C.A.R.E. Class photo

Compassion and Reiki: Where does one end and the other begin? A recent trip to Apopka, Florida, to teach Reiki at the CARE Foundation, a sanctuary for exotic wildlife such as alligators, bears, tigers and panthers, helped me to understand more fully compassion as a concept within the system of Reiki.

My visit to CARE made for an awe-inspiring animal Reiki adventure, thanks to the wisdom of the animal teachers, the receptivity of the people to what the animals had to teach, the amazing responses of the animals to the energy—not to mention the beauty of the surroundings. Upon my return, I realized that what I have taken most from the animals there is a deeper lesson in what it is to practice compassion, and to be Reiki with an animal, rather than do Reiki to an animal. It is this openness of approach that helps facilitate interspecies Reiki connections and create a beautiful and deep healing experience. This experience also goes two ways: humans healing animals, and animals healing humans. Following are some of the highlights and profound experiences I encountered while working with the amazing animals living at the CARE Foundation.

Pre-Trip Prep

In the weeks leading up to the class, I knew it would be a beautiful experience to meet with these animals, but also a difficult one. On the one hand, what a privilege to connect with these majestic and powerful creatures, but on the other hand, we would have to confront the dark side of mankind’s ignorance and mistakes firsthand. All of these animals are captive, rather than running free in the wild as they should be. All had suffered and perhaps still were suffering in one way or another. I knew also, for this same reason, that it would be a challenge for my students, who were traveling from all over the country to be a part of this class.

I began to meditate for strength to hold a calm, strong space for all of us to be present, humans and animals alike. I asked the universe to support the weekend so that lessons and healing could go both ways for everyone present who was of open heart. As a Reiki teacher, for many weeks leading up to my visit, I felt the great depth of responsibility in holding a space of Reiki healing for everyone as we spent these Reiki days together. I focused on my own personal spiritual practice in daily Reiki as a way to provide an anchor and foundation for me to be able to help facilitate the healing experience.

Déjà Vu …

Finally, after months of preparation, I was there! Walking through the grounds of the CARE Foundation, just a day before teaching my first class there, felt oddly familiar. As I wound my way through the trees to each of the animal enclosures, visiting the bears, leopards, alligators, tigers, monkeys and many more species of animals, I suddenly remembered—I had been dreaming of walking through these woods for several weeks. These very woods with these very animals! A wave of déjà vu swept over me.

As I stepped up to the cage that housed Mokoto, a beautiful and intense black leopard, I locked eyes with him and saw a familiar face: I was sure I had dreamed of him in particular. He was so familiar that it felt a bit eerie. “I remember you,” I said to him. In response, Mokoto turned his back to me and rubbed his head against the fence, making small meowing and purring sounds. Just like the tamest, most loving little kitty-cat. This was a “man eater” who was so very dangerous? I thought of the Reiki precept, For today only, do not anger. With Mokoto’s invitation, I sat down and began to connect with him through Reiki, and within a few minutes he had turned upside-down, pushing his hind feet against the fence and hanging his head off the edge of the ledge, eyes shut and breathing deeply. For my own part, the energetic connection felt trance-like. Deep darkness, intense light, full of peace and yet empty of everything. I forgot where I was for several minutes and allowed myself to be carried away with Mokoto into the Reiki space … .

After meeting with Christin Burford and Travis DeVita, director and co-director, respectively, of CARE, and taking a tour of their incredible facility, I was surprised at the energy that I kept feeling–gratitude. I had expected to experience sadness or frustration from the animals, as I often do when visiting shelters and sanctuaries around the country, but here was simply the strong feeling of thanks, as if the animals knew, due to their prior experiences, that only “through grace have we arrived here at this safe haven. We are the lucky ones.”

The CARE Foundation

The CARE Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides permanent sanctuary for non-releasable wildlife and other animals. The animals at CARE have come from a variety of backgrounds, but most of them share a past wrought with difficulties due to human ignorance, neglect and/or abuse. CARE also provides a variety of educational programs and public appearances throughout the community. The primary goals of these programs are conservation and animal safety. Christin and Travis, who also live on the property, dedicate their lives completely to the animals in their care. They are truly an inspiration!

