By Shannon Lane @shannonroselane

AN ANIMAL enthusiast is helping the elderly with dementia by visiting care homes with snakes, tarantulas and cockroaches

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Videographer / director: Simon Cotter
Producer: Shannon Lane, Ruby Coote
Editor: Ian Phillips, Marcus Cooper

Kris Freeman is the owner and founder of Tropical Discovery Workshop, offering interactive and educational wildlife workshops to schools, parties and nursing homes across the UK.

Kris, from Wiltshire, is passionate about animals and surrounds himself with them daily - living with approximately 400 of them in his home.

He told Barcroft TV: "How many animals do I have at home? Crikey! I have got couple of hundred stick insects, we have couple of hundred cockroaches of different species, Madagascan hissers and feeder cockroaches. We have giant millipedes, giant snails, giant centipedes - Scolopendras.

"Then we can move on to arachnids; I have tailless whip scorpions, a handful of those. Must have round about 12 tarantulas, we've managed to get the numbers down a little bit. Must have around about 18 snakes at the moment.

"A parrot, a couple of bearded dragons, crested geckos, couple of leopard geckos, white tree Frogs. I’m bound to have forgotten something."

Kris founded Tropical Discovery Workshops in 2012, after being made redundant from his sales job.

He said: “I started Tropical Discovery Workshops mainly because of my friend as he worked at my daughter’s school at the time. She said ‘we have a guy come with animals, like you have got - but you're really interactive with the children, and maybe that’s the sort of thing you should do.’

"I started from scratch and this is six years later and going strong! Absolutely loving it and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else now.”

Kris began taking a variety of insects and reptiles to care homes for the elderly as part of an entertainments scheme.

He explained: “I started taking them into care homes because when the resident has got maybe a couple of games a day, and watching TV, I thought it must get quite boring for them to be either bed-bound or chair-bound or just not have a great deal to do because of their old age unfortunately.

“So I thought it would be great to introduce them to some of the animals to see how they got on with them. So I phoned up a care home in Trowbridge and they said ‘yep this is great, come on in, we’ll see how it goes’, and they ended up booking me every two months.

“To see the the joy in their face learning about something that they have never even seen before, or heard of before, but actually getting to hold something in front of them. It just gave me more of a thrill than it gave them!

“Now I do more care homes than I do birthday parties or schools. It tends to be my main role now and I love it."

Not only are the workshops good entertainment for elderly residents, but they are also a form of stimulation therapy. Kris will encourage them to handle the array of insects, reptiles and other creepy crawlies.

Kris said: “It’s actually having something walk across their hand, especially when they’re sight impaired, to have a millipede - giant millipede - walk across the hand and feel hundreds of legs, or to have a snake in their hand, feel the way a snake feels and the scales as it moves through their hands or back of their neck.

“To actually speak to them and say ‘how does it feel? what is it like?’ and the way they explain they have never felt anything like that before, it's that sort of stimulation. They are feeling something which is quite stimulating, the textures.

"I find that this actually does help, the way they speak about it, they really enjoy it. To me it’s a therapy. If they are happy and enjoying it, then that’s therapy to me."

Kris’ work has had immediate effects on the elderly, and he receives amazing reactions from residents.

He said: “There was one occasion, a gentleman who was bed bound. Didn’t speak, didn’t speak to the staff. They told me he had only ever been known to speak when someone had their dog in the care home and the gentlemen spoke to the dog, and they were amazed.

“I do this thing where I don’t like to stay in the main lounge with residents, I would say to them if there’s anyone who is bed bound or stuck in their room and can’t comes down to the lounge, I’m quiet happy to come to their room because I don’t them to miss out.

"So I went to this gentleman’s room with Steven the milk snake and I sat on the edge of this bed with this gentleman, who is very limited in his mobility, and I helped him to stroke the snake, thinking ‘I’m hoping he is enjoying this', because there wasn't much reaction - and then he started speaking.

“The activities co-ordinator actually broke down in tears a little bit. She said it was the first time she had ever heard him speak and he was talking the snake and he was asking what it’s name was and 'you are a lovely snake’ and it just knocked me back a little bit first of all, it’s just beautiful to watch.

"But besides that I have found that a lot of residents who have dementia, these animals can bring out some sort of nurturing side to them. I’ve had residents who have been stroking a bearded dragon break down in tears and start calling it one of their old dog’s names, and it’s almost like it’s an unlocked memory."

Leanne Sims is an activities coordinator at Goodson Lodge Care Centre in Trowbridge, a care home that Kris regularly visits.

She said: "It gives them a purpose. It gives them something to look forward to. Something to enjoy. Living with dementia can be difficult as we all know, but when Kris has been, even when they don’t remember their experience they still have that feeling of the enjoyment.

"They have actually done something of purpose for their wellbeing. So it can bring them out of their shell a bit."

Kris added: "I mean yeah if I end up in a nursing home I’m hopefully going to have a room full of my animals as well, and I will still be doing this. I want to do this as long as I can. As long as I can educate people or give people enjoyment, then I’m gonna keep going as long I can. As long as I can. I can’t see me stopping this at all.”