My local shelter, the Ulster County SPCA in Kingston, N.Y., is highly regarded and much loved by the community. The vibe at UCSPCA is a good one, and some of the credit for that can go to Liz Wassal, the shelter’s Animal Reiki practitioner and teacher. For those not familiar with it, Reiki is a healing technique based on the principle that the practitioner can channel energy into the patient and activate the natural healing processes of the patient’s body, thus restoring physical and emotional well-being. (I should point out here that that the word “reiki” is a Japanese term that means “universal life force energy.” When capitalized, Reiki refers to the energy healing system founded by Mikao Usui. So, I ask all the English majors and copy editors who are reading this to be prepared for deliberately inconsistent capitalization.)
A pleasant, knowledgeable woman with an MA in psychology and a BFA in classical animation, Wassal—a Reiki Master Teacher—began volunteering at UCSPCA in 2007. Initially, she offered Reiki to the shelter’s animals informally. Even though she was low-key about it, other shelter workers quickly began to notice that an energetic shift had taken place. The animals were calmer and were healing more swiftly from injuries and surgeries. They seemed happier, too.
Eventually, Wassal was approached by board members and asked if she would teach them Reiki. Soon, staff members began requesting Reiki training as well. Currently, most of the department heads—the cat manager, the dog kennel manager, clinicians—are certified Reiki practitioners. Wassal, who is also an ordained priest, animal communicator and a chocolatier, now serves as the shelter’s official Animal Reiki teacher and offers ongoing courses in Animal Reiki to staff and volunteers. Her courses follow the principles established by Kathleen Prasad, founder of the Shelter Animal Reiki Association (SARA).
Lee Harrington: How would you describe Reiki?
Liz Wassal: Reiki is the energy of the universe. We all have it. Reiki is also called ki, chi, prana. These are all synonyms for the same subtle, transcendent spiritual energy.
LH: How do you initiate an Animal Reiki session?
LW: Well, the first thing the Reiki practitioner does before beginning a healing session is to secure consent. Obviously, a human patient would simply sign a consent form and/or give verbal permission, whereas communication with the animal recipient is non-verbal. I’ll either intuit the answer—the consent—or the animal will give clear signs that he’s willing to accept the reiki—sometimes simply by coming toward me or backing away. After securing the animal’s permission, I create a healing space by asking the reiki to flow. Intention leads the energy on. Instantly, the reiki fills the room, a building, a neighborhood or wherever it’s directed. Reiki energy has its own intelligence and knows exactly where to go. The animals also know exactly what they need.
LH: When I’ve received a Reiki healing, it looks as though the practitioner is just sitting there meditating.
LW: In fact, that’s pretty close to what it is. A Reiki session is non-invasive and passive. It’s not hands-on.
LH: Describe a typical Animal Reiki session.
LW: There really isn’t a “typical” Animal Reiki session, because we turn everything over to the animal. The animals are always in charge. They decide how long the session goes, or where they want to be or whether they want to receive the reiki energy at all.
LH: What do you mean by “where they want to be”? Are they confined to a particular area during a Reiki session and asked to stay still?
LW: Again, it’s up to the animals. They get to choose where they want to be within the perimeters of the kennel or treatment room. I often I sit with the dogs in their kennels or cages (with permission, of course). The dog is free to move around the room or, if he so chooses, can cuddle on my lap and place his head in my hands. Or he may position himself 10 feet away from me, or—if he’s not comfortable with me being so close—he can be in another room.
LH: The Reiki practitioner does not need to be able to reach the dog, or even see him, to offer the healing?