RIDGEFIELD — Mention therapy animals, and many people think of a happy-go-lucky golden retriever or fluffy cat happily lounging on a lap. For Shannon Joy and her mother, Lori Gregory, their tastes run a bit larger than the average lap.
Joy and Gregory co-own Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas in Ridgefield, a 12-acre farm off Interstate 5 just across from ilani.
“There’s something about the nonthreatening nature of the animals and the uniqueness of them, not being a dog or a horse. It gets you out of your comfort zone but in a very safe way,” Joy said.
Joy and Gregory have been on a mission to share their alpaca adoration and llama love for nearly two decades. Their journey began with their first llama, Rojo.
“We were looking for the right lawn mower,” Joy said. “We met some llamas and fell in love.”
Joy then got involved in 4-H, where she learned about raising and caring for llamas. That experience led her to therapy work. In 2007, she had her first llama certified through the DoveLewis veterinary hospital in Portland.
“That’s when it took over my mom’s and my life,” Joy said.
Although Rojo died in 2019, his memory lives on in their work. Joy and Gregory formed a nonprofit and began visiting schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other places.
Joy said being around the animals lets people forget about their own worries and problems and instead focus on the experience.
“I call it the unicorn effect. They just brighten up every environment they walk into.”
Photographer Olivia Peabody, who works at the farm shooting photos during the holidays, said working with the llamas and alpacas was unexpected.
“When I first started being around them — it was something a lot of us don’t have any experience with — it was completely a surprise. They’re the last thing you expect to be able to snuggle up to,” Peabody said.
Not just any alpaca or llama makes a good therapy animal. In fact, Joy and Gregory said they can look at hundreds of animals before finding one with the right temperament.
“Ours are handpicked for therapy work,” Gregory said. “That’s why they’re so docile.”
Joy said one of the most important traits they look for is confidence.
“They tend to leave their herd to explore you and investigate you. If you can reach out and pet them, that’s huge,” she said. “You can’t really be hands-on with a lot of other alpacas.”
One thing you shouldn’t expect from Mountain Peaks’ alpacas and llamas is spitting. Joy said she often gets that question — “Do they spit?’ — but said, despite the myth, that only happens if they feel frightened or defensive.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Joy and Gregory were averaging 300 therapy visits a year, leaving the farm three to five times each week. Joy said they had just begun working with the juvenile detention facility in Vancouver when the pandemic restrictions went into effect.
“As soon as the protocols start opening up, we’ll be going back there more routinely,” Joy said.
With the pandemic bringing a temporary end to many of their visits, Joy and Gregory began looking for ways to continue their therapy work while also keeping the nonprofit financially solvent. That’s when they struck on the idea of holiday visits for anyone, expanding beyond the private therapy sessions for clients they already offered.
“People would come out for private farm visits and it was very bonding, very therapeutic to forget about the stresses of the pandemic and all that brought,” Joy said. “I would take family photos for them while they were here … and it was these natural, genuine smiles.”
Joy and Gregory began hosting Holidays with the Herd visits in 2020. Funds raised from the holiday visits have been such a success they’ve kept the nonprofit afloat.
“That was such exponential growth financially for our farm that we are now able to offer free therapy sessions here on the farm for individuals,” Joy said. “That’s been such a major game-changer.”
Meet the herd
The holiday farm visits allow visitors of all ages and abilities to meet Mountain Peaks’ seven alpacas and five llamas, try their hand at the holly jolly obstacle course, enjoy some hot cocoa and cider, and hang out with all the animals in the pasture.
No need to stand in line for hours at the mall to get a photo with Santa. The visit includes a Christmas photo with a festively dressed alpaca or llama photographed by Peabody.
Visitors can also share a “carrot kiss” with Napoleon, Panda, Captain Jack, Prince and the others. How closely you hold the carrot stick between your teeth will determine how much of a “kiss” you’ll get.
Chuckling, Joy said, “I tell everyone to kiss them all because each one of them kisses a little bit differently.”
The Pacific Northwest’s temperamental weather won’t be a problem either as photos are taken indoors and the obstacle course and animal enclosures are housed in covered areas.
For more information about Mountain Peak Therapy Llamas and Alpacas, or to register for a farm visit, go to classycamelids.com.