Lore tells us that an English retreat first used animals to ease “emotionally ill” patients’ woes in the 1790s. Today, hundreds of such quadruped therapists, often officially certified for the task, roam Northwest care centers, dispensing intangible (but real, many clinicians say) aid. Almost all are dogs. Only a few are llamas. 

Two of the region’s working camelids, Rojo and Smokey, are helping pioneer a new role for their species: goodbye, hippie wool garments and dinner-plate cameos as “the other other burger”; hello to schools, hospitals, and rehab facilities. Their unusual career sheds light on a surprisingly rigorous niche of modern care, one likely to grow as the region’s ever-advanced alt-medical landscape gets even more touchy-feely. 

Becoming a therapy llama isn’t easy. After Lori Gregory, the two beasts’ Vancouver-area owner, saw a wheelchair-bound 5-year-old light up at the sight of Rojo, the pasture mates underwent extensive training through Portland’s Dove Lewis animal hospital. At one point, the llamas were walked into a busy street to gauge responses to traffic. Their trainers also led them into unsettling simulated scenarios: humans screaming, thrashing, wearing funny hats, even surrounded by beeping machines and attached to webs of tubes. 

The two animals have since made more than 600 therapeutic visits. (They do still work birthday parties and the like.) While most llamas are defensive and volatile—an entire YouTube subgenre documents their yen for spitting on people—Gregory’s pets seem downright pliant. The former professional dressmaker might outfit her animals as unicorns one day and put them in thigh-high lace-up boots and flowered hats the next. 

Once a month Rojo and Smokey venture to Portland’s Serendipity Center, a school for children with behavioral issues. “It’s really become a part of our institution,” says Serendipity’s Jelena Doney. “We have a lot of nonverbal autistic kids, and coaching the llamas gives them a great chance to practice language skills. I can’t walk through the halls without one of the kids saying ‘Is it llama day?’”