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Miniature horse on Big Island in the running for 2024 Pet of the Year

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There’s a pint-sized pet on the Big Island that’s proving size doesn’t matter when it comes to making a big impact in the community and beyond.

Darby, a 16-year-old miniature horse owned by Queen’s North Hawai‘i Community Hospital Marketing and Communications Manager Lynn Scully and her husband Rick, turns heads and brightens up people’s days almost every time he’s trotting around his hometown of Waimea.

Lynn Scully, marketing and communications manager at Queen’s North Hawai‘i Community Hospital in Waimea, leads her miniature horse Darby into the hospital in November. Darby is part of the hospital’s pet therapy program. (File photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

He’s a superstar at the North Hawai‘i hospital, where he visits every other week as a certified animal for its pet therapy program. Scully said he gets a lot of attention when he makes his rounds and not just from the patients he’s helping heal.

Staff members sometimes run out from their stations or offices just to see and pet him.

“He’s just a little horse who just is able to bring everybody a smile,” said Scully. “It’s really something so simple. … It’s just that connection between people and animals. There’s something magic about that.”

Darby’s work at the hospital has now landed him the prestigious honor of being one of 100 therapy animals throughout the United States to be nominated for the title of 2024 Pet of the Year through Pet Partners, a nonprofit based in Washington State that is the world leader in pet-assisted therapy training and evaluation.

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He’s also the first therapy animal from Hawai‘i to ever be nominated for the nationwide award since it began in 2022.

The six-week competition raises funds to support the nonprofit’s therapy animal program. The pet that raises the most money by March 18 will be crowned the winner.

As of late afternoon Thursday, Darby had raised $10,013 so far and was No. 1 on the leaderboard. Tara Waggybottom, a dog from Washington State, was in second with $4,120 and Xeli Pensack-Rinehart, a cat from Colorado, was in third place at $2,260.

Darby is one of just two mini horses nominated for the title this year. There’s also a miniature Mediterranean donkey still in the running.

The 2023 Pet of the Year was Rye Guy, a dog from Minnesota that raised nearly $15,000 to claim the crown. The 2022 winner was a dog from Texas named Happy Happy Hazel, raising more than $33,000.

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This year’s winner will be announced March 19 during an online celebration where all pets will also be honored for their fundraising efforts and dedication to the human-animal bond.

Darby the miniature horse and his owner Lynn Scully bring the love on Valentine’s Day to patients at Queen’s North Hawai‘i Community Hospital in Waimea. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Scully)

Darby is a gentle, calm and reliable mini horse with a big heart that enjoys interacting with people, all qualities that make him a great therapy animal. He is also unique, as Scully explained that 92% of the therapy animals certified through Pet Partners are dogs.

All people and pets who volunteer for the Queen’s North Hawai‘i pet therapy program must be trained and certified through Pet Partners to participate.

“I am extra excited because I am the first nomination from the state of Hawai‘i!” Darby, speaking through the Scullys, says on his Pet of the Year profile page. “I’m also the only Pet Partners miniature horse in Hawai‘i visiting patients, but I’d like to change that. … I’d like to have more of my animal friends helping out, raising the spirits of people in need, and this is where you can help!”

Funds raised by Darby will directly support Pet Partners therapy animal teams, who visit all kinds of people throughout the country, providing comfort that only four-legged furry friends can offer.

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“At Pet Partners, we are motivated by connection, compassion, and a commitment to sharing the human-animal bond with everyone who can benefit from time spent with an animal,” said Pet Partners President and CEO C. Annie Peters in a press release. “Thanks to fundraising events like Pet Partners Pet of the Year, thousands of registered therapy animal teams are able to make millions of visits annually.”

Scully said if her mini horse could speak for himself, he’d say he wants more animals to join his adventures on the Big Island and elsewhere.

“He’s an animal, so of course he has no idea of any of this,” she said. “I mean, he does like the extra attention, but he doesn’t know. But he’s a wonderful partner to get the word out.”

