More than Just Dogs and Horses, Unique Animals Have a Place in the Animal Therapy World: An Interview with Lori Gregory
When most people think of a therapy animal, the first thing that comes to mind is a furry dog with gentle brown eyes, resting his head on the knee of a young children’s hospital patient. However, when Lori Gregory and her daughter, Shannon Hendrickson, of Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas thinks of therapy animals, they automatically imagine one of their camelids, travelling room to room at a nursing home while bringing smiles to faces that haven’t shown a glimpse of happiness in weeks.
Gregory did not grow up around livestock and had her first experience with llamas while visiting a county fair. After moving to a two and a half acre piece of property in Vancouver, Washington, Gregory and her husband, David, went to the fair to find animals to eat down their pasture. Because Hendrickson was an animal lover and seemed very attracted to the llamas, she and Gregory decided to join 4-H in order to discover more about these unusual animals.
After spending a year learning about llamas through 4-H, Gregory and Hendrickson bought their first camelid – Rojo, a four-month-old llama – in 2002. Right away, they realized that Rojo was very friendly, gentle, trainable, and versatile and seemed to have a very unique personality that not all llamas possess. He enjoyed being touched, never shied away from people, and was always eager to receive a pat or hug.
While Hendrickson was showing Rojo at the fair in 2006, two different people came up to both her and Gregory and suggested that they get Rojo certified as a therapy animal, but they were unsure because they knew little about therapy animal work. The next day at the fair, a mother and son approached Rojo. The young boy sat in a wheelchair and had no hands or feet. As his mother pushed him up towards Rojo, he buried himself in Rojo’s soft fiber, and his face lit up immediately. Gregory says that she distinctly remembers hearing an audible voice in her head telling her what to do next.
“The voice said, you know that therapy program you just heard about? You have to do that with Rojo,” said Gregory.
The Therapy Animal Certification Process
Both Gregory and Hendrickson decided to get certified separately with Rojo through the DoveLewis Animal-Assisted Therapy & Education (DLAATE) program which was offered by a nonprofit emergency animal hospital in Portland, Oregon. The DoveLewis certification process required several types of evaluations, as well as supervised training and mentorship to ensure that the handler and animal were suitable to work as representatives of DoveLewis in a therapeutic environment. The first step for Gregory and Hendrickson was an initial evaluation with Rojo to make sure that they were potential candidates for the DoveLewis Animal-Assisted Therapy program. A few weeks later, Rojo stayed home while Gregory and Hendrickson took part in eight hours of classroom training. Before the final therapy animal exam, Gregory and Hendrickson were each required to navigate Rojo through a floor at DoveLewis that contained scenarios to simulate the experience of visiting locations such as hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. Each team was evaluated on how well they reacted to situations that included loud noises, moaning, children reading, medical equipment, and unexpected movement. After each interaction, the evaluators discussed the team’s performance and helped them improve if necessary.
The final portion of the DoveLewis certification process required Gregory, Hendrickson, and Rojo to be evaluated by Pet Partners, an international nonprofit therapy organization that registers a variety of species and their handlers as volunteer teams. The Pet Partners evaluation process included walking between people, dropping Rojo’s lead, and interacting with other animals. Both the DoveLewis and Pet Partners representatives who were present at the evaluation were quite impressed by Rojo’s ability to complete all tasks and his demeanor in multiple new situations. Gregory, Hendrickson, and Rojo were officially recognized as DoveLewis-Certified Therapy Teams after their completion of the Pet Partners evaluation in 2007. Gregory and Hendrickson spent the next two years making voluntary visits with Rojo, representing the DoveLewis DLAATE program. The following year they also decided to register Rojo and another llama with Pet Partners.
The more visits the animals went on, the better they got.
“Every room we went in, [the patients] were having a natural reaction to the animals,” said Gregory. “Our animals had the power to make people do positive things that they didn’t normally do.”
After three years and over 300 visits, Gregory was receiving many requests for therapy visits that were far from her home, but she could not justify the expense of making such trips as a volunteer. Around the same time, DoveLewis had decided to discontinue their award-winning therapy program, so this was a turning point for Gregory. In 2011, she made the decision to start her own independent Limited Liability Company, Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas, LLC, and increased her herd of animals in order to meet the growing demand.
Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas
Another major change came in 2013 when Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas became a 501©3 non-profit corporation that is entirely supported by donations. Gregory has been running the organization alone for the past years, but will be joined again fulltime when Hendrickson moves back to the area later this year. The camelid herd currently consists of five llamas and three alpacas that are all suitable for therapy use on or off the farm. They service the Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington area, visiting children’s hospitals, senior communities, rehabilitation facilities, college campuses, and schools, as well as doing occasional interactions at their farm.
May 5, 2015 marked the 1000th therapy visit for Mtn Peaks, and Gregory could not be more proud.
“It is so rewarding beyond what we had ever dreamed it would be,” said Gregory.
