ORLANDO, Fla. — Kevin Rose doesn't claim he can cure anyone, but he's convinced he can teach people to manage their stress.
"The animals," he says, "are fantastic assistants for that."
Those animals include a black bear, three tigers, a cougar and two Asian black leopards. Abandoned by owners, the menagerie now lives at the CARE Foundation, a wildlife center in Apopka, Fla., that works with Rose and his fledgling business, Predatory Perceptions.
Rose escorts clients through the center, stopping at each pen. There, as Bal-shoy, a 600-pound Siberian tiger, paces inches away, or Lola the black bear scratches her back on the fence, he leads clients through a series of relaxation exercises. Rose hopes to one day find paying clients, but the experience, he said, will be free to combat veterans.
"Wiggle your toes. Feel them on the ground," Rose says quietly. "Focus on the colors in her coat. Watch how they change as she moves."
Rose, 47, talks about "experiential grounding" and "present-moment awareness," but his approach is relatively straightforward. By prompting clients to focus on what's happening now, by encouraging them to absorb the sights, sounds and smells of their surroundings, they can quiet — at least temporarily — upsetting thoughts and memories.
Some PTSD experts are cautious in assessing Rose's techniques. They may help people relax, said University of South Florida professor David Diamond, but they shouldn't replace formal treatment.
"It appears benign at best," said Diamond, a PTSD researcher. "It looks like someone without formal training in therapy who wants to help people with PTSD by using caged animals."
Rose doesn't disagree, saying he offers an "experience, not therapy."
"This is one tool I can give them," he said. "It may not be the only one they need."
Rose has a psychology degree from the University of Central Florida, but his expertise is in massage therapy. Before moving to Orlando, Fla., he worked at the Upledger Institute in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. While there, he incorporated dolphins into a treatment plan for children with cerebral palsy.
The Upledger Institute's treatment regimen — called craniosacral therapy — is considered pseudoscience by many medical authorities. But Rose is a believer, just as he believes his "present-moment awareness" training can help veterans process the mental residue of horrific events.
PTSD sufferers often have trouble sleeping, concentrating and building relationships. Sometimes they experience vivid, terrifying flashbacks. Therapists typically treat patients with counseling and medication.
Rose said his approach "may never make a dime," but he's convinced it can be of value. So far, he said, he has walked more than 50 people through the program. One of those was Jamie Reese, a former Marine from the Gulf Coast town of Englewood.
After serving in Iraq, Reese developed severe anxiety and anger-control problems. In 2007, he tried to commit suicide by lying in the road. He was struck by a car and lost his right leg.
"By then," Reese said, "I was a hollow person."
Last year, Reese, who has been through traditional PTSD therapy, visited Rose and the animals. Rose led him through the center, encouraging him to focus on the moment. Reese said that as he settled himself, he could see the animals calm as well.
"It was pretty amazing," he said. "They were feeding off me and my energy."
Rose thinks the predators serve as an emotional barometer for the people around them. When visitors are anxious, he said, the animals are anxious. When a visitor relaxes, he said, the animals follow suit.
Whether that's really happening is debatable. A leopard that paces, then curls up in a corner, may simply be bored. But the notion of a human-animal connection is not that far-fetched.
Dr. Manette Monroe is a professor at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine. Monroe studies how horses help wounded veterans return to civilian life. The animals are naturally wary, she said, so veterans must relax to work with them.
"Part of the reason horses work so well is that they're very sensitive," she said. "You have to learn to quiet yourself. "
Monroe said the same may be true of Rose's predators, but she'd like to see some research on the practice.
"It's worth looking at," she said. "He may have something."