First there were therapy dogs. Then came therapy cats. More recently, the list of therapy animals has expanded to include horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, potbellied pigs…even llamas and alpacas! It seems people have finally begun to realize what I have known for most of my life – that virtually any animal has the capability to help our seniors, special needs children, hospital patients, rehabilitation facility residents and others who need cheering up.
When it comes to therapy animals, size doesn’t matter because animals are so pure of heart and willing to lend a paw (or a hoof) to spread cheer. Case in point: a big, shaggy-haired llama named Rojo and an equally hairy alpaca named Napoleon can bring on the smiles every bit as much as a fluffy little dog can!
Admittedly, llamas and alpacas might not be the first species that comes to mind when you think of therapy animals. However, the Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas don’t let this stop them from visiting schools, hospitals, senior communities and rehab facilities throughout Portland, OR and Vancouver, WA. Offering friendship and a warm hug, these very special therapy animals help alleviate loneliness and reduce stress, and their presence brings a sense of normalcy to institutional settings.
Mountain Peaks, a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation, offers therapy teams that have successfully completed the Animal-Assisted Therapy Certification process. Rojo was their first therapy animal; this unusually people-friendly llama received his Certification in 2007. Since then, the Mountain Peaks menagerie – Rojo, Smokey, Beni and Little Chap (llamas), and Napoleon, Jean-Pierre and Andre (alpacas), have completed more than 900 therapeutic visits. Mountain Peaks also provides theme-decorated llamas and alpacas for birthday parties, BBQs, weddings and other private and corporate events.
How did the idea to train llamas and alpacas to become therapy animals even occur to someone? For Mountain Peaks’ owner, Lori Gregory and her daughter, Shannon Hendrickson, it all started with one very huggable llama who they say has enjoyed being around people since the day he was born. Rojo was Shannon’s 4H project; she won Grand Champion with him at the local and state levels in the Public Relations and Handler Classes. One day while the dynamic duo was at a fair, someone suggested that the exceptionally gentle creature should become a therapy animal so he could enrich the lives of many.
Shannon and Lori both completed the Animal-Assisted Therapy Training through DoveLewis in Portland, and separately took Rojo through the final evaluation to become the first llama therapy teams ever certified by DoveLewis. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Rojo is recognized as a local celebrity since he participates in many parades and charity events. Rojo and another certified llama, Smokey, rank as the top two “Beyond the Showring” PR llamas in the world. Lori says that everywhere Rojo and company go, they never fail to light up the room. She gets as much joy from seeing everyone react so positively to her unique therapy ambassadors as the patients do from their visits.
Part of the success might be because these are just not your typical therapy animals, so they elicit more curiosity than a dog might. Says Lori, “We have seen people that haven’t verbalized or been responsive to other types of therapy treatments in months, attempting to speak, and trying to sit up and reach out to touch Rojo or Smokey; others that don’t usually want to leave their rooms are eager to come out when they know we are there; tears of joy when we make in-room visits.”
Kelly Schmidt, a social worker at Providence Children’s Center had this to say about the sociable Rojo: “He just brings a smile to absolutely everybody that’s there, so it’s a very contagious spirit to have Rojo around — because it’s just so unusual.”
Now I know what many of you have been asking yourself since the first paragraph. “But don’t llamas spit? How can creatures that spit on you be good therapy animals?” Yes, we’ve all seen videos of people being showered with llama spit, and it doesn’t look like fun. However, Lori explains that although all members of the camelid family spit, her llamas rarely do unless they feel really threatened or are very stressed or tired. Spitting is a llama’s way of either defending himself or trying to dominate another animal. She says you can teach llamas not to spit, and you can also lessen the unwanted behavior by knowing the triggers.
What about the bathroom situation, you were probably wondering. Well, rest assured – not only can you potty train a llama(!), but Lori’s therapy animals all wear a protective garment she specially designed for them. So if they are in the middle of some fancy event or it’s not convenient to take the llamas outside, neither she nor the facility has to worry about accidents. Because the llamas have bushy tails and furry behinds and are usually wearing costumes, no one even knows about the llamas “special” protection. Shh… it’s our little secret!
I think the idea of therapy llamas and alpacas is actually pretty cool. Especially when they are as friendly and adorable as Rojo. Naturally, Rojo has his own Facebook page to keep in touch with his fans. Be sure to stop by and give him a wave or a holler. Just don’t “poke” him or he might virtually spit on you. (Kidding!).
Photos by Lori Gregory/Mtn. Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas
Read more articles by Julia Williams