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November 15, 2018

Stuffed Dogs

Animal Law Section’s stuffed therapy dogs now being distributed
By Jim Ash
Senior Editor

Alas, Rikki the golden retriever — the Hurricane Katrina rescue turned Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and Second Judicial Circuit animal therapy pioneer, turned lobbyist, turned Animal Law Section official mascot — is no longer of this world.

Rikki died peacefully of a brain tumor in May 2017 at the age of 12 while wrapped in the arms of her Tallahassee owners, Chuck and Patty Mitchell.

The good news, according to Animal Law Section immediate past chair Gregg Riley Morton, is that Rikki’s extraordinary good works — already recounted in the celebrated memoir, “Encounters with Rikki” — are now being perpetuated in the form of a stuffed animal designed to resemble the canine hero.

“We wanted to honor Rikki and we wanted to honor the TMH Animal Therapy Program,” Morton said. “It’s really a remarkable story.”

The Animal Law Section’s idea is to donate toy Rikki look-a-likes to the TMH Animal Therapy Program. So far, the section has managed to underwrite the design and manufacture of approximately 700 Rikki stuffed animals, Morton said.

But the TMH program serves more than 1,000 clients, and the Animal Law Section is hoping to raise at least another $2,500 to make sure every client has access to a stuffed animal, Morton says. Any excess donations will also support the program.

Send checks to The Florida Bar, Animal Law Section, 651 E. Jefferson Street, Tallahassee, FL 32399. Writing “Rikki” on the memo field will get the contribution to the right place. To make a credit card donation, call Animal Law Section liaison Ricky Libbert at 850-561-9437.

The charitable project has more psychological heft than the fluff suggests, says Animal Law Section chair emeritus Ralph DeMeo.

Even though the original Rikki is no longer available to comfort sick and dying pediatric patients, or to help struggling readers master literacy, or to steady the nerves of child abuse and neglect victims on a witness stand, the stuffed animals are a proven therapeutic proxy, DeMeo says.

“These are kids that are suffering from either an illness, in some cases a terminal illness, or, they’re victims of abuse or neglect,” DeMeo says. “The idea is, after the pet therapy session with the live animal, the children are given the stuffed animals and they help them remember the positive experience. The children really cling to them, and it’s definitely part of the pet therapy program.”

Rikki dolls may be temporarily scarce, but there is no shortage of people willing to sing the real dog’s praises.

The Mitchells adopted Rikki in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the good-natured dog “found her calling” as a pet therapy professional at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital two years later.

Rikki spent more than a decade helping children and adults come to grips with a universe of traumas. She was instrumental in the Second Judicial Circuit’s groundbreaking pet therapy program. And Rikki worked with Animal Law Section advocates to convince the Florida Legislature to expand animal therapy programs to courtrooms across the state.

“The Second Judicial Circuit was the first, not just in the state, but in the country, to promote animals in child dependency and other proceedings,” DeMeo said. “Rikki really is iconic in that sense because now, people come into the Second Judicial Circuit from all over the country to study our program.”

[Revised: 11-21-2018]