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BlueMoon Sanctuary Brings Joy To People And Rabbits

An animal sanctuary in Illinois takes rabbits on pet therapy visits to a memory care facility, and the results are amazing.

Rebecca Stout
Posted: December 21, 2015, 5:55 p.m. EST

blind rabbit
Courtesy of Carrie Caljkusich 
Although BlueMoon became blind, she inspired the Caljkusichs.

Animal lovers Steven and Carrie Caljkusich began their long road to animal rescue 14 years ago. After dedicating thousands of hours of volunteer work to animal rescues, networking through animal welfare groups and taking guidance from veterinarians, they were rescuing small pets. However, their journey took a serendipitous turn one day when a blind bunny named BlueMoon came into their care. Although many small pets have come through their doors, it was this special little one who captured their hearts and ultimately led to them to focus more on rabbit rescue. 

The BlueMoon Sanctuary is a family-run venture that also includes their children, Marie Ann age 16 and Kira Loren age 12. It is privately funded by the Caljkusichs. Although it is a not-for-profit organization, it does not have 501(c)3 status. Many a sweet soul, from lizards to dogs, have benefited from the rescue and rehabilitative efforts by this sanctuary in DeKalb, Illinois. But what makes this sanctuary stand out even more is the number of human souls who have benefited from its efforts and the wonderful animals it has saved.

woman holding rabbit
Courtesy of Carrie Caljkusich 
Marlene Cleis, mother of Carrie Caljkusich, inspired the pet therapy visits when Carrie saw how well she reacted to holding a rabbit.

Discovering The Hidden Talent Of Rabbits

The Caljkusichs long believed in the therapeutic effects of animals. But it was when their beloved little BlueMoon bunny was placed into the lap of Carrie’s mother, Marlene Cleis, who has a rare form of Alzheimer’s, that they realized something wonderful — bunnies are an incredibly effective therapy animal for the elderly! Furthermore, elderly people with memory disorders connected with the bunnies in a very unique way that they didn’t with more commonly used animals. Most special of all was the fact that elderly rabbits or those who had health issues like BlueMoon were particularly effective. In other words, the elderly were helping the elderly!

"We immediately saw the calming effects of Marlene holding a bunny,” Carrie said. "Other patients and staff were always asking for a turn! After a year of bringing several rabbits in at a time, we decided to officially provide pet therapy. BlueMoon Sanctuary’s mission was complete!”

Pet Therapy Rabbits 

Bunny visitations are held roughly once a month at Lincolnshire Place, the memory care residence where Marlene has lived for the past three years. Tina Thompson is the energetic director who so lovingly cares for the residents at the facility. She says the children usually come and help with the visitations and that the whole family is very upbeat. Thompson sings accolades about how the family relates to the residents. 

"They are very understanding of what the diseases are,” Thompson said. "They know how to approach the resident. If they are standoffish at first, they knee down to invite them to pet them, slowly putting the bunny in the lap. And they have the awareness to know if something is overstimulating to the patient and to back away.”

man holding rabbit
Courtesy of Carrie Caljkusich 
Those who wish to can hold a rabbit in a "burrito wrap" during a pet therapy visit.

What Happens During Rabbit Pet Therapy Visits?

The sessions are open to all patients who have memory loss and most times staff and others also enjoy the soft, adorable bunnies. An average of 35 residents and 20-plus family and staff members participate. Large pen areas are set up and residents are placed in circles around them. A variety of bunny breeds participate in the visits. What type of bunny makes the best candidate for therapy?

"There is no specific breed, size or kind of rabbit that is specific to pet therapy,” Carrie said. "All 19 buns [in the sanctuary] have been rotated and actively used in therapy.”

Some of the favorites are said to be the "gentle giants” (Flemish Giants) who weigh up to around 20 pounds. Thompson says it’s a lot of fun to see the residents talk to them and try to hold them. 

Carrie explains that there are three types of animal therapy visits. One is strictly visual — the patient just watches the bunnies run around in the pen. After all, who wouldn’t enjoy seeing an occasional bunny binky (jump)? That seems therapeutic in itself! 

"The second form of therapy is where we hold the bunny and sit with the patient,” Carrie said. "This gives the patient the ability to talk to us and pet the rabbit. The third form of therapy is the bunny burrito wrap, where we wrap the bunny in a lightweight, fleece blanket which helps them feel secure and is easier for the patient to hold like a baby.”

Carrie said when a patient is holding a bunny burrito wrap, they can back away a bit and allow the patient to have one-on-one time with the bunny, or they might just sit and talk with the patient.  

"Our ultimate goal is to have the patients hold the buns,” Carrie says, "as [that is when] we see the greatest impression and long lasting therapy not only for the patient but the buns, too!” 

people interact with rabbits
Courtesy of Carrie Caljkusich 
Pet therapy sessions with the rabbits involve gathering around exercise pens that hold the rabbits and sometimes meeting them individually.

Why Rabbits Are Wonderful Pet Therapy Animals

Although Thompson says that animal therapy is amazing in general, the therapy visitations with the BlueMoon Sanctuary bunnies offer things that other therapy animals do not. Dogs are a little more excitable. Visits can include throwing balls and doing tricks. They offer a very energetic and stimulating atmosphere. The bunnies offer a much more calming environment. 

"We usually turn on peaceful music while they’re here, too,” Thompson said. "So it brings everyone down a notch, and sometimes we need that here.” 

Thompson described specifically how the bunnies affect the elderly memory loss residents.

"It’s amazing how some of our residents who are somewhat low functioning really respond positively,” Thompson said. "You can see them light up. I think the bunnies are extra special because they can hold them. They talk to them and pet them. You can see the happiness and satisfaction and excitement. The bunnies are so calm and so good with the residents. They respond to each other. Higher functioning people are stimulated to talk and discuss their own experiences with bunnies and other animals in their past.” 

It is interesting to note that many of the residents were farmers, so it’s possible that bringing in an animal other than a dog or cat might touch them even more. 

The residents aren’t the only ones who benefit from therapeutic effects from the bunnies. Thompson says she gets great joy from watching the residents connect with the bunnies. On a more personal level, she also loves the calming nature that they bring. She says that sometimes the bunnies fall asleep in the residents’ laps. And that is very comforting for her to see. 

It’s not just the residents and animals who benefit from pet therapy. Carrie says that one of the ways her family has benefited from their program is that working with the elderly has brought them many opportunities to listen to someone’s history. And rich histories they indeed have. 

woman meeting rabbit
Courtesy of Carrie Caljkusich 
Staff and family at the memory care center also enjoy meeting the rabbits during pet therapy visits.

Read about more pets or people who are champions 

Keeping Up With BlueMoon Sanctuary

If you are interested in following the wonderful things that BlueMoon Sanctuary does and what its adorable little residents are up to, you can follow and communicate with them on Facebook. They are also active in other social media, including Instagram. And if you really want to see the buns in action, check out their YouTube channel! 

The Caljkusichs very much desire to continue their commitment to educating people about rabbits, Alzheimer’s/dementia research and expanding their pet therapy program. It’s indeed a struggle, because they pay for everything out of their own pocket. 

"When people ask how is that possible, I tell them I make pennies bleed!” Carrie said.

If you’d like to help, visit the donate section of the sanctuary website. 

Thompson says she hopes other facilities reach out to them and that this very special organization’s wishes do come true. And so do I. 

Posted: December 21, 2015, 5:55 p.m. EST

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BlueMoon Sanctuary Brings Joy To People And Rabbits

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