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Animal magic charmed residents at a retirement village after the Covid gloom when they were invited to p-p-p-pick up TWO penguins

·6-min read

Animal magic cast its spell over the residents of a retirement village who received an extra special lift after the gloomy Covid lockdowns when they were asked to p-p-p-pick up TWO penguins!

When head of activities at Richmond Villages Witney, Joanna Cambrey, 59, hit on a flippin’ good way to make people living in the Oxfordshire retirement community smile during a brainstorming session this month, staff at a nearby zoo were happy to help.

Joanna was over the moon when keepers from Heythrop Zoological Gardens in nearby Chipping Norton brought Humboldt penguins Charlie, 25, and younger pal Groot to visit as part of the retirement village’s animal therapy programme.

Joanna had the amazing idea to use penguins as animal therapy (PA Real Life/Richmond Villages Witney).
Joanna had the amazing idea to use penguins as animal therapy (PA Real Life/Richmond Villages Witney).

Treating residents to a screening of penguin movie Happy Feet in the morning, still no one cottoned on that that their VIP guests would be two of the fabulous aquatic birds.

Recalling the moment when the adorable pair waddled into the residents’ lounge, Joanna, who lives in Witney with her daughter, Megan, 21, who works alongside her in the activities team, said: “It was really amazing.

“We have all sorts of animal therapy at Richmond Villages, but penguin therapy is a first.”

She added: “The residents were so happy. It was a fantastic day.”

Joanna, who has worked at the retirement village since it opened in November 2016, organises an incredible variety of activities to enhance all aspects of the residents’ lives – ranging from wine tasting to visits from parrots.

“It’s a real community here,” she said.

The penguins were centre stage when they visited Richmond Villages Witney in October this year (PA Real Life/Richmond Villages Witney).
The penguins were centre stage when they visited Richmond Villages Witney in October this year (PA Real Life/Richmond Villages Witney).

She added: “I think there are around 200 residents living here and we organise events for everything.

“We do quizzes, themed dinners, I’ve even organised wine and gin tasting evenings that have always gone down very well.

“We also do a lot of animal therapy with dogs and even had real reindeer visit one Christmas, as it helps a lot of residents with mental and physical ailments.”

Then a lightbulb moment during a brainstorming session for the autumn actives programme at the beginning of October this year – after she was inspired by another care home – made Joanna think of bringing VIPs or very important penguins in.

“I’d seen another care home do it in 2019,” she explained.

“I thought it would be so much fun and so unusual.”

She added: “Covid was especially hard on residents, as they couldn’t see their loved ones and our actives were limited by restrictions, so the timing was perfect.

“We wanted to do something exciting, and I thought this would be brilliant – which it was.”

After getting the go ahead from the care home manager, Joanna excitedly rang the zoo asking if she could borrow some penguins for the day – and, to her surprise, they agreed.

“It all happened very quickly,” she explained.

“I phoned Heythrop Zoological Gardens and they were absolutely amazing. They said they would love to help.

“It was so easy to organise, we just booked a date and along they came.”

The staff played Happy Feet and served penguin biscuits before the VIP’s arrived (PA Real Life/Richmond Villages Witney).
The staff played Happy Feet and served penguin biscuits before the VIP’s arrived (PA Real Life/Richmond Villages Witney).

So, on 12 October – 12 days on from hatching the idea – after watching Happy Feet and eating Penguin biscuits, the residents could not believe their eyes when two real penguins waddled out of the lift.

“We played Happy Feet in the morning and gave out Penguin biscuits, but no one guessed who our VIP guests were,” laughed Joanna.

“Some people thought it would be Boris or the Queen, but luckily no one picked up on the hint.”

She added: “When Charlie and Groot waddled out of the lift the transformation in the residents was amazing. Their faces were incredible.

“One said she never thought she would hold a real penguin – then Charlie ended up sitting right on her lap!”

And the penguins took to the limelight like ducks to water, finding all the attention flippin’ marvellous.

“They weren’t shy at all,” laughed Joanna.

“Charlie was really confident. He’s an old guy himself at 25. He was very happy sitting on people’s laps and waddling up and down the corridor.

“Groot was a little more shy. He started pecking at people’s fingers if they got a little close. But one of the residents had an amazing idea to start waving a scarf to grab his attention.”

  • Mainly found in South America

  • These penguins nest mostly on islands and rocky coasts

She added: “He went right over and was mesmerised by it. They really settled in and the care home was buzzing with excitement.”

While she thought the penguins were tremendous, it was the joy they brought to the residents that really warmed Joanna’s heart.

“It was really incredible to see the change,” she said.

She added: “Residents who are normally shy and don’t join in got really into the penguins. They started to come out of their shells and really interact.”

Buoyed by the day’s success, she is adamant there will be a sequel to the penguins’ visit.

“It was such a success we’ll definitely do it with the penguins again,” she said.

She added: “It would be great to get all kinds of different animals in for the residents to meet, though.

“Our next big trip will be going to the Tower of London to see the crown jewels in November.

“But I’m not sure they will bring as much sparkle to people’s faces as Charlie and Groot.”

Residents were ecstatic to pick up a penguin (PA Real Life/Richmond Villages Witney).
Residents were ecstatic to pick up a penguin (PA Real Life/Richmond Villages Witney).

Resident Ivy Waller, 97, was certainly a major fan.

She said: “I never thought I’d meet a penguin, especially at my age. They were adorable and I haven’t stopped smiling since.”

Fran Vandelli, a dementia lead for Richmond Villages, says penguin therapy provided valuable support to residents suffering with dementia.

She said: “For people living with dementia, difficulty communicating can mean they shy away from social situations.

“With animals though, the bond goes beyond verbal communication, meaning people are more at ease and get fully involved in the experience.

“It’s just one of the reasons that animal therapy sessions can be so impactful.”

For more information go to www.richmond-villages.com

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