Awakening Minds Art builds therapy duck dynasty

Jessica Heldman keeps a close eye on “Bubbles,” a therapy duckling that’s taking up residence at Awakening Minds Art, as it quickly scuttles back and forth across the table. The ducklings, under the care of executive director Sarah Crisp, also pictured, will stay in the studio for two to three weeks. (Randy Roberts photos)


The chirp, chirp, chirping of baby ducks fills the air at Awakening Minds Art, emanating from a small crate housing three soft yellow Pekin ducklings.

It elicits a round of “oohs” and “ahhs” signifying human delight, and even the occasional “quack, quack” or “peep, peep” mimicking their tiny calls.

The newly hatched critters, named Finley, Bubbles and Kevin, are serving as therapy ducks for the studio’s students and became instant celebrities through a live feed on their Facebook page, “AMA Therapy Ducks.” They also have their own webpage,, and have even earned their own sponsorship — naturally, through the insurance company Aflac.

Sarah Crisp, the studio’s executive director, says this is the third year Awakening Minds has welcomed therapy ducks into its workspace. She says the ducks have the same effect on her students that a therapy dog or cat might, without the potential for allergies. And as a somewhat more exotic and less intimidating creature than a dog, the ducklings provide a new opportunity for the students to practice socialization while showing empathy and love.

Some Awakening Minds students are nonverbal, for example, and Crisp says, “We do see more communication from students when they are holding these ducks.”

And describing one adult student who struggles with depression, Crisp notes, “I’ve never seen her more happy and playful than when she’s holding a duck.”

An autistic student named Jessica, who visits the studio regularly and writes words on a sheet of paper, arrived Monday, took one look at Bubbles, and immediately jotted down the word “duck.” Her mom, Holly Heldman, says it was a first for her, as the words her daughter writes are typically much more scripted.

Ducklings quickly become “companion animals” when incorporated into human life as newborns, and Crisp has found they are trainable with the help of treats like peas and worms. Crisp says their presence also helps the students learn how to be gentle and the meaning of “soft,” and it’s an opportunity to watch something grow.

“For the most part all the students respond very positively to them,” she says.

Awakening Minds’s first set of service ducks, in 2012, was a group of mallards that has long since flown away. Last year’s Pekin ducks were obtained at four days old and therefore were not nearly as friendly as this year’s youngsters, hatched just last week in an incubator inside Crisp’s home. Last year’s group lives on Crisp’s large property and are parents to the newly hatched ducklings.

Crisp says the trio of ducks will remain at the studio for two to three weeks and will eventually join their parents at her duck pond.

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