This program uses face-to-face contact with wild animals to help veterans combat stress

Program free to combat veterans, open to public by reservation

APOPKA, Fla. – Stress is a common emotion that many people experience and can be triggered by stressors at work, at home, in relationships and from traumatic situations that veterans especially have experienced. One Central Florida man is working to help them manage it.

Kevin Rose started a program that involves being out in nature as a unique way for veterans to achieve piece of mind. 

Rose's mission began Sept. 11, 2001, when the attack in New York City left him feeling he needed to find a way to help.

"I was sitting on the beach and asking the question, and I think probably everyone was asking in the world at that time, 'What can I do?'" Rose said. "I feel like if we're gonna send men and women into war, we better be ready to bring them home comfortably."

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That thought inspired him to create The CATalyst, a program for combat veterans where they come face to face with wild animals.

"The CATalyst is a human-animal interaction experience where we help people go from feeling totally chaotic to absolutely calm in just seconds. When we're stressed, what happens is that we tighten down. And when we tighten down, anybody around you can tell you're stressed -- whether they know you or not," Rose said.

He said the animals mirror the behavior of the person looking at them. If that person is stressed, they get stressed, too, but if you calm down, they react the same way.

"If I learn to notice when I'm stressed, then I ground myself using my senses, and what happens is, I get to watch the environment around me change, so it doesn't matter if it's with animals or with people," Rose said. 

Carl Peterson fought in Vietnam. After he came home from the war, he said he was able to forget those memories at first, but they eventually came back to haunt him.

"Certain things, memories came up, and you start to realize that maybe you're not really operating life the way you're meant to operate," Rose said.

The military teaches you to be alert, Rose said, but it can become unhealthy to bring some habits back home with you after serving.

"The military does a fantastic job of teaching people how to be on high alert all the time -- they have to. They have to be able to protect themselves in that environment, but the challenge is, they don't know how to teach them to turn it down," Rose said.

Peterson came out to a sanctuary for animals in Apopka, where Rose brings vets and anyone who needs to find peace of mind.

"The CATalyst program is exactly that for veterans. I think it gives them, probably, the first glimpse they might get to the fact that they don't really have to exist in the world they're in. That that can be gone, that can be in the past, and you can live in the present," Peterson said.

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Peterson said his interaction with the animals, including black bears, tigers and a panther, changed his world.

"I found a place that melted in me. It was a complete awakening for me, because I realized that where I was living with these memories just pounded down was not necessary, that there's a place in this world where happiness exists and you can be happy in this world," he said.

The CATalyst program is free for all combat veterans and is open to the public by reservation only. Reservations can be made through CatalystRefuge.com.

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