Animal Writes
14 October 2001 Issue
Power of Love

Troubled teens comfort abused animals, helping both heal
By Michael Leahy
CJ Online - Teen - Power of Love 07/24/01 

His chief aspiration in high school was to blow something up, which -- given Michael Cohen's behavioral problems at Centreville, Va., High -- people could be forgiven for being alarmed about, Cohen now admits. He recalls a school administrator handing him a folder with the heading "Troubled Kids," and thinking to himself: I'm troubled? The folder led him into a new Fairfax County program for at-risk youth, which, in addition to providing counseling, directed him to a volunteer stint at a shelter for abused animals. Four years later, the 19-year-old alumnus has returned to the shelter for a visit. He pets a horse and -- recalling what it felt like to be an outcast in his tough days -- says, freshly aggrieved: "That's what made me understand these animals, I think. Animals are sometimes mistreated by life, like people, you know." "People" means him.

Here is Michael Cohen's capsule biography: born in Washington; parents divorced when he was a toddler; his mother taking Michael and his two sisters to her homeland, Mexico, where the 7-year-old was regularly pounded on the streets; a move to Virginia, where he felt like an alien. Going through school, there were more problems, more fights. "It's not a good story," he says. As he talks, he strides past abused dogs and cats that have been rescued -- the kicked, the tortured, the scarred, the starved. He has a teenager's loose-limbed gait and a former misfit's lack of surprise about a world that long ago ran out of ways to shock him. "Hey," he exclaims, stopping to stare at a pit bull without ears. It might be a story bound for Ripley's except for this: The dog's former owner deliberately cut its ears off.

Sickened teenagers at the Middleburg Animal Rescue Shelter have renamed the rescued animal Maggie. Word around the shelter is that the owner thought a mutilated dog would be meaner in battle against other pit bulls. Everyone seems stunned by this explanation except for Cohen, a onetime problem child who seemed fated for failure until he entered the Fairfax Leadership and Resiliency Program.

The program, organized by the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, allows more than 200 troubled teenagers at a time to comfort abused and abandoned animals. In Cohen's case, the program clicked. Working with animals, "it took a lot of my anger away," he says. "It's complicated why. But I think they can do some things that humans can't, that words can't, you know?"

The program's founder and chief supervisor, Amrit Daryanani, says: "Therapy for most problems and addictions is all talk, which is (why) therapy is so far behind where it should be. So many of our kids learn ... by touching, by feeling, by doing something different than just sitting and thinking they can't do it themselves. We wanted to put our kids in the position of being healers so that they could have a chance perhaps to be healed themselves in the process. "After earning his high school diploma last year, Cohen entered the Army and is now a Ranger ("I can blow things up now and get paid for it," he says wryly). He visits the shelter when he's home on leave for the serenity that only these animals can supply, he says. He bends to stroke Maggie, whispering something inaudible, secret words of comfort. The dog looks down, back hunched, wary to trust: Cohen says he knows the feeling.

The street kid understands something no one else here does about Maggie's severed ears. "Owners clip ears sometimes because in fights dogs go after the other dog's throat or ears," he says. "It's just like a smart human street fighter never has long hair because his hair will get yanked out in a fight. It's a brutal world for dogs and human beings. "When Cohen was 16, he punched out a guy while trying to protect his father, he says, which landed him a court date, a probation officer, Saturday detentions, more hassles at school and a greater need to escape to this place where the animals, he says, "need your love and love you back."

A potbellied pig, cats, dogs, nine horses: The shelter, located in rural Marshall, takes care of them all -- about 40 animals on any given day, on a four-acre property. Cohen stops and mutters something to a small horse named Stormy. It was ticketed for the slaughterhouse until the shelter stepped in. Cohen reaches out to pet Stormy. The horse takes a startled step back, still leery of people. And why not? asks Cohen, who remembers his own suspicions when people reached out to him. "The animals aren't so different from us," he says. "If they get hurt, if we get hurt, we're going to be careful, we're not gonna trust anybody right away."

He still remembers the day he met Daryanani, a gregarious woman with a big laugh and a program he had never imagined. "She was so different and intense," he says. "I hadn't met anybody like that before. It was like, 'We're going to do this and that.' She was the first to reach me. I was confused when I got here, and I had a lot of things bottled up. But the animals changed everything."

In 1996, the Community Services Board and the Middleburg shelter agreed on a plan to bring at-risk children from Fairfax schools out to tend the hurting animals. "I'm a dog person," says Cohen, "and I could just tell the ones that were in really bad shape mentally, that couldn't trust anybody. So I just sat down next to them. Didn't pet them or talk. Just sat. Just take it easy, sit down, wait. And I'd come back again and again, week after week. And then they started coming to me. And I touched them, and we trusted each other." He chuckles, remembering. "You give to them, they give to you," he says. "They don't judge you. They just want you, and you forget the anger. Well, no, you don't forget why you were mad about things. You start asking yourself, 'Why?' Like, 'Why do I need to be so angry? What's the point of being so angry when I get so much happiness from this and I'm feeling so good.' "

He walks over to Stormy and starts washing the horse, who stands, ears pricked, like the toddler miserable beneath a shampooing. The former street fighter strokes ever more gently. "Nothing is overnight with them -- or us," says Cohen, who knows the mystical lessons of patience with all living beings, the ineffable mysteries of our touch.

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