Although they had little knowledge of Reiki, Christin and Travis welcomed my Reiki students, Leah (my partner and co-founder of the Shelter Animal Reiki Association) and me with open arms into their facility. “We’re open to anything that can help our animals,” Christin shared with me. Both Christin and Travis also decided to get trained in Reiki to help their animals!

The Alligators and Crocodile Tears

On the afternoon of the second day of class, as students scattered to do treatments with various snakes, birds, monkeys and other wild creatures, I decided to sit with the alligators. No one had done Reiki with the four gators—Bubba, Boris, Brutus and Tiny—yet. They sat like stones in their enclosures as I sat nearby, facing slightly away from them so as not to bother their rest. Although they didn’t move, I knew they were very aware of my presence and also very intent upon discovering my reason for sitting with them.

After a few minutes of offering Reiki to them, I began to feel a heaviness in my legs and arms. The energy began to flow very strongly, and I realized the alligators were very open to connecting with Reiki. My body began to feel like lead, as if I was magnetized to the earth. It felt as if I wasn’t just “connecting” with earth energy, but rather experiencing what it felt to “be” earth energy. Ancient and wise, these alligators were teaching me how to create a solid foundation. The Reiki precept, For today only, do not worry, came to my mind. There was such a calm strength in their energy. Such confidence. At the same time, I began to realize that my awareness of my surroundings was becoming much more acute. I sensed a person walking silently behind me. By my sensing of their energy, it was if they were right behind me, but when I turned my head to look, they were more than 100 feet away. Alligators are, I realized at that moment, the perfect meditators. Still as stones, but completely and totally present in the moment—aware of all that is going on around them. Again I wondered, who is giving whom Reiki?

Later that day, one of the students in the class, Sue, shared her own reptile Reiki experience with me:

I decided to go see Ingozi the crocodile again, since we seemed to connect when he came over to me during our Reiki session earlier in the day. It was so weird. I was walking up to his pen, feeling completely normal, and all of the sudden tears just started flowing out of me really hard. I wasn’t feeling sad, it just happened. I still don’t know why it happened. I told him goodbye and that I’d connect to him through distance Reiki. He bounced his head up and down on his platform. I thought that was so cool.

Who would have imagined a crocodile to be so open to Reiki and even to be a healer? It was truly humbling to realize that the animals here were helping all of us perhaps even more than we were helping them. Imagine that!

The Heart of the Bear

As I walked up to the black bear named Quinn, I noticed he looked quite hot and uncomfortable. His back was to me, and he lay sprawled over the huge rubber tire in his enclosure. Well, yes, it was a sticky day, but here it was only February, and I couldn’t imagine how hot he must be in the summer! Well, luckily he had a nice swimming pool in there to help him keep cool. Clearly, he was quite bored by my arrival, choosing to totally ignore me.

As I began to offer him Reiki, I held an open mind about whether or not he would choose to connect with me—either way was fine by me. As the energy began to flow, almost immediately I felt a strong heat around my heart. Love. Just like the heart of a big teddy bear that you spent your childhood hugging, that is what it felt like. Simple and honest, yet also old, solid and grounded. Suddenly I had the image of his favorite person, Travis, who helps Christin run the sanctuary. Love. Travis. Love. Travis. The feeling of gratitude washed over me, yet again. Yes, Quinn, I hear you. I visualized my meeting with Travis the day before, our wonderful conversation, our hug as we parted ways. Immediately Quinn lifted his head and stared at me. He then got up and came right over to the fence, eyeing me from the side. As if to say, “Yes, that’s him, yep, Travis, isn’t he wonderful? Where is he? Can you get him? I miss him so. Can he come visit me?” I promised him I would give Travis the message and sat a few more minutes in the beautiful heart energy that just is Quinn. If he was a little bear, I would have been tempted to hold him in my lap like a baby. So strong yet what a squishy heart that big guy has! The Reiki precept, Be honest in your work, came to my mind. How beautiful is the work of Christin and Travis, as they devote all day every day in caring for these animals. How beautiful, too, the honesty of emotion and connection that Quinn was willing to share with me, and that he shares with his special person.

The Spirit of the Tiger

Sitting in front of Bahl-shoy, a beautiful, orange Siberian tiger, was, I admit, a bit intimidating. Even with the double chain-link fence. Just the sheer diameter of his front legs was a marvel. I suddenly became acutely aware of my waifish human appearance and delicate physical nature. What must it be like to be housed in such armor as this?

