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Texas llama 'therapists' bring cheer to patients

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Owner Carol Rutledge (above) says her llamas have a sixth sense about people, with Jean Wyatt (seated), at the Stockdale Residence and Rehabilitation Center in Stockdale, Texas.

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(Above) Tic saunters down the hall at the Stockdale rehabilitation centre.

Stockdale, Texas

THE 136kg 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 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 centres and walkathons for groups such as the Down Syndrome Association of South Texas.

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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 non-profit clearing house for therapy animals, most are simply family farm pets whose owners take them to hospitals, college campuses and senior centres 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.

Abled to "read people"

"For some people, dogs are a little too much, or they've had a bad experience with them," said Niki Kuklenski, a long-time llama breeder in Bellingham, Washington, who was one of the first to use the animals for therapeutic purposes. She said that her llamas, especially a female named Flight, "will read people. So when she goes into a setting where someone's really animated and excited to see her, she'll put her head down for a hug."

But if someone seems apprehensive, "Flight will stand stock still," Ms Kuklenski said. "She is very cool." At Pet Partners, 94 per cent 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.

Llama owners will tell you that their pets have a sixth sense about people who are needy, ill or frail. 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, Virginia, has eight llamas and five alpacas 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 'counsellor,' and she will spend the first part of the hour telling Woolly what difficulties she's had, and he just sits beside her for that entire time." Ms 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 social interaction in the occupational therapy sessions incorporating animals than in the standard occupational therapy sessions," the study authors wrote.

Animal-assisted care

Hal Herzog, an anthrozoologist and professor emeritus of psychology at Western Carolina University, said that such results are not surprising, though they do not prove the efficacy of animal-assisted therapy. He says there's a big mismatch between what the public believes - or wants to believe - about the effectiveness of therapy animals and what scientific studies show.

He also pointed out that many people who research the human-animal bond are what he calls "true believers", eager to validate the positive influence of pets and emotional support animals. "As an animal lover myself, I really wanted to believe it, too," Prof Herzog said, adding that his research led him to a different conclusion.

Llama therapy is certainly not for everyone. While llamas are gentle creatures, some people find their large stature intimidating or get spooked at seeing livestock indoors.

When two of the Rutledge family's three therapy llamas - Tic and Knock - arrived at the Stockdale Residence and Rehabilitation Center for a regular visit, Bill Smallwood, a resident who is disabled from a motorcycle accident, accepted a small hair brush from Zoe and began grooming her llama. Mr Smallwood is non-verbal, she said, but when the llamas are there, he will murmur and make word-like noises. NYTIMES