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Petting zoos at the office are the latest perk for stressed-out employees

Squeals on Wheels brought animals to a real estate agency in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26 to help employees relax. (Video: Patrick Martin, Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Chris Delaney typically unwinds from his job at Discovery Communications by taking leisurely weekend drives or flipping through stacks of vinyl at used record stores. But on a recent midweek afternoon, the broadcast ingest operator was releasing his stress — right there at work — by stroking a bearded dragon, a household lizard with thankfully inert spikes.

“He’s very mellow,” Delaney said of the coldblooded creature resting on his lap. “Applying a warm hand puts this guy in a good mood.”

At the office animal party for the over-My Little Pony set, the good vibrations were flowing in both directions. How could you tell? Well, Norbert didn’t puff up his body and deploy his defenses, and Delaney didn’t rush to the medic with gouged fingertips. Quite the opposite: After finishing with Norbert, he requested a cuddle with another member of the visiting menagerie from Squeals on Wheels, a traveling petting zoo based in Potomac, Md.

“I think my favorite was the rabbit,” Delaney said after several failed attempts to soothe an African pygmy hedgehog named Tweedledee. (Or was it his brother, Tweedledum? Hard to know, because all hedgehogs act like twitchy acupuncturists.)

At the mention of his name, Rex the Velveteen rabbit attempted an escape, thumping his head against the cover of his wooden bin. Perhaps he needed an animal to hold, too.

In these anxious times, the embattled masses are resorting to all manner of succor. We meditate in the morning and drink a stiff one after work. Yell at traffic on the way to laughter yoga. Binge on Netflix all night and down cup after cup of pour-over coffee the next morning.

And now, with the rise of office animal parties, you can stroke a bunny, cradle a puppy or massage a tortoise’s neck on company time. If your colleagues or clients grow irate over unanswered emails, tell them to submit a complaint to Slinky, the blue-tongued skink.

“Animals make the environment less stress-y,” says Alan Beck, director of the Center of the Animal-Human Bond at Purdue University. “When you talk to another person, your blood pressure goes up. When you talk to animals, it goes down.”

During the tensest time of the year, Dawn Bailey, director of human resources at Aronson accounting firm in Rockville, Md., arranges special treats for her bleary-eyed accountants. For this tax season, she hired Squeals on Wheels. “All I wanted to see was the teacup pig running down the hallway,” she said. Unfortunately, that fantasy didn’t fly, as the oinker couldn’t breach the conference room.

Workplace stress is a real affliction, of course, but so is Instagram-oholism, especially among millennials. Which makes the office animal parties a major draw.

“We don’t put ordinary experiences from the office on our social feed,” notes Jeff Fromm, an author of books on the millennial generation, “just the extraordinary.”

The unconventional perks can also help employees forget — or at least forgive — their long work hours. Your 12-hour day may prevent you from owning a dog, but you can frolic with one on the clock.

“For many people today, particularly millennials, there is a definite blurring of the line between personal life and work,” said Jason Dorsey, president and co-founder of the Center for Generational Kinetics in Austin. “Millennials often know they won’t be able to retire, so why not have fun at work?”

Thanks to this trend, animal facilities across the country are accumulating miles on their little red wagons. Honey Hill Farm has led camels to a shipping logistics provider in Cincinnati (for Hump Day, of course) and released hopping kangaroos in its hallways. Brooklyn’s Foster Dogs has let its rescue pups loose at various New York offices. Austin-based Tiny Tails to You has chilled out such pressure-cooker players as Apple, Facebook, Dell and Whole Foods.

Of course, animal encounters during business hours can involve some risk, so keep a spare shirt and dry shampoo in your desk drawer.

“I don’t want her to go to the bathroom in your hair,” Squeals on Wheels’ Grant Phillips warned a Nest DC employee as a chicken blazed a northward trail.

Nest DC, a property management company, can’t seem to kick the critter habit. For its third Squeals on Wheels event in two years, some of the guests returned, but others didn’t receive an invitation.

“We didn’t bring the ducks this time,” said Grant, “because they kind of made a mess last year.”

Better-behaving birds Delilah and Henrietta, both bantam chicks, did attend. Baby teacup pig Thumbelina came wrapped in, yes, a blanket and slept through most of the two-hour stay. Nothing could rouse her. Not the squeaks of the guinea pigs or the carousel ride of hands passing her around like a hairy infant.

“I think everyone would be so much nicer if they could cuddle a pig once a week,” said Grace Langham, chief executive of Nest DC.

Employees at Dataprise in Rockville also discovered the calming effect of nuzzling with creatures, but their Xanax was puppies.

“I juggle multiple tasks,” said Charlie Chiochankitmun, a program manager, “so it’s nice to juggle multiple puppies instead.”

Homeward Trails Rescue Center in Fairfax Station, Va., supplied the quartet of pups, who ran, wrestled and relieved themselves around the break room. Employee Sarah Tabor raced over to a puddle in high-heeled boots, paper towels in hand. Later, at the kitchen sink, Nabil Gharbieh tended to puppy-induced wounds on his arms.

“Are they vaccinated?” he jokingly asked the volunteer.

Eight-week-old Taisha, Taima and Tabora scrambled down a hallway. Taima paused for a quick chew on an elegant green suede shoe still attached to a foot.

“It’s hard to be stressed with puppies running around,” said Katie Zelonka as she watched them dash past. “I don’t know how much we’re getting done, though. I should get back to my email.”

After 90 minutes, the puppies passed out under a kitchen table and the employees grudgingly returned to work, the dog hair on their clothes and the bite marks on their shoes serving as reminders to relax.