Veterans For Wildlife, Animals, and Recovery From Trauma

The Footprints of Hope program is designed to aid transitions into civilian life

Posted Apr 24, 2018

A unique program for helping veterans transition into civilian life and continue to make a positive impact on society1

Veterans for Wildlife is an international charity committed to the protection of wildlife and the world’s critically endangered species. As a people-focused organization, one of Veterans for Wildlife's primary objectives is the empowerment and development of military veterans. It is based on this objective that the Footprints of Hope program was developed, a fully immersive and ongoing wellness program which offers a unique opportunity for veterans to not only find ways to transition into civilian life, but also to prioritize their mental well-being and continue to make a positive impact on society. 

The Footprints of Hope program will not only include a journey to South Africa, but will encompass a holistic experience of service, awareness, wellness, and the creation of meaning for oneself. 

Courtesy of Wesley Thomson
Source: Courtesy of Wesley Thomson

The need for the Footprints of Hope program

Throughout its extensive research, knowledge, and first-hand experience, Veterans for Wildlife understands that veterans experience individual, complex problems adjusting to, and coping with, a civilian life post service. This is attributed to a number of well documented and researched causes which include difficulty with social interactions, feeling lost and isolated after leaving the military "family," reoccurring mental health issues, and the stigma surrounding it and insufficient initial and ongoing support. These problems highlight an overall need to provide military veterans in crisis with person-centered initial and lifetime support in order for them to take control of their problems, improve their psychological and physical well-being and combat isolation, and allowing them to lead a happy and fulfilling civilian life. The overall aim of the Footprints of Hope program will be to furnish and empower veterans with the tools and support they need to make immediate and long-term changes to their mental well-being and creating a sense of belonging and purposeful meaning in their lives. 

Courtesy of Wesley Thomson
Source: Courtesy of Wesley Thomson

The Beneficiaries

Six veterans will benefit from the first pioneering Footprints of Hope program. The long-term aim is to create a veteran community through lifetime engagement and events in the hope that successful participants will themselves become ambassadors and mentors, securing resources for a program of future events and enable Veterans for Wildlife to reach out to other veterans in crisis.  

Program Details

The Footprints Of Hope program is a fully immersive and ongoing program combining mentoring, TRiM (Traumatic Incident Management), Yoga Nidra, Yin Yoga, therapeutic art and mindfulness, and, crucially, Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) at the Care for Wild Rhino sanctuary. Participants will be taught targeted approaches to cope with negative emotions and ultimately work towards Post Traumatic Growth through the various interventions.

The program will follow a three-phase person-centered wellness protocol consisting of:

Phase 1:  An initial build up-program for the successful candidates in the United Kingdom. This phase will introduce candidates to each other and to the therapeutic techniques that will be used in the program. It will specifically focus on Yoga Nidra, Therapeutic Art, Meditation and Mindfulness as well as self-reflective journaling.  Pre-assessment will also take place during this phase.

Phase 2:  A two-week residential wellness retreat at the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary in South Africa. The retreat will be an intensive program where the candidates will engage in volunteer work as part of their therapeutic process. The therapeutic components will include daily group sessions focusing on Coping skills, Post Traumatic Growth, and Animal Assisted Interventions. The Animal Assisted Interventions will be experiential in nature and combined with the daily volunteer work with the animals. 

Phase 3:  Lifetime support and engagement of the Veterans for Wildlife community in the United Kingdom. This phase will take place after the retreat in the UK and will include a regular and continuous program of lifetime engagement, communication, and events to support the recovery and personal development of the participants. Activities will include monthly motivational talks and Yoga Nidra and Therapeutic Art classes. The post assessment will also take place during this phase with regular check-ins with candidates.

According to Viktor Frankl (Man's Search for Meaning) we can discover meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating work or doing a deed [Therapeutic techniques & volunteer work]; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone [Group setting & Animal Assisted Interventions]; and (3) by the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering, or our ability to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph [Post Traumatic Growth].

In summary, the program will focus on concepts of Belonging, Meaning and Experience that are all derived from an Existential approach and Post Traumatic Growth. Interventions from Positive Psychology, Narrative Therapy, the Process-participation model (AAI) and the Body-mind connection will be used to explore and develop those concepts for the participants.  

Screening for the program and how it will be assessed

Six veteran participants will be carefully identified using a thorough selection process. The selection process will be carried out by a Clinical Psychologist and a trained TRiM Practitioner and will adhere to necessary ethical standards.

The application process will start with an electronic screening process where a complete application form as well as the PCL-5 (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Checklist for DSM-5) and CORE (CORE Outcome Measure) questionnaires will be completed and submitted by applicants. The screening process is valuable in the sense that it will identify possible risks and also candidates' potential. Based on this screening process, potential candidates will be invited to a clinical interview with a panel that will then select the six successful participants. These participants will be briefed on the program and requested to complete a PTGI (Post Traumatic Growth Inventory) and three qualitative questions as part of the pre and post measuring of the program to establish a baseline. Prior to departing for the retreat, the participants will undergo a final risk evaluation in the form of the CORE questionnaire. Following the retreat, the participants will again complete a PCL-5 (to measure symptom reduction) as well as a PTGI and the three qualitative questions. Another completion of the PTGI and three qualitative questions will be done 6 and 18 months after the retreat.  

Helping veterans transition into civilian life and overcoming trauma

There are numerous veteran projects that aim to teach certain aspects of self-centered healing including meditation, yoga, mindfulness, and animal assisted therapy. However, there are none that combine all of these approaches into an intense, fully immersive program, tailored to meet the individual needs of each participant, complemented by the lifetime support of the Veterans for Wildlife community. The integrated use of an experienced ex-military mentor and access to wild animals in a rehabilitation setting as part of the program is what makes the Footprints of Hope project truly unique, all of which will combine to ensure a successful long-term outcome for participants.  

In addition to achieving the primary aim of the Footprints of Hope program, it will also bring about incidental long-term positive outcomes, including:

•                Increasing awareness of the plight of wildlife and Rhinos in particular, as well as the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary

•                Increasing awareness and removal of the stigma around mental health issues within the veteran community as participants will share details about the positive experience;

•                Introducing new, holistic and unique ways of combating mental health issues to the veteran community and beyond;

•                Creating groundbreaking research gleaned throughout the program;

•                Securing ambassadors and mentors for future FOH retreats and other V4W events and projects, creating more opportunities to improve the civilian lives of veterans in crisis;

•                Widen the Veterans for Wildlife community

There's ample evidence that emotional support animals do work very well for some people, including veterans with PTSD (for further discussion please see "Support Animals Aren't a Waste of Time or a Panacea"). I know some people for whom their emotional support animals have been "life changers." I've worked hands on with some veterans of war and their emotional support dogs, and across the board everyone in the room agreed that their dog was a savior (for further discussion about the effect of emotional support animals on veterans please see). Dr. Lorin Lindner's forthcoming book Birds of a Feather: A True Story of Hope and the Healing Power of Animals​ also discusses numerous examples where emotional support animals have helped veterans in need.2

There's nothing like the Footprints of Hope program and it is exciting to see how well it works for veterans in need. Many of these people need all the help they can get after serving in various military units.


1This essay was written with Wesley Thomson, CEO of Veterans For Wildlife.

2I will be posting an interview with Dr. Lindner when her book is published in mid-May. 

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