Georgia Southern’s special goat offers unique approach to animal-assisted therapy


STATESBORO, Ga. (WSAV) — While most people may have heard of dogs being used as assisted-therapy animals, there’s a special goat that’s making her own impact on people’s lives.

Moonpie, a 2-year-old Nigerian Dwarf goat, has visited nursing homes and schools throughout Bulloch and surrounding counties to help people dealing with anxiety and issues with communicating and socializing.

Georgia Southern University special education instructor Tonya Cooper owns Moonpie, along with three other goats who live with Cooper’s family.

The instructor says the effect Moonpie has had on others has been hard to put into words.

“I don’t know how to describe that without you just seeing it,” Cooper told WSAV NOW during a trip with Moonpie at Southeast Bulloch High School. 

Moonpie has also traveled to Mattie Lively Elementary School, Statesboro High School and Willow Pond Assisted Living Home. 

Cooper says she began taking Moonpie to area schools over a year ago.

The special goat, who even has her own Instagram page, has worked with children as young as age 3 all the way up to 87-year-old adults.

“With all the negativity going on in the world, if I can bring a goat to help ease some of that for others, then I’ll keep taking Moonpie around and showing her to others and letting her just do her thing that she does that I can’t explain,” she laughed.

The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily put Moonpie’s visits on hold, but Cooper is starting to take her out once again.

She’s aiming to bring her goat around to area schools and nursing homes at least once every other week.

“We try to at least visit certain students that really respond to her well, and it really is helping them academically and socially,” Cooper said.

“The joy it brings, just me taking time to bring a goat out can decrease someone’s stress, anxiety and depression just by bringing a goat to see them, it is just wonderful,” Cooper added.

Cooper says she’s been interested in animal-assisted therapy for years, first starting out with students that trained with a therapy dog. 

Upon doing some research, she discovered that goats also made great therapy animals.

“I found that a lot of places out West were using goats for animal support and therapy because they give the emotional support, but then they also give the interaction,” Cooper said. 

She says the Nigerian Dwarf breed of goats tend to be more sociable and friendly.

The instructor got Moonpie at three weeks old from a breeder in South Carolina who was advertising premature goats. 

Cooper says premature goats are known to be calmer, which made Moonpie the perfect fit for animal-assisted therapy.

“With the other goats, Moonpie interacts like a typical goat, she headbutts with them and plays like a goat,” Cooper said. “But when I dress her and take her places, she’s completely calm and completely different.”

Moonpie’s demeanor is able to help bring some calm to those who need it most, Cooper says.

“There are some students that are nonverbal, but now they have started trying to grunt, gesture and interact,” Cooper said. “At the assisted living home, there’s a resident that now wants to go outside and do things, so it’s brought some socialization and brought her back out of a kind of depression from being there, she interacts a little bit more.”

Cooper also shares that students will sometimes read while Moonpie sits in their laps.

“The judgment isn’t there if they mess up or fail because it’s a goat, she’s not going to judge them, she doesn’t know if they mess up,” she said. “They’re just more at ease working with her.”

Georgia Southern’s special education program doesn’t offer field experience in self-contained settings, Cooper says.

However, she still brings her teacher candidates along with her on Moonpie’s visits.

“They get to experience animal therapy and working in a self-contained setting that’s not part of their coursework, and this is just additional volunteer kind of type work for them,” Cooper said.

Two of her students, special education seniors Savannah Rodriquez and MacKenzie Williams, say it’s been a positive experience working with Moonpie under Cooper’s supervision.

“There are students that communicate differently and it takes different things to derive communication from them, and Moonpie is able to do that in a way that we can’t explain for these students,” Williams told WSAV NOW. 

“I have really enjoyed getting to see the kids interact with Moonpie and vice versa because it’s kind of hard to imagine and picture what that looks like just by someone telling you, but to see it with my own eyes has been a very eye-opening experience,” said Rodriquez, who was out on her first visit with Moonpie.

“Mrs. Cooper is super great, she takes very good care of Moonpie and Moonpie is definitely a little princess,” Rodriquez said. “We all love her; how could you not love a goat?”

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