I met Lori at a seniors’ expo in downtown Vancouver. I’m not sure what was more odd – me being at a seniors’ expo on a Saturday afternoon, or seeing Lori at her booth connected by a short lead to Napoleon, a cream-colored alpaca wearing a red hat and sparkly accessories gazing serenely at the seniors gathered around him. I was at the expo volunteering for Columbia River Pet Partners, an organization that matches people and their pets (usually dogs) up with various programs that bring therapy animals to people in need – folks in retirement and rehab centers, kids in hospitals, reading programs in libraries, and similar groups. Lori was at the expo promoting her non-profit organization, Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas. I’m in the process of getting a couple of certificates, one in Animal Assisted Therapy (more about that in a future post), and had never heard of llamas or alpacas being used as therapy animals, so after chatting with her a bit, Lori invited me to come along with her to visit a rehabilitation center a few weeks later.
I took an afternoon off from work (hmmm…sitting at my computer, or playing with llamas? Sitting at my computer, or playing with llamas? It wasn’t a hard decision, honestly) and drove out to Lori’s home and small farm on a hot, dry day. Lori met me at her door and immediately gave me a hug as she hurriedly went around back to finish preparing Rojo for our visit to the rehab center. I followed her to a shed behind her house where Rojo, a 12 year old llama who even has his own Facebook page, waited patiently for Lori to finish grooming him. Rojo towered over me, with a long furry neck and very fluffy legs, resembling a camel wearing pantaloons. Lori explained to me that llamas and alpacas are more related to camels than anything else, which makes sense when you look at them. Rojo didn’t seem to mind that I was there as Lori finished brushing his coat, making it soft, smooth and shiny. He was so very calm and proud, and didn’t even seem to care that I was there.
I was wondering how we were going to get Rojo to the rehab center, when Lori opened the sliding door on a minivan behind the shed and Rojo jumped right in the back and sat down. Well, ok! I’d never ridden in a minivan with a llama before, but there’s a first for everything, I suppose. On the way down, Lori carefully navigated the highway drive into Portland while chatting about her experience using llamas and alpacas as therapy animals. She’s had Rojo since he was six months old, and has been using him as a therapy animal since he was four. Her shoulder-length blond hair blew in the air-conditioned breeze from the minivan’s vents…it was hot in the car, and Rojo was probably warm underneath all that hair. An extrovert, I can see why Lori makes a good facilitator for interactions with her animals and clients – she explained the ins and outs of her business with me, and was very candid about some of the challenges she’s had to overcome. But she passionately explained that alpacas and llamas are great as therapy animals because the are so patient, calm, large and sturdy, and can take petting and touching from people who aren’t necessarily very coordinated due to age or physical ailments. They generally aren’t shaken up by noises, activities around them, and are easily maneuverable around equipment and furniture. I learned a lot from Lori during that car ride, and Rojo listened as well, patiently as ever.
During our visit to the rehabilitation center, Lori confidently steered Rojo to every single resident of the rehab center, which also seemed to be a nursing home for many older residents. She engaged with each and every single person, asking questions, and even guiding hands over fur for those clients who couldn’t see or move to touch Rojo themselves. I was the carrot girl, doling out short slices of carrots to everyone to feed to Rojo, who will never have a vitamin A deficiency, I’m sure. Some of the
residents were even brave enough to put a piece of carrot between their lips and get a kiss from Rojo! I was enamored by the caring and gentle way that both Lori and Rojo interacted with each person. Lori explained that for some of the residents, visits from her animals are sometimes the only visits they receive. Lori is able to visit this particular center every month or two, but you can see the recognition and happiness that these visits bring. It was almost magical, the effect that Lori and Rojo had on the people at the rehab center, including the staff, who spend their days caring for the people living there.
I was so fortunate to spend the afternoon with Lori and Rojo – Lori taught me a lot about the healing power of therapy animals, and was a great example of how to interact with this very special group of people who need all the love they can get. It was an honor to observe their work, and I hope to get to do it again sometime soon…I’d even be willing to take another afternoon off of work!
I know I’m a little behind in the writing assignments, but I had to write about my experience with the therapy llama. I realize that I chose to write about *both* Lori and Rojo, who are *both* very interesting, and I hope I gave you at least a small picture of who they are and what they do. I’m so glad I got to meet both of these unique individuals!