A pet retailer has raised just under £100,000 to build a community aquarium and sensory play classroom for children and adults with special needs such as those who are deaf or blind, or have mental conditions or other issues and disabilities including autism and depression.
Mike Dixon (pictured at left), who owns HugglePets in Wolverhampton with his dad Ian (right), set up a community interest company (CIC) – HugglePets in Community – and said the goal was to use animal therapy and initiatives to improve mental health and well-being among children and adults in a first such community project for the city.
A CIC is a special type of limited company that exists to benefit the community rather than private shareholders.
Mike told pbwnews: “The aim is to use animal therapy to improve mental health and well-being. It’s about bringing together the pet world and our family business, and bringing it all together to do something positive for the community.
“But it’s not just helping with mental health; we will be creating a generation of children who will look after nature and animals because some of the classes will be about looking after animals and wildlife.”
Apart from crowdfunding on SpaceHive platform, staff organised a number of fundraising activities and the Dixons actively sought out grants and sponsorship. Now that the money has been raised, construction can begin on HugglePets in Community, with an expected completion in October.
It will offer a free-entry aquarium with 100 tanks, up to two sensory play classrooms and a community space, and will be open seven days a week.
The aquarium ‘will be a centre of tranquillity’ as it will be a quiet zone, with low lighting and colours that can calm anxiety and benefit those who suffer from autism. There will be several methods of communication, for example, sign-language videos, to communicate information on the different animals and their environments to as many people as possible.
Workshops and classes will include talks about animal welfare, facts on the environment and caring for the planet, along with ‘getting up close with our animals, feeding them, handling them and loving them’.
HugglePets is already running its Tea with a Twist offer in which residents from care homes and other elderly facilities can visit the shop for a free cup of tea and an animal encounter.
The HugglePets store has its own grooming salon, Huggles Pamper Lounge, which earlier this year became part of the CIC so all profits are re-invested into the project to help keep it sustainable.
“It’s all been done with pragmatic approach to be self sustaining,” said Mike. “We have tried to put something alongside our business that helps people and gives something back.”
“We are a family run business and have been based in our local community for over seven years. I believe through animal-related therapy and educational animal workshops we can help tackle some of the significant issues in society today, including loneliness and improving mental health issues.”