FORT CARSON, Colo. -- A rare opportunity is strolling down the halls at Evans Army Community Hospital. So rare in fact, that there are only a few like it in the state of Colorado.
If a person smells the scent of oranges, sees a plush purple stroller and a pair of alien-like eyes staring at them, they are about to be greeted by Piglet, the sweater dress-wearing therapy cat.
Piglet is a 13-year-old hairless, lavender sphynx with a wardrobe collection that could make most women jealous.
Her owner, Debbie Polelli, said she recognized something special about Piglet; she doesn't run from loud noises, strange hands or new places. Sphynx cats naturally love to cuddle with people and their soft, warm suede feel makes them the perfect heat pack to cuddle with for some soothing relaxation time, Polelli said. These qualities keep the cat employed as a registered therapy animal with Pet Partners and the American Red Cross.
During a visit to the Family Care Ward in February, Piglet crawled immediately to work as a quick companion for an 18-month-old boy and his 4-year-old brother. Piglet's big eyes met the 4-year-old's as he curiously checked her over. His mood lightened as he asked about each of the badges that she wears on her vest and Polelli explained in simple terms to satisfy the boy's curiosity.
"Is that a dog?" the little boy asked, pointing to the picture on the cat's badge.
"That's the cat, Piglet," Polelli replied.
Piglet drew more attention as she moved between rooms on her visits.
"She's not just here for the patients, but for the staff, too," Polelli said as a crowd of people surrounded the plush purple stroller.
"Does she meow? Was she born with hair?" were quickly followed by statements such as "She doesn't even have whiskers."
After the quick morale boost for the staff, it was on to the other side of the ward.
"(Piglet) acts more like a dog," a young female patient said as Piglet curled up on her lap.
"It would be so nice if everyone in the hospital had one. It's a nice distraction."
Piglet visited with five patients on the Family Care Ward, six on the Mother Baby Ward, a little boy in the Intensive Care Unit, and wrapped up with almost every smiling face waiting in the pharmacy.
Piglet, one of 10 registered therapy animals at the hospital, has been working with the American Red Cross since 2011. The program started in January 2009, placing strict requirements on their therapy animal teams.
"They have to already be registered with an organization," pet therapy coordinator Amy Sorrels-Mourabit said. "Their handler has to pass background checks and be a fully-registered volunteer, and the animals have to get cleared from the veterinarian here on post annually.
"The main difference between here and other places I've seen therapy animals (is that) our handlers are required to offer hand sanitizer at the end of the session," she said.
Piglet currently resides with Polelli in Castle Rock after living in the Colorado Springs area for many years. It means visits to EACH aren't as frequent, but she's dedicated to her work. Just don't ask Piglet to do it outside.
"She gets sunburned outside," Polelli said. "But in 90 degree heat, Piglet still spent four hours supporting the victims of the Waldo Canyon Fire."