Lla­mas, al­pacas pro­vide emo­tional sup­port

Santa Fe New Mexican - - THE WEATHER - By Jen­nifer A. Kingson

STOCK­DALE, Texas — The 300-pound lla­mas strolled qui­etly through the cor­ri­dors of the nurs­ing home, low­er­ing their heads to be pet­ted by res­i­dents in wheel­chairs and paus­ing pa­tiently as staffers took self­ies.

“Did you get a bath to­day?” one res­i­dent, Jean Wy­att, asked Tic, a white male llama owned by Zoe Rut­ledge. (He had.)

Zoe, a high school sopho­more, was there with her par­ents, Jeff and Carol Rut­ledge, who keep 13 lla­mas and al­pacas at their home here in Stock­dale, an ex­urb of San An­to­nio. Three of their herd have passed the qual­i­fy­ing exam nec­es­sary to be­come reg­is­tered ther­apy lla­mas, a test that in­volves be­ing touched by strangers and re­main­ing im­pas­sive when peo­ple nearby start ar­gu­ing.

“You look for the ones that are mel­low and calm,” said Zoe, ex­plain­ing how her fam­ily chose the an­i­mals they take to as­sisted liv­ing fa­cil­i­ties, nurs­ing and vet­er­ans’ homes, re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ters and walkathons for groups like the

Down Syn­drome As­so­ci­a­tion of South Texas.

Lla­mas and al­pacas — pop­u­lar in TV com­mer­cials, as toys and on all man­ner of ap­parel — are si­mul­ta­ne­ously grow­ing more com­mon in ther­a­peu­tic set­tings. While a hand­ful are reg­is­tered with Pet Part­ners, a na­tional non­profit clear­ing­house for ther­apy an­i­mals, most are sim­ply fam­ily farm pets whose own­ers take them to hospi­tals, col­lege cam­puses and se­nior cen­ters to ease peo­ple’s stress.

The nov­elty fac­tor is a big part of the ap­peal, along with the crea­tures’ big-eyed, em­pa­thetic gaze. Among the an­i­mals that bi­ol­o­gists re­fer to as charis­matic megafauna — tigers, ele­phants, gi­ant pan­das and the like — lla­mas, which are not en­dan­gered, are among the few that peo­ple can safely hug.

“For some peo­ple, dogs are a lit­tle too much, or they’ve had a bad ex­pe­ri­ence with them,” said Niki Kuk­len­ski, a long­time llama breeder in Belling­ham, Wash., who was one of the first to use the an­i­mals for ther­a­peu­tic pur­poses. At Pet Part­ners, 94 per­cent of the reg­is­tered ther­apy an­i­mals are dogs, but there are 20 lla­mas and al­pacas in the mix, said Elisabeth Van Ev­ery, a spokes­woman for the group. (Most are lla­mas, which are much larger than al­pacas and typ­i­cally far friend­lier to hu­mans.)

Peo­ple who reg­is­ter their an­i­mals are cov­ered un­der Pet Part­ners’ in­surance for the du­ra­tion of their ther­apy vis­its, and must abide by strict rules about health, groom­ing and work­ing con­di­tions. No an­i­mal may work more than two hours a day, and han­dlers must be aware of any signs of fa­tigue or an­noy­ance.

Carol Rut­ledge says that her ther­apy llama, whose name is Knock, will walk vol­un­tar­ily to the bed­side of a hospice pa­tient and stand in si­lence while the pa­tient reaches for him. “It wrenches at your heart,” she said. “It’s taken me sev­eral vis­its to be able to get through it with­out get­ting emo­tional.”

Mona Sams, an oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pist in Roanoke, Va., has eight lla­mas at her prac­tice, which serves chil­dren with autism and other dis­or­ders, as well as adults with de­vel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties. One pa­tient is a girl with se­vere cere­bral palsy and seizures who comes twice a week. “I have one llama,” — named Woolly — “who lit­er­ally sits there with her for a whole hour, face to face,” Sams said. “She calls Woolly her ‘coun­selor,’ and she will tell Woolly what dif­fi­cul­ties she’s had, and he just sits be­side her for that en­tire time.”

Sams is the lead au­thor of what seems to be the only pub­lished study in­volv­ing the use of lla­mas as ther­apy an­i­mals. The ar­ti­cle, pub­lished in 2006 in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Oc­cu­pa­tional Ther­apy, de­scribes a very small clin­i­cal trial in which chil­dren with autism were given ei­ther stan­dard oc­cu­pa­tional ther­apy or ther­apy that in­volved han­dling lla­mas.

The re­sults “in­di­cated that the chil­dren en­gaged in sig­nif­i­cantly greater use of lan­guage and sig­nif­i­cantly so­cial in­ter­ac­tion in the oc­cu­pa­tional ther­apy ses­sions in­cor­po­rat­ing an­i­mals than in the stan­dard oc­cu­pa­tional ther­apy ses­sions,” the study au­thors wrote.

JEN­NIFER KINGSON/NEW YORK TIMES

Jean Wy­att greets Tic at the Stock­dale Res­i­dence and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter in Stock­dale, Tex.

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