Retired Payson resident Jim Ritchey saw the impact animals can have on nursing home residents when his mother was confined to one for the last 20 years of her life.
"She was in a home in Pennsylvania for about 20 years," he said. "The last 17 she couldn't talk. She couldn't tell you what she wanted, but she could point.
"Somebody brought a cat in every Friday. Once they showed it to her, she would make them get her out of bed and put her by the door every Friday morning. (The staff) said mom got so much cheer out of that cat."
Ritchey, who retired after 20 years in the U.S. Air Force and another 20 with 3M Corporation in California, moved to Payson when Fountain Hills proved to be too hot. When his daughter, who still lives in the Valley, recently had to get rid of her young rottweiler, Cleo, he saw an opportunity to have a similar impact in Payson's nursing homes and other facilities.
"She lived in a third-story one-room apartment and just couldn't keep it," he said. "I had been a member of the Animal Benefit Club, a no-kill organization, since the time I came to Arizona. Through them I found out about the classes the Delta Association has."
Delta is a nationwide non-profit organization that trains and registers "person-animal" volunteer teams qualified to provide animal-assisted activities and therapy in nursing homes, hospitals and similar facilities. Teams must successfully complete health and temperament screening.
"First we had to go to school for 12 hours without our dogs," Ritchey said. "Then they bring the dogs in and give them a test."
Because Cleo was only 18 months old, she and Ritchey were sent home to work on "a couple of things." A month later he took her back and they passed.
"They put her in this room full of people on crutches and in wheelchairs," he said. "She had to stay, lay, sit and let two or three people pet her at a time. They would throw the crutches down and bump into her with the wheelchairs, and she couldn't growl."
Now that they are registered Pet Partners, Ritchey and Cleo visit Manzanita Manor once a week for two hours. Like his mother once did, one lady waits in the hall for their arrival.
"We just walk the hallway," he said. "If doors are open and people aren't sleeping, we say hello and ask if they want to see Cleo."
So far, Ritchey hasn't had much interest from other local facilities. He says Payson Regional Medical Center hasn't returned his phone calls, for example.
"I've had calls from three hospitals in the Valley, but that's too far to drive," he said. "I'm available to take Cleo to nursing homes, hospice, hospitals, schools and pre-schools."
Ritchey, who is 72, says he became a Pet Partner because he gets as much out of it as the people he visits.
"My reward is the happiness I give," he said. "A lot of people get depressed going to nursing homes, but not me. I know I'll be there one day myself."
He says the effectiveness of animal therapy is a known fact.
"It's every bit as effective as pills," he said, "although it took doctors many years to realize it. I told a doctor down at the Mayo Clinic what I was doing, and he said he had a lot of patients who would benefit."
Besides cats and dogs, other animals in the Pet Partners program include birds, horses and llamas.
"I had Cleo at the vet yesterday, and she told me I picked the hardest and the best organization," Ritchey said. "She told me her dog failed."
Belying the reputation rottweilers have as ferocious guard dogs, Cleo is warm, affectionate and responsive. "She's the fifth animal I've rescued over the years, and they've all been good," Ritchey said. "But Cleo is special because she has such a calming effect on people."
People interested in setting up a visit from Ritchey and Cleo can call them at 472-8223.
Name: Jim Ritchey
Family: Wife Anneliese and adopted daughter
Personal motto: Don't wait for someone else to do it.
Greatest feat: Been in 74 countries
Favorite hobby or leisure activity: Woodworking
Three words that describe me best: Honest, on-time, helpful (to others)
I don't want to brag but ... I have done more than 10,000 hours of volunteer work.
Dream vacation spot: South America
Why Payson: A nice small town