Helper Animals Get HBOs Attention

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People pictured with their devoted pets generally generate
a whopping "awww" factor, but a special on Home Box Office ratchets that up to
double-hankie level, as it rewards companion animals.

One thinks of seeing-eye dogs when the topic of
animal-assisted living comes up, but dogs aren't just eyes anymore: They are ears and
hands, and even brawn. But animal assistance comes from other breeds, too, as demonstrated
in Mary Tyler Moore in Three Cats fromMiami ... and Other Pet Practitioners,
coming next month. Honorees in this mock award show include a horse, a loggerhead sea
turtle and even a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig.

Moore proves a gamer, as she's given little more to do
then introduce clips and mug with the "winners." It's the stories
themselves that make this special worth watching. Co-produced by the Delta Society -- a
national, nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting animal-assisted therapy -- the
program illustrates the variety of people whose lives can be improved with a little
four-footed (or flippered) love.

The first vignette may be the hardest to watch. Dusty the
rabbit and his owner regularly visit a burn unit to entice children to learn touch again.
After watching these critically injured children trying to smile again, you don't
need the smarmy shots of a teary audience to tell you to be touched to your core.

Just as uplifting is the relationship between a
cerebral-palsy sufferer and a stingray, of all things. The child could not be motivated
into physical therapy until he was offered a special participatory program at an aquarium.
He has to try to walk up the stairs to the food-prep area on his own in order to earn his
feeding sessions with Splash, the aforementioned ray. The ray swoops up to the glass edge
on his tank, ruffles up the side, takes the fish into its mouth, then rewards the
delighted child by flapping its fins against the side of the tank, soaking him to the
skin. That kind of glee speaks for itself.

The show is a sly piece of advocacy and, blissfully, it is
shown without begging at the end. But I know it had its effect on me -- I'll be
diving for the checkbook if they ever come calling.

Mary Tyler Moore in Three Cats from Miami ... and Other Pet
Practitioners
debuts June 28 at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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