Bellingham Health and Rehabilitation Center in Washington, USA, is a clean, tranquil place that prides itself on its “home-like environment.” All the residents are recovering from illness, most are elderly, and many have been there for years. Visitors are few and far between. So every few months, Marisco and N.H Flight of the Eagle – showered, dressed up and accompanied by Niki Kuklenski – are welcome guests as they take a tour of the nursing home, stopping at each bed to kiss the patients or have a hug. Marisco and N.H are trained therapists, and they are llamas.
“It’s a treat, watching the llamas walk down the hallway,” says Jack Houston, one of the residents. “It’s amazing that there’s another life out there.” For some, it’s the most cuddling they receive in their time at the center; for others, it’s a welcome novelty, relieving the boredom of life in an institution. The llamas leave a profound impression. “I had never met one before,” remembers Holly Barto. “It was heaven. Just emotionally – to be able to touch an animal and hold an animal close.”
“It was heaven. Just emotionally – to be able to touch an animal and hold an animal close”
Holly Barto, Bellingham Health and Rehabilitation Center, Washington, USA
The idea of a 50-kilogram furry llama walking the corridors of a health-care facility might verge on the absurd, but animal-assisted therapy shows results. Its roots as a contemporary treatment can be traced back to 1975, when David Lee, a social worker, gifted small animals like fish, gerbils and birds to inmates at the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Over time, fighting among the inmates reduced significantly, and suicide attempts ceased.
Curiosity about why animal-therapy works motivated a 2009 University of Missouri study. Participants sat for 15 minutes in a quiet room with no dog, their own dog (if they had one), a friendly dog they didn’t know, or a robot dog, and were told to stroke them. Blood pressure in both human and dog (if present and not a robot) was taken throughout the sessions, and showed that, perhaps unsurprisingly, dogs get more out of being stroked than humans. They all experienced an immediate drop in blood pressure when petted, while humans took up to 15 minutes to show a 10 percent fall. Blood samples, however, revealed that levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter commonly associated with feelings of wellbeing, notably increased in many of the humans stroking dogs. Strikingly, the robotic dog was worse than no dog at all – it decreased people’s serotonin, making them, chemically, less happy.
The Delta Society, a non-profit organization that licenses animals for therapy, says 10,000 animals are currently registered for care work in the USA. Many work with the elderly, such as service dogs trained to use one-button “K-9” phones routed to carers or emergency services. Others are unregistered, but still provide valuable services to old people, such as the brightly colored fish in aquariums at many retirement homes, which distract Alzheimer’s sufferers so that they sit with their meals long enough to eat them.
Of the USA’s 10,000 animal therapists, only 14 are llamas. Niki, who trains Marisco and N.H. Flight of the Eagle, says that very few llamas have the temperament to be certified therapists. To qualify, they must be at least two years old, have never been bottle-fed, and undergo a variety of tests checking how they react to stressful situations.
“It’s something different,” says Holly, considering how Marisco’s visits compare to time with people. “The animals love you unconditionally.” And when the llamas leave? “I think about it. Fond memories. It fills your heart.”