While the llamas and alpacas are large in size and often thought of as farm animals rather than pets, most institutions and communities have been highly receptive to them. When Gregory first started to make therapy visits, she found that nursing homes were very interested in having a farm animal visit because many residents had grown up in rural areas and loved the connection to the larger animals that reminded them of their childhoods. Schools were initially not as interested in visits because of the E. coli scare several years ago; however, Gregory has been receiving an increasing number of school requests for educational presentations and visits to special needs classrooms. She also receives a large number of requests from college and universities to help students destress during finals. A number of hospitals in the Portland area have their own therapy animal programs, exclusive to dogs, so they do not allow camelids as visitors. However, the llamas and alpacas from Mtn Peaks are allowed to visit inside the Vancouver VA Hospital and Providence Center for Medically Fragile Children and visit outside with children at Portland Shriner’s Hospital. For the vast majority of visits, though, Gregory is able to bring her animals into facilities and even up elevators and into the individual rooms.
In addition to therapy work, Mtn Peaks’ animals also attend many charitable fundraising events that benefit those with disabilities such as The Buddy Walk for Down Syndrome, Walk/Roll & Run for Cerebral Palsy, Candlelighters for Kids with Cancer, The American Heart Association’s Heart Walk, and Autism Empowerment. The also attend events that support local animal-related nonprofits such as DoveLewis, Project Pooch, and the Southwest Washington Humane Society. Evenings and weekends are often filled with trips to many special private and community events such as weddings, birthday parties, corporate events, galas, homecoming games, baby showers, memorial services, parades, and carnivals. This portion of the organization was an outgrowth of the therapy visits, as nurses and those who met the animals during visits began to request them for personal events. Through these events, Gregory strives to educate people about llamas and alpacas and open up people’s minds to the amazing impacts of animals. Donations from these events allow Gregory to make many reduced-cost and free visits to locations in need of therapy that do not have budgets for such interactions.
Gregory usually sees a certain series of reactions from people who meet her animals. First, the people are shocked and surprised by the size of the animals. This is followed by a huge smile and then childlike excitement.
The impact that the llamas and alpacas have on people continues to impress Gregory and everyone who meets her animals. Because of the size and tolerance levels of the camelids, people are able to give them firm hugs and touch them all over. Gregory adorns her animals with a variety of decorations such as hats, wreaths, and blankets in order to lighten the mood and encourage people to see more than just the animals’ large size when meeting them.
The llamas and alpacas respond consistently to all people and bring joy and healing to people of all ages and from all walks of life. One particular instance when Rojo demonstrated his ability to provide therapy during a tragic situation took place at a birthday party.
“During a family birthday party that Rojo and I were making an appearance at, I had just arrived when I heard a loud bang in the backyard. Children and adults came running around to the front in a panic, shouting that the upper deck had collapsed onto the patio below. Once all the children were accounted for and were huddled in the front yard, crying from shock and fear, I decided to jump Rojo out of my van. They immediately calmed right down and became relaxed! Within minutes, most all of the kids from the party came over to pet and feed Rojo and were totally oblivious to all the activity going on as the firetruck and ambulances arrived and several injured people were being carried out on stretchers. Even I was amazed with Rojo!” said Gregory.
News of the impact of Mtn Peaks’ therapy animals has spread by word of mouth, keeping Gregory and her camelids in high demand. They have received a large amount of media exposure through local new stories, television shows, and even a fashion show where they annually walked the runway in designer clothes. Rojo has been featured on the Nat Geo Wild series “Unlikely Animal Friends,” in the 2014 book “Unlikely Heroes,” and in an article in the April 2015 edition of O magazine. The Mtn Peaks herd was also filmed for the documentary “Llama Nation” which is scheduled to come out in October 2015. It is through exposure like this Gregory spreads the word about llamas and alpacas and inspires people across the globe to use their animals for therapy work.
The Future of Mtn Peaks
Gregory feels that Mtn Peaks still has room for a lot of growth in the future. Hendrickson will eventually take over the role that Gregory currently plays, and they would like to move to a larger location where more people can visit the farm and do onsite interactions. This would also allow for the opportunity to host open house farm days, farm tours, and training sessions for working with animals. Gregory and Hendrickson also plan to become even better trained and receive certification in animal-assisted therapy through online accredited programs so that they can develop their own certification program for camelids. They envision this program serving as an umbrella for others who want to do therapy work with their camelids in the same way that Mtn Peaks does.
Gregory wants to encourage those who own special animals who are unique to their species, such as Rojo, to share their animals, but she feels that some therapy programs don’t focus enough on interacting with the people. She believes that the animal drives people to respond and open up which facilitates person-to-person interaction and healing.
“The purpose is not to show off the animals,” says Gregory. “It’s to get the people we are interacting with to respond in the most positive way.”
To learn more about Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas, visit their website.