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Remembering Rojo: Beloved therapy llama’s touching legacy to live on

After 12 years comforting the Clark County community, cherished camelid dies of natural causes. Now, he'll take up residence at the Washington State School for the Blind Sensory Safari.

By , Columbian staff writer, and
, Columbian Education Reporter
Published: November 6, 2019, 6:28pm

Clark County’s cherished camelid companion Rojo the Llama died of natural causes at 8 a.m. Wednesday, clip-clopping across the rainbow bridge from his veterinarian’s office at Oregon State University before he was scheduled to be euthanized.

The ginger giant had served 12 years as a therapy animal, visiting schools, community events, adult care centers and more, often adorned in elaborate and festive outfits. He’d been registered through the DoveLewis Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Hospital.

Rojo retired with great fanfare late last month. But his life of leisure wouldn’t last. According to his dedicated Facebook page, Rojo’s health took a turn for the worse last week. A visit to his vet found that the 17-year-old lovable llama might have some hereditary problems, including cancer, that would explain his steep decline.

The typical lifespan for a llama in captivity is 15 to 25 years.

Rojo’s legacy will live on at the Washington State School for the Blind Sensory Safari. The room features taxidermy displays of exotic animals, including an African lion posed as though taking down its prey, a sable antelope. Visually impaired students and visitors are encouraged to touch the animals, giving them an opportunity to experience the wildlife through their other senses.

Rojo’s handlers say they’ve been in talks with the school for years to offer the llama a place in the safari.

Remembering Rojo the Llama

“I met Rojo while covering an Easter egg hunt for blind students. Students gathered around for a chance to hug him or “kiss” him by holding a baby carrot in their teeth and offering it to Rojo. I confess that Rojo was this reporter’s first llama kiss. He brought joy to many.”

— Susan Parrish, former Columbian education reporter

“I’ve been volunteering with Rojo the Llama and Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas for a year now, and it’s been the best thing to happen to me. Working with Rojo and his buddies has been therapy for lots of people, but even for me.”

— Jamie Borota

“I met him in 2010, and he’s such an indelible part of the Portland-Southwest Washington community — he’s just everywhere. So when I got married, having him and Napoleon at the wedding was one of the first things I thought of. Rojo was more popular than the married couple.”

— Andrea Damewood, former Columbian county government reporter

“Rojo always came to Global Youth Service Day at Fort (Vancouver High School Center for International Studies) … I’ve loved Rojo for years and am so glad I got a picture with him.”

— Cheri Blanton Chavers

“My son and I have had the great privilege of cuddling Rojo many times. He has helped so many people and has brought such great joy to the world. Thank you for your sweetness, love and service, Rojo! Good boy!”

— Anna Slocum

“I was doing makeup at the (Zombie Brew Fest), and I was covered with fake blood and I was afraid I would get it in his fur. So before I wiped all the blood off I was feeding him carrots with my teeth. We were all cracking up because here I am covered in Zombie blood and the llama was so gentle taking carrots from my mouth — I know kind of gross, but it was the cutest thing.”

— Dawn Baker Lott

“We were at the Hockinson Elementary book fair — the boys (twins Caleb and Ayden) LOVED Rojo!! They spent most of the time we were there with Rojo. Lots to do that evening, but they wanted to hang out with him. This must have been when they were 7 … They are now 13.”

— Mary Shaw Hyde, on her grandsons meeting Rojo

“My heart is broken. My love for Rojo is deep and ever lasting. I have many, many fond memories of Rojo visiting my place of work, so many years ago. … May Rojo’s memory be a blessing.”

— Anita Krivitzky

“Morbid? Creepy? Nah,” his handlers posted on Facebook. “He will forever live on for the students to come who want to know what a llama is like.”

Well, OK, it is a bit odd, acknowledged Washington State School for the Blind Superintendent Scott McCallum. But, he added, “I just know that Rojo means so much to everyone here.”

Rojo’s handlers and the school have a long-standing relationship. The llama has been a mainstay at the school’s annual track meet, which brings visually impaired athletes from across the state to Vancouver, as well as at events like last spring’s beeping Easter egg hunt on campus.

McCallum said the Sensory Safari gives students a chance to understand the size, scale and feel of wild animals in a way they may not otherwise be able. And to those sighted visitors, it may give them a better appreciation of how blindness or visual impairment can impact a person’s understanding of the world.

“I like to think it’s helping us be more inclusive in our thoughts and ideas about people,” McCallum said.

And maybe, he added, a student will be inspired to pursue a career in zoology or wildlife preservation. Who knows? Maybe Rojo, when he joins the collection in a few months, will inspire some future llama handlers, he said.

“You can learn a lot about our world through touching all these animals,” he added.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a local organization that hadn’t interacted with Rojo in some capacity over his decade-plus in the service animal biz.

He was a repeat guest on “Hello Vancouver!,” a community talk show co-hosted by Clark County Councilor Temple Lentz.

Lentz said she was immediately taken with her furry, unorthodox interview subject when he first appeared on the show a few years ago. She’d later walk with her new llama friend in the Portland Thanksgiving parade.

16 Photos
Joanne Haberlock of Vancouver feeds carrot sticks to Rojo the llama, left, and Napoleon the alpaca, right, during the Seniors and Law Enforcement Together annual picnic at the Lacamas Lake Lodge in Camas on Monday afternoon, July 23, 2018. Rojo and Napoleon, from Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas, arrived at the event early to welcome the seniors.    (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian)
Remembering Rojo Photo Gallery

“It’s really remarkable. He does — or did — have this wonderful energy and spirit. He’s immediately calming,” Lentz said. “I got to see him have this effect on everybody.”

Denise Barr, vice president of marketing at the Humane Society for Southwest Washington, said Rojo had been a popular fixture at Humane Society events for years.

“He made an appearance at our Discover Camps in the summer and has been a fan favorite at the Walk/Run for the Animals for many years,” Barr said. “He greeted our guests with a ‘carrot kiss.’ We (are) immensely sad to hear about his passing.”

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said she remembers Rojo as an active member of the entire community.

“At the Scouts’ Eagle Court of Honor, Rojo was a welcomed guest. I might add that llama was well behaved!” McEnerny-Ogle said. “Children found him a comfortable companion.”

Rojo the Llama's legacy

A GoFundMe campaign that was created on behalf of Rojo the Llama, a beloved therapy animal that served the Portland-Vancouver area. It has raised more than $5,000 in just 16 hours. To donate visit: https://bit.ly/2pE5nfk

Rojo has a GoFundMe page to help cover his final veterinarian bills, as well as his taxidermy expenses. Rojo’s owner, Lori Gregory, and handler, Shannon Joy, are aiming to raise $10,000.

“All other funds that might exceed these will go back to our (nonprofit) as we work towards opening the farm in 2020 to offer private therapy and educational visits along with public open-house days to introduce the rest of our herd to the community,” Gregory and Joy wrote on the page.

To donate, visit gf.me/v/c/78v/rojo039s-legacy-continues.

Rojo is remembered for his impeccable fashion sense, his steady temperament and his everlasting appetite for carrot sticks.

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