Scully is excited that Darby was nominated for Pet of the Year. She’s equally as thrilled that it gives her a reason to talk about pet therapy, for which there’s a lot of room for growth in Hawai‘i.

There aren’t as many pet therapy teams in the islands as there are in other states, so bringing greater awareness to how it benefits people and the opportunity to bring more teams on board is a big reason why she decided to enter the competition with Darby.

  • Darby proudly sports his new Pet of the Year candidate bandana. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Scully)
  • Darby, a miniature horse owned by Lynn and Rick Scully who is a certified therapy animal, visits a patient at Queen’s North Hawai’i Community Hospital as part of the hospital’s pet therapy program. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Scully)
  • Darby visits a patient and staff at Queen’s North Hawai‘i Community Hospital as part of the hospital’s pet therapy program.(Photo courtesy of Lynn Scully)
  • Darby, a certified therapy animal, visits staff at Queen’s North Hawai‘i Community Hospital. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Scully)

Scully wants to spread the love around, literally, and her main goal is always to “recruit, recruit, recruit.”

“I want more teams here because I see the benefit that it brings people,” she said. “It’s not just people in hospitals. It’s all kinds of places where that little bit of attention, affection, interaction with that animal just brightens that person’s day.”

If Darby were to win, it would provide an even greater platform for recruiting more volunteers around the island and throughout the state.

There’s also a little bit of state pride shining through: “We would love to see Hawai‘i, you know, kind of get on the map,” Scully said. “If the Pet of the Year was from Hawai‘i, that would be fabulous.”

She said the support Darby has gotten so far is amazing. Scully never expected it, but thinks it’s because an animal’s love resonates with people.

The Waimea community, with its long paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy, heritage and love affair with horses, has especially stepped up in support of its mini hometown hero.

“So many people in our area have had horses or lived on a ranch or lived next to a ranch, or their father had a ranch or horse,” Scully said. “There’s just a little bit more deeper of a connection, so I think that’s even more meaningful for people. I can tell from the feedback we’ve already gotten with the campaign people are excited.”

She is being cautiously optimistic since there are about two weeks left of the fundraising competition and, speaking for Darby, said he’s excited about it, too. But he needs everyone’s help to make it happen.

“He can only do so much, and that’s where us humans come in,” Scully said. “He would say he can visit people and make them feel good and bring a smile to their face, but the rest is up to us humans to help out with the program.”

You can meet Darby in person and help him win the Pet of the Year crown during a special fundraising event at Honoka‘a Public House, which, coincidentally, is owned by a couple who share their last name with the Waimea mini horse, Michelle and Keith Darby, who Scully knows personally.

The Pizza, Pints and a Pony! event will be from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday at the pub, located in Unit G at 45-3490 Māmane St. in Honoka‘a. As the name promises, there will be pizza and pints, and horseshoe-shaped cookies will also be available for a donation.

If you can, bring some Pumpkin Spice Cheerios, which Darby got a hankering for while training to be a therapy pet. They’re his favorite treat. If you don’t have access to the seasonal cereal, he’s also a fan of Altoids mints.

Scully will also be on hand to provide information about the competition and pet therapy and the opportunities that exist to participate.

Darby, the little miniature horse with a big heart who is a certified animal for the Queen’s North Hawai‘i Community Hospital pet therapy program, checks his Pet Partners 2024 Pet of the Year profile page on Tuesday, with owner Lynn Scully’s help, see his progress in the fundraising competition. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Scully)

Darby was fervently checking his profile page Tuesday to see where he stood. Scully said he’s pretty computer savvy, but she did have to help him with typing. His hooves aren’t that good for clicking on the keyboard.

“Anything can happen,” she added. “That’s why we got to really push it. We got to push it.”

If you can’t make it Saturday and still want to help Darby be crowned 2024 Pet of the Year, you can donate online until 7:59 p.m. March 18.

For more information about Pet Partners, click here.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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