partner moved away, Riede has been on her own. But, of course, she's not alone. She carries with her a key visitor, there to lift spirits and make a connection others can't.
"An animal brings out something that a person may not," says Josepha Roloff, activities director at the Emerson Health and Rehabilitation Center, which gets monthly visits from a volunteer.
"No matter what it is, they smile for the animals," says Katie Chupak, activities assistant at the Armenian Home. "Even some of the residents that don't react to things react to the animals."
From the moment he enters the building, the big black-and-white rabbit is a hit, as staff members rush to see who Riede has brought this month and say hello to Luke.
"They love animals," the home's director of nursing Shakeh Bautista says of the residents. "It gives them emotional support and also gives them comfort."
Residents can't pet some animals, like the lizard and the hedgehog, so the volunteer brings an object they can touch that feels like the animal. But, of course, Luke's great appeal is not only his cute face, but his soft fur. It elicits a range of responses.
For some, it's just the touch of the fur and a smile. For others, his presence sparks lively conversation. Mariam Kachaturion loves Luke's visit, telling Riede, through an interpreter, of a bunny she had growing up in Syria.
"Very sweet and soft," Kachaturion says of Luke. "I love it."
These moments with residents keep Riede coming back each month.
"I was thinking of where else I'd rather be at that moment. It has to be there for that day," she says. "It's a random act of kindness. If someone wants to add a little meaning to their life, do something different, it's a wonderful thing."
WHAT: Animal Encounters Volunteer Program Training
WHEN: Friday mornings in February and March
WHERE: Bergen County Zoo, 216 Forest Ave., Paramus
FOR MORE INFO: Contact Liz Carletta, 201-262-3771, email@example.com