Snickers the goat curiously roams around, always looking for someone to affectionately nudge.
He’s part of a tribe of goats living at Rancho Del Pacifico in south Chandler. There’s Oreo, Kit-Kat, Chewy, and S’mores – names purposefully meant to represent the goats’ sweet demeanor.
When new visitors walk on the grounds, the goats welcome them by nuzzling their hands or tugging on their pants.
Snickers and his friends weren’t always so friendly.
“They were terrified of us when they first got here,” said Jennifer Siozos, Pacifico’s operating director. “You couldn’t even pet them.”
Snickers and several of the animals living at Pacifico were rescued from animal sanctuaries. Some of them had been neglected, abused or were one their way to the slaughterhouse.
They found a new purpose after Siozos and her staff gave them a home at Pacifico. Along with a corral of horses and alpacas, Snickers helps to provide animal-assisted therapy to clients – mostly children and teens but some adults as well – struggling with depression or anxiety.
The menagerie of critters allows clients to reconnect with nature and forget whatever trauma may haunt them in their daily lives.
“The animals provide this amazing therapeutic support because they’re so non-judgmental,” Siozos said.
Pacifico started treating clients last year and has already grown so much an expansion is in the works. They currently treat about 60 clients each week, Siozos said, several of whom are children struggling with mental health issues.
There’s a need in the community to service young people battling stress and suicidal thoughts, Siozos said, and Pacifico offers a safe space that allows them to rejuvenate themselves.
Pacifico recently purchased an eight-acre ranch near Riggs Road and Val Vista Drive, which the staff will transform into an equine retreat by November. The new site will offer horse-training sessions, yoga classes, and vocational programs.
Animal-assisted therapy has been around for several decades, Siozos added, but researchers have only recently begun to legitimize its health benefits.
A 2017 study published in Health and Social Care found horse-therapy programs decreased emotional problems and hyperactivity for children of parents who struggled with substance abuse.
Another study published in the Canadian Military Journal concluded veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder reported improvements to their behavior after undergoing animal-assisted therapy.
The Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association estimates there are over 5,600 horses providing therapy all over the world.
Debbie Smith, a Chandler resident, brought her 22-year-old son Sergei to Pacifico a few months ago and claims the animals have already had a beneficial impact on him.
“His general outlook is much more positive and he’s been able to get a job and he’s being really successful with that,” Smith said.
Her son experienced trauma as a child in Russia before Smith’s family adopted him. The family tried various types of therapy, but Smith said Pacifico stood out with its inclusive and welcoming environment.
Siozos said the clients coming to Pacifico struggle with a variety of ailments and their treatment is dependent upon what their needs may be.
Sessions often start letting new clients explore the pasture and freely interact with horses and goats. If the client is not accustomed to being around animals, staff may have them start small by asking them to brush one of the horses.
They’ll advance to a more challenging task by asking the client to guide a horse through an obstacle course.
During their first try, the client may struggle to get the horse to stop munching on grass. Siozos will instruct the client to be more assertive and confident with how they handle the animal. In the second go-around, the horse is not as distracted and follows their handler’s lead.
“They read your energy and that’s why they’re so valuable in therapy,” Siozos added. “They give instant feedback.”
She recalled one client, a woman in her 40s, who hardly spoke or engaged with anyone when she first came to Pacifico. Then she started to open up once she met Coco, a miniature donkey.
Coco was on his way to a kill pen before he was rescued by an animal shelter. The donkey’s interest in the client got her to come out of her shell, Siozos said, and gave her a sense of belonging.
“When someone loses their sense of self through trauma, they don’t know where they belong,” Siozos said.
The calming presence of the animals has also been restorative for Pacifico’s staff.
Andy Riffle was stuck in a corporate job for several years before deciding he’d rather be around horses.
He’s now Pacifico’s equine specialist and said being around the horses and goats has been therapeutic for him. The animals have this effect on clients that is almost instantaneous, he said, where their personality quickly changes.
“It’s a magical experience when they come here,” Riffle said.
Staff say Pacifico’s animals are benefiting too from all this human interaction. One of their horses, Crystal, was quite standoffish when she first arrived and wouldn’t let staff get close enough to attach halters to her head.
Siozos said Crystal’s a former show horse, made to perform in several rodeos. She was nearly starved to death by the time she rescued by a horse sanctuary.
Clients who have been abused or traumatized can identify with Crystal’s backstory, Siozos said, and become more open to the rest of treatment.
“They have these connections that are so real,” she said.
More information about services available at Rancho Del Pacifico can be found on its website at ranchodelpacificoaz.org.