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May 1st, 2013 JOHN LOCANTHI | Culture Features
 

Softer Than Prozac

Despite celebrity status, a local therapy llama continues his charitable work.

culture_llama_3926ME LLAMA ROJO: John Locanthi experiences pure llama bliss on a casual Friday at the WW office. - IMAGE: Kurt Armstrong
Animal therapy is big and getting bigger. Veterans returning from the Bush Wars are raising dogs to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, and recent studies show that animals reduce anxiety levels in mental institutions. The most common animal for this therapy is the ever-reliable dog. But in Portland, we are blessed with llamas, including Rojo and Smokey, two certified therapy llamas, owned by Lori Gregory and Shannon Hendrickson of Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas.

In recent months, Rojo has become a minor celebrity, earning mention on CNN, Huffington Post, KOIN and a host of other outlets. Local designer and Project Runway winner Seth Aaron Henderson even designed costumes for Rojo. Instead of smugly pointing out that we knew Rojo before he was cool—WW named him “best llama” way back in 2010—we revisited his practice in preparation for National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week, which runs May 5-11.

While primarily tasked with watching Rojo work with his regular clients, as an underemployed recent college grad living with my mother in the suburbs, I hoped Rojo might be able to help me with my freelancer’s ennui.

On this day, Rojo is working at the Serendipity Center, a school for children and adolescents struggling with mental illness and behavioral problems. I’m greeted at the door by the school’s executive director, Belinda Marier, who leads me down the hall to the game room. Hanging next to the door is a white sheet of paper with two words scrawled across it: “LLAMA ROOM.”

A proud, auburn-furred llama stands in the middle of a crowd of excited children, faculty and his two handlers. This is the famed Rojo. As I enter, the llama stands about shoulder-height to me, but he perks up as I step closer. The flowery antennae atop his head—part of his spring costume—make us almost even, though he holds a slight advantage in furriness. 

“It’s just about time for another haircut,” Gregory says. “He gets those once a year.”

“Sometimes when we’re grooming him, we find little knots and braids tied by the children,” she adds.

Excited children filter in and out of the llama room, some in groups, others solo. Some faculty members sneak in to give Rojo a hug as well. Normally he would be visited by individual classes, but today is a special event: the spring dance. Despite the visits being less organized, Rojo faces it with a stoic vacancy.

“You sure love petting him there,” Hendrickson says to me.

Looking down, I realize I’ve been subconsciously running my fingers through the thick hair along Rojo’s lower back while watching the children hug and pet him. The fur is thick yet soft and surprisingly dander-free. It is like petting my cat, without fear of hisses, scratches or bites.

“Most llamas don’t like it when you pet them back there or on their head,” Gregory tells me as my petting continues unabated. “But Rojo doesn’t mind.”

“The strongest part of a llama’s body is its neck,” says one excited blond adolescent.

The door swings open and an adolescent with a blanket over his head walks in with his teacher. After much coaxing, he begins to pet Rojo on the side. Then he gives the llama a hug. Then he shakes hands with everyone in the room. After he leaves, the remaining faculty and trainers look at each other in wide-eyed astonishment.

“That was fantastic,” Marier says. The school director slides a carrot between her teeth and gives Rojo a big “kiss” on the lips. 

Hendrickson points out that I am petting Rojo again.

Rojo, along with Gregory and Hendrickson’s other therapy llamas and alpacas, has been involved with the Serendipity Center for five years. Marier and Gregory finish each other’s sentences as they talk about the years of llama visitations.

Many of the children at the center have developed a relationship with Rojo, from the pedantic llama expert to the shy kid below the blanket to the little girl who bursts into the room and gives him a kiss.

The kids lead him out of the llama room and onto the dance floor. Amid the dark lighting, Rojo is unfazed as a swarm of children dance around and pet him.

Throughout the duration of Rojo’s visit, he didn’t make any quick movements. He didn’t spit. He didn’t even make a noise—perhaps why the Peruvians call llamas “our silent brothers.” He stood. He ate out of our hands when offered. He followed when led by a leash. He stood a bit taller to compete with me for dominance. But, as you look into his beautiful, cowlike eyes, there’s something to be said for just having a big, calm, fuzzy animal around when you need one.

After the dance, Rojo steps into the back of Gregory’s silver Town & Country and buries his face in a mound of hay, spreading it over the front two seats. It’s time to take his therapeutic practice elsewhere. 


PET: For more information about Rojo the Therapy Llama, go to rojothellama.com.

 
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