`IT'S animal day!'' Seventy-six-year-old Barbara Hicks of Alameda, Calif., is excited. Under treatment at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center (UCSF), she is looking forward to seeing which animals will visit today from the Animal Assisted Therapy program of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SFSPCA).
Later, feeding lettuce bits to a guinea pig wrapped in her lap, she exudes: ``It's just a terrific idea. It's the highlight of my stay here.''
When animals from the seven-year-old program are brought to any of the 148 institutions in San Francisco now accepting ``animal therapists,'' they are greeted by residents eager to hug and feed them, and chat about pets they've cared for.
The 35 animals in the program, including Elvis the rooster, guinea pigs, dogs, and even a boa constrictor, are brought by volunteers to provide companionship and help relieve the anxieties of those with special needs.
Chris Shaheen, with a background in psychology and gerontology, has directed this SFSPCA educational project for the past three years.
She reports ``dramatic growth'' in inquiries for the special service from both administrators and families of those institutionalized.
``It began with a request from an adult day-care center, spread by word of mouth, and has become a nationwide model'' in both philosophy and protocol, she says.
In 1980, only two states permitted animals in health-care facilities. Today, all 50 states allow them in nursing homes, and 48 let them in to hospitals. Last year the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., reported official government recognition of ``the crucial role pets may play'' in human physical and mental health.
``What's special,'' says Ms. Shaheen, ``is the opportunity to work with a lot of wonderful animals and people. What we're primarily doing is helping animals by promoting the idea that they are a very valuable part of our lives.''
She coordinates about 70 volunteers, who make 150 visits a month to hospitals, psychiatric and AIDS wards, prisons, abuse shelters, and retirement homes, offering comfort and amusement.
THE theory is simple, she says: A natural bond with animals promotes well-being and loving activity, which can have a healing effect.
Says Rich Avanzino, SFSPCA president, ``Animals don't care if a person is losing sight or can't walk. All they want is to love you, and that quality brings out therapeutic things in us.'' In his 12 years at the helm, Mr. Avanzino has started up many community-service projects linking pets and people.
Debra Fila, registered nurse and UCSF animal projects coordinator, has collected data to support her notion that the presence of animals has benefited patients and their families.
``I first noticed the possibility two years ago when the nursing desk became responsible for a patient's Seeing Eye dog,'' she says. ``The nurses reported less job stress, and patients were more ambulatory out of their rooms.''
So she called Ms. Shaheen and arranged for twice-monthly visits. Since then, she reports, the referrals from other UCSF staff have skyrocketed, prompting her to add two more programs.
The data she has collected document a reduction in use of medication and three cases in which patients spoke for the first time after an illness when an animal was brought in.
So she started a supplemental program in which two animals saved from medical research live on campus and remain ``on call.'' Ms. Fila is also seeking grant funds by which patients will be allowed visits from their own pets - which are in some cases their only family, she says.
Steve Hansen, administrator of University Mound Ladies' Retirement Home in San Francisco, was so convinced that one tan cocker spaniel in the program could add to the care given that he adopted Walker and now brings him to work. (See photo.)
``Walker creates a homelike, safe environment in which to communicate, and allows [patients] to be givers of care instead of just receivers of care,'' he says.
Since 1975, inmates at the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Ohio (now in the Oakwood Forensic Center) have been given responsibility for the care of fish and small animals, even in their private cells.
David Lee, a psychiatric social program specialist who pioneered this program, says, ``The clearest success is with chronic depressed and suicidal cases. Patients believed to be unreachable through [conventional] means have been turned around simply by properly introducing a pet into their lives.''
SURVEYING his office - PC the cat lounging on his desk, Toby the great Dane sprawling on a dog bed, 38-year-old Luke the cockatoo talking from his huge corner cage - SFSPCA's Avanzino reflects. ``We could talk about all the things that divide us as people, but we really have a unifying spirit.
``This program keeps us focused on what's important - the compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and acceptance of all things. Animals have a way of reaching our spirit, our nature, that cannot be duplicated in any other way.''