As I closed my eyes and asked him to connect with me, I found myself going very deep. The pull of the energy was so strong it was nothing like I have ever felt before. Like a magnet, pulling me out of my body, taking me so deeply away and yet at the same time so deeply into the core of myself that I lost all time and space for several moments. When I opened my eyes, he was lying peacefully on a ledge, breathing deeply and gazing lazily at me. As we met eyes, he roused himself and walked down off his platform and over to the fence to me, chuffing a greeting, “Prrr…. Prrr.” As if to say, “Yes, you got it, that’s what it’s like to have a tiger’s spirit. And I feel what it is to be you, too, and I thank you for sharing that with me.” The Reiki precept came to me, Be humble. Bahl-shoy manifested this precept perfectly. He was just true to himself, without regret, without apology. He was present in the moment and open to connecting with me, even though I was just a stranger asking to share a deeper space. How humbling it was to be able to be in the presence of, and connect energetically to, such a majestic creature. As I thanked him and walked away, I was overcome again with the emotion of gratitude that seemed to encompass all the animals I was connecting with. I wondered again to myself, after all, who is giving whom Reiki here?

Gratitude was again the theme when one of the students from the class, Kim, shared her own Reiki experience with another tiger named Tigger:

I didn’t realize it until I went to sit down that Tigger was lying less than five feet from me under a platform in the shade. I didn’t show it, but I was a little startled to see him right in front of me. I didn’t know until later that he was nearly starved to death before coming to CARE and there was doubt as to whether he would survive. Well, thank goodness he did; he is beautiful.


I said hello to them and got settled in my chair. Tigger became so relaxed that I had no fear with him so close. I actually told him that I wished I could crawl in there with him. I told him how grateful I was that he had survived his life to make it to CARE because if he wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be seeing him, and I was grateful for that. Suddenly there was an explosion of green light as our hearts connected in a green ball. I can’t describe it any differently. It was so amazing, and waves of gratitude and love washed over me. I actually teared up. When I opened my eyes and said thank you to him for the incredible experience, I asked if I could take his picture. He looked at me and gave me a big Reiki yawn, which I caught just in time. I couldn’t believe it.

Lessons Beyond the Class

Mokoto’s eyes burned through me: “Look deeper, I am more than my captivity. Look deeper, I am more than my past. Look deeper, I am more than my present and my future. Look. You will see it.” I felt my heart opening, and indeed I could see. Suffering. Gratitude. Strength. Light.

I awoke with a strong vibration of energy still resounding within my chest. In that moment, with the energy of Mokoto still resonating through me, I could feel what it means to practice compassion. Gratitude was the message the animals were sending over and over to us throughout the weekend. And at that moment, I could see that gratitude is only one side of the coin. Suffering is the other. To have experienced a deep level of suffering, as all of these animals have in one way or another, is to be able to experience even more gratitude in the present moment. When we can be present with the animals in their suffering, and even more deeply in their gratitude, we can experience true compassion. We can experience what Reiki is. In addition, when we can also begin to look at our own suffering while also becoming more mindful of things in our life to be grateful for, then the doors of compassion and healing can truly open to our self-healing. The animals were simply a mirror for our own journey into healing. Perhaps the deepest lesson from the animals at CARE was a deeper understanding of the Reiki precept, Be compassionate to yourself and others. And for me, in many ways, the animals have shown me that yes, indeed, Reiki and compassion are one and the same.


We all noticed how relaxed the animals were after the Reiki classes—for example, rolling on their backs with all four feet in the air or just sacked out, sleeping. Soon after the class, Christin gave a tour of the facility for her veterinarian and many of his friends. It was feeding time, and the tigers usually put up quite a show of fierceness and growling in front of all the people. Well, Christin couldn’t wait to tell us—she was amazed—the tigers didn’t even growl once; they just looked calmly at the large group of visitors and then lay down to eat their dinners peacefully. She said she had never seen anything like it!

Want to join Kathleen for a Level 3 Animal Reiki Teacher training at the CARE Foundation in February 2012? Click here for more information. Level 3 Animal Reiki Teacher at CARE

Photo – In center: Kathleen, Travis and Christin (Co-directors of CARE), along with other Level 1 Reiki students at the CARE foundation.

Originally published in Reiki News Magazine, June 2011

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