By Katherine Tam
Jennifer Morris, an administrative officer in Community Health Systems, wasn’t looking for a therapy cat when she brought her daughter to San Francisco Animal Care and Control eight years ago to pick out a new family pet.
Her daughter was drawn to a black and white cat, rescued from a feral colony, that seemed to have an affinity for children. As Morris soon discovered, the cat, which they named Duke Ellington, was different in other ways too. Instead of hiding under furniture the first day they brought him home, he boldly surveyed the house like he owned it. He never shied away from anyone. Not even the loud bang of a dropped kitchen pan could rattle him.
Morris sensed that Duke was destined for a higher calling, so she enrolled him in the San Francisco SPCA’s Animal Assisted Therapy Program, which sends volunteers and their pets to hospitals, nursing homes and other locations to provide therapy. Duke passed the SPCA’s battery of tests without a hitch.
When she isn’t serving as the administrative officer to Carol Dawson-Rose, chair of Community Health Systems, Morris devotes 10 to 15 hours of her personal time every month to volunteering with the Animal Assisted Interaction Program. She brings Duke in his leopard-print buggy to San Francisco State University, UCSF Langley Porter Psychiatric Hospital and Clinics, and the senior living community AlmaVia to lift the spirits of students, patients and residents.
“He’s been sniffed. He’s gotten kisses on his head. People have cried into his fur. He never flinches,” Morris said. “Sometimes Duke will hop up next to a person who seems to need it the most and sit next to them for a while.”
Duke has provided therapy to as many as 5,000 people over the last five to six years, she said. He has his own Instagram account — curated by Morris — and has been the subject of multiple news stories.
Aimée Williams counted Duke among her most popular guests when she ran the animal therapy program at SFSU in 2017, before joining the UCSF Clinical Innovation Center as project manager last year.
“Students were over the moon to see a cat. There was a Duke fan club that would come every time, but we would definitely see new students too — a line of people waiting to pet him,” said Williams, who estimated he interacted with 50 to 100 students each visit. “And Jennifer went to SF State so students loved hearing that an alum was back. It’s so great that Jennifer has been able to continue doing this so often.”
In addition to Duke, Morris’s other cat, Tiger, is also a certified animal therapist, though Tiger’s specialty is one-on-one interactions with residents who are homebound. Whether it’s a group setting or an individual visit, Morris believes being around a pet can do wonders for people’s wellbeing.
“People feel better after petting an animal,” Morris said. “There’s something to be said about having one in your life.”
(Posted August 12, 2019)