Oct. 30, 2007 — -- For children who suffer from disabilities or life-threatening illnesses, the joy that service or therapy animals can bring to their lives is immeasurable, and some are able to find brief moments of joy from equipment designed especially for them.
The death of comforting pets is sometimes so overwhelming to the children that their own healing stalls. And the destruction or loss of therapy equipment can rob special needs kids of one of their few outlets of pure, childlike happiness.
When pets' deaths are caused by violent attacks by people or other animals, the loss is that much more complicated and painful.
"Any pet loss has a major impact on a child, as well as on a family," Irene Deitch, professor emeritus of psychology at City University of New York, told ABCNEWS.com. "We might find the bonding is so intense that the child will show a decrement— a decrease in cognitive functioning — without [a pet] to talk to, to touch or be a source of affection."
A therapy animal "is a love object," said Deitch, who counsels patients about pet loss. "It's total care and love and acceptance and affection. And when we lose a love object, we have great grief and we mourn."
The following stories chronicle several children who have had to deal with the loss of therapeutic toys or equipment, or the disappearance or injury of their very best friends — their service pets.
Micah DeSplinter and Two Special Needs Swings
For the second time in three months, the specially made swing of a 5-year-old boy with cerebral palsy has been stolen from the backyard of his Colorado home.
"You've got to be kidding me," was the initial reaction from his mother, Cindy DeSplinter. "The police have a feeling it might be kids in the neighborhood. Like they saw it up again and it was kind of a challenge to steal it again."
Micah DeSplinter is the third child of Cindy and her husband, a carpenter, but the first to live a full year. The couple had one child that was stillborn, and a second was born prematurely and died at 4 months.
"Micah," she said, pausing, "is pretty special to us."
A Medicaid program paid about $500 for the first swing for Micah, she said. But in July, someone stole that swing.
"I really don't think there's a market for it. This is not a marketable item."
"And especially when you have a family that needs it," DeSplinter said.
After the first theft, DeSplinter agreed to an interview with a television station, hoping a neighbor would recognize the swing and call police.
"We hoped someone would see it and recognize it and say, 'Hey, what is that person doing with a special needs swing?' 'Cause it's not an easily hideable item."
Though the swing was not found, reaction to the story was swift.
A hardware store chain came to the house and built fencing between the family's yard and a park. In a nearby town, a family that heard about the theft paid for a replacement, choosing to remain anonymous, DeSplinter said.
Then earlier this month, the DeSplinters woke up to find the new swing missing.
"I just don't understand why," she said. "Why us? We haven't done anything to anyone. Not even 'us,'" she said, correcting herself. "This is a 5-year-old boy. Nobody should have anything against a 5-year-old boy, whether they have disabilities or not."
So far, police have not made an arrest.
DeSplinter said she doesn't know whether or not Micah understands that his swing has been stolen twice.
"He may understand, but he doesn't know how to let us know. I know he's very happy when he's swinging. Movement is great for kids like him. He loves movement. That's very common to kids with brain injuries."
Micah cannot play on swings in nearby parks, his mother said.
"He has a hard time breathing, so we have a portable deep suction machine that has to go with him everywhere, and it's too cumbersome to take to the park so he has to stay close to home."
Cindy DeSplinter can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
William Sullivan and Bob the Tortoise
Bob is a very special 45-pound tortoise.
Not only has he been a part of the Sullivan family for more than 10 years, Bob was the only one able to coax 6-year-old autistic William Sullivan out of his shell.
"The tortoise was my son's link to the world," Dorothy Sullivan, William's mom, told ABCNEWS.com. "[William] was nonverbal and noncommunicative with the world -- including myself -- but for some reason at a very early age he could respond to the tortoise," she said.
One day, "I walked downstairs and I heard my son carrying on a conversation with the tortoise," said Sullivan. Before that day, "my child had made no noise at all."
But on a summer night in July, Sullivan went to check on Bob before she went to bed, like she always did, and found the 25-year-old tortoise missing. She knew immediately that he had been stolen.
Bob was stolen, stabbed and slashed with a knife. By the time Sullivan found him he had also suffered a cracked shell.
William unfortunately saw Bob when he came home bloodied and near death, and became hysterical, said Sullivan.
"Bob was William's first mate," said Sullivan. "When Bob got sick, William was convinced he was going to die."
The suspect in the tortoise attack, according to KEYT-3 News in Santa Barbara, Calif., is 18-year-old Tony Mosquedo. In an interview with ABCNEWS.com, Sullivan described Mosquedo as a neighborhood teenager who was always trying to "look tough."
Bob recovered at Turtle Dreams Rehabilitation center, where clinic owner, Jeanie Vaughan, told ABCNEWS.com that he had to have a feed tube inserted in order to survive.
Bob is now back at home with the Sullivans. Despite having had five surgeries, however, he is expected to need more. His hind legs were severely damaged in the incident.
William, too, has yet to recover completely.
"My son has definitely gone backward to quite a large degree," said Sullivan. "He went back into his shell and wasn't talking or communicating. We had to take him to a therapist, and [the incident] brought his seizures back."
"But Bob being home and William being able to see Bob walking around without a limp has helped," Sullivan said. "But William still talks about what happenedevery day."
Christian Vasquez and Anniversary
When 3-year-old Christian Vasquez's wish of having his very own horse came true this past August, life for the young cancer patient got a whole lot brighter.
Christian, who suffers from malignant brain cancer, received a miniature horse named Anniversary from the Make-a-Wish Foundation. With the help of a volunteer horse trainer, he was able to learn how to care for Anniversary. Christian was even able to ride in a cart Anniversary pulled around his parents' Pampa, Texas, property.
But on Oct. 21, Christian's father went to check on the horse and discovered the animal had been fatally mauled by two pit bulls.
The father called 911, The Associated Press reported, and authorities later euthanized the violent dogs.
"Christian still asks where the pony is and why he was killed," Raul Vasquez, Christian's father, told ABCNEWS.com. "He liked having a pony -- it was [therapeutic]."
Anniversary, said Vasquez, was Christian's best friend.
Because of a Make-a-Wish Foundation policy that prohibits granting more than one wish to any one child, the organization could not replace Anniversary. But when word spread about Christian's loss, people from around the country -- and even a few in Canada -- donated money to help fund a replacement horse for the young boy.
Tombstone, who also goes by the nickname Buckshot, is a miniature gelding leopard Appaloosa, and will arrive at Christian's home as early as this week, said Jelaine Workman, the executive director of the Texas Plains Make-a-Wish Foundation. While the organization couldn't donate the second pony itself, it helped organize the outpouring of donations.
Vasquez told ABCNEWS.com his son is "very excited" for his new horse to arrive.
Crystal Brown Cries for Chevy
Crystal Brown confided in Chevy, her 4-year-old Australian shepherd mix, more than any person in her life.
"Chevy was Crystal's absolute best friend," Shirley Brown, Crystal's grandmother, told ABCNEWS.com. "She used to talk to the dog and tell him her secrets because she was a mixed-up kid and had a mixed-up life. Wherever she went, he went."
Chevy acted as Crystal's therapy dog, said Brown, and helped her deal with her depression and emotional troubles that stemmed from a difficult family life. Crystal's father is estranged and her mother struggles with bipolar depression and drug addiction.
On Feb. 7, when Brown let Chevy outside to go to relieve himself, the dog took off, and she was unable to catch him.
"I felt empty," Crystal told The Associated Press. "I couldn't talk to anyone. He was my dog. It was just me and him … I told him everything, and he never shared any of my secrets."
Crystal and her grandmother got a terrible surprise several weeks after canvassing the neighborhood for Chevy with no luck.
A package was delivered to the Brown's, addressed to Crystal, and upon opening it, the 17-year-old was met with a horrific surprise: Inside the package was Chevy's head, along with Valentine's Day candy.
"She was hysterical," Brown told the Minnesota Star Tribune. "She was screaming. She said, 'Grandma, it's my dog's head.'"
One of Crystal's friends, 24-year-old Anthony Gomez, later admitted in court to watching another man shoot the dog in the head, according to the Tribune. Gomez, who pleaded guilty to "terroristic threats," will be sentenced in late November. He is expected to serve at least 14 months in jail.
Pauline and Hennessey the Chihuahua
Three-and-a-half-year-old Pauline Veloz found a best friend in her little Chihuahua named Hennessey.
The dog, according to the San Jose Mercury News, was able to predict when Pauline -- who was born blind and suffers from cerebral palsy -- was going to have a seizure.
But Pauline and Hennessey's friendship was cut tragically short when the Chihuahua was fatally attacked by a neighborhood pit bull.
"She really bonded with him," Pauline's grandmother, Jennifer Miller, told the Mercury News. "The little dog was always by her side or on her lap. He was her world."
Despite being rushed to the vet by family members, Hennessey suffered a severed spinal cord and a punctured liver, kidney, lung and abdominal wall, the paper reported.
Like many disabled children who experience the loss of a service animal, Pauline's progress has regressed, her grandmother said.
"She doesn't sleep well. She's very fussy, and she wants to bang her head again," said Miller, who told the paper that her granddaughter's fist has reclenched since Hennessey's death.
The pit bull that attacked Hennessey was euthanized after the incident, Greg Van Wassenhove, Santa Clara County's director of agriculture and environmental management, told ABCNEWS.com.