Zoo Animals Used To Work Through Human Grief

A local funeral home that offers classes to help people who have lost a loved one is going beyond cuddly cats and dogs to help people through the grieving process.

Klingner-Cope Funeral Home offers a series of classes aimed at helping family members better deal with grief through empowerment. It’s called The Healing Path Workshop Series.  Jenene Dean with Klingner–Cope coordinates the workshops, which offers lessons in areas like finance, personal safety and healthy cooking. 

Another class integrates animals. She says she couldn’t get the usual therapy dogs for her class, so she went a different direction and turned to the Dickerson Park Zoo.

"It was a risk. I thought 'we're just going to roll the dice and see what happens. This is going to be fun.  It's going to work. It has to work.' But it worked better than I thought it would," said Dean.

She says it brought people out of their "grief moment" and gave them permission to experience joy - about something, anything – even if it’s for just for a little bit.

Emily Lansche, an education specialist at the Dickerson Park Zoo, says some of the animals they use in the education classes have had a rough time, too.

"Some of our animals, especially our birds of prey or raptors, were rehab animals. They were found by individuals, perhaps, injured or hurt in some way or mistakenly thought to be abandoned," said Lansche.

The zoo has used a bald eagle, an opossum, owls, a cockatoo and more in the workshop.

Lansche says it’s not hard to feel empowered by these animals.

"It's kind of the bigger picture we see. Because these are, for the most part, wild animals, we're seeing the whole story of the Earth and every individual's part that plays in it. We're able to talk about ecosystems and conservation and about what we can do to make a difference in the world," said Lansche.


Lonnie Willis has gone through The Healing Paths Workshop with his mother Shirley Nakao. Lonnie lost his uncle a few years ago, an aunt, and most recently his grandmother.

"It helps my mom and me get through the days by using what we've learned with this class. It helps me figure out how to cope with the grief so I don't cry all of the time. It helps my mom, too," said Willis.

The Healing Paths Workshop is usually held in a classroom at Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield. Dean says this setting helps the group come together.


"It kind of feels like high school. It's exciting for me to share that because it's something I didn't expect. You see folks coming in for the first time not knowing what to expect. But people bond so quickly. It's a very comfortable and safe environment at OTC. It's not intimidating.  In the classroom environment, especially, it's like they go back to where they were when they were students. So, they're engaging that way; they're teasing and joking. It becomes a fun atmosphere," said Dean.

In August, the "Animal Companions Through The Grief Journey" portion of The Healing Path Workshop was moved to the education building at the Dickerson Park Zoo. Lansche says the group was exposed to more animals in a different environment.

"I think they really enjoyed seeing the education we offer here and seeing the zoo in a different light," said Lansche. "Because this is the education department, they were able to see the classroom and see how we're able to teach young people about conservation and really make a difference. I think that was pretty inspiring to them."

Dean says this workshop goes hand-in-hand with other grief support services offered in the community. 

The Klingner-Cope Community Outreach Program is free and open to everyone. The next workshop starts Oct. 3.

To learn more about the Klingner-Cope Community Outreach program and The Healing Path Workshop Series, click here.

To learn more about education programs at the Dickerson Park Zoo, click here.

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