After more than a decade entertaining Portland, Oregon, residents at parades, parties and weddings — and gratefully nibbling the carrots they proffered — Rojo the llama has permanently retired to a display at the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver.
Why it matters: Rojo, who died in 2019 at age 17, has 29,000 followers on Instagram and 15,000 on Facebook. Carefully restored by a taxidermist, he will spend his afterlife introducing blind students to what a llama feels like, as part of a museum where blind students can experience animals they've only heard about.
The backstory: When he was alive, Rojo made frequent visits to the School for the Blind, attending annual track meets and Easter egg hunts, Lori Gregory, one of his owners, told me.
- The school is home to a tactile museum — