Patients at John George Psychiatric Hospital (JGPH) recently received some unusual visitors from the Oakland Zoo: a gopher snake, a blue-tongued skink and an eastern box turtle.

The visit was coordinated by JGPH activity therapists, who try to provide some sense of normalcy to patients recovering from severe mental health crises.

“Just because people come here doesn’t mean life has to stop,” said Alameda Health System (AHS) Activity Therapist Ben Fisher.

Patients typically arrive at JGPH in crisis and stabilize over time. Activities provided to them include outdoor gardening, nail painting and musical performances, as well as periodic visits from outside educators such as Sarah Lynn Bowser, Program Manager of Animal Education Programs at the Oakland Zoo.

Bowser said JGPH patients are some of her favorite to work with – and the feeling may be mutual.

More than a dozen patients filtered in and out of her presentation held on a recent Thursday. Many of them sat rapt with attention, touching the animals and asking questions.

“Is that like the turtle in ‘Finding Nemo’?” one of them asked when she lifted the eastern box turtle out of its crate. No, she explained. Eastern box turtles live on land, not in the ocean.

By the end of the presentation, patients had learned a plethora of facts about the animals, their habitats, and their favorite foods.

“To see the animals up close is terrific,” one patient said after the presentation. “I thought I wasn’t a big fan of snakes or reptiles, but when I touched it, I didn’t feel so scared.”

Patients at JGPH need a lot of medical and psychiatric attention. And while exposing them to new activities may seem like an insignificant part of their recovery, it can go a long way toward patient well-being and happiness, Fisher said.

“We want to get as much of the outside community in here as possible,” he said. “We like to be as active as we can in providing normal activities.”