Playing with raccoons to reduce stress

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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) -- Raccoon therapy is the latest way to beat stress in Russia.

According to the owners of Enotvill (Enot in Russian means raccoon), raccoons are very sociable creatures who are happy to engage with people. Courtesy: AP

A center in St. Petersburg claims interacting with the creatures improves mood.

In a small room in the center of St Petersburg, raccoons play together and interact with humans.

According to the owners of Enotvill (Enot in Russian means raccoon), raccoons are very sociable creatures who are happy to engage with people.

Yuliya Sibiryakova says playing with raccoons reduces stress levels.

"Raccoonotherapy is part of zootherapy. It is a rather unofficial name which means connecting with raccoons. Any contact with animals, especially with such sociable ones like raccoons, has a positive impact on humans."

Visitors to the center, like Ting Lui, agree:

"I know that animals try to understand human feelings, I think it is a miracle," she says.

Yuliya owns 5 grown-up raccoons, and bought her first raccoon from a poacher. The female raccoon was seriously injured and couldn't adapt to life in captivity. Yulia was forced to release her back to the wild.

But rescuing raccoons became a hobby. She started not only to save them, but to breed them as family pets.

And seeing how raccoons and humans connect, prompted her to create a raccoon therapy facility.

"I was working with raccoons who had been in trouble," she says.

"We bought them from poachers and were saving them from people who treated them badly or who abandoned them. I opened Enotvill about 3 years ago and it is still working. We have raccoons which have never been hurt. They are like pets now, there are five generations of them, and they are fully adapted to interact with humans."

But there are rules around handling raccoons. They can still bite, scratch and steal personal belongings, such as watches, chains, keys and money. The center advises its visitors to take off jewelry and dress appropriately.

They charge from 30 to 45 USD for one hour of raccoon therapy.

Oleg Kuvaev says he enjoys visiting the center.

"When you see so many cute animals your mood lifts. It is the best treat in such terrible weather."

Scientists are less convinced.

Vsevolod Rosanov, a psychologist, says more evidence is required.

"It needs to be acknowledged that using animals is a smart and interesting idea, but currently we do not have enough evidence of how it works. Evidence-based psychology and medicine needs more research to prove its impact. Over the last few years, this research has been carried out. All the data will be gathered and maybe we will see zootherapy recommended in student books or somewhere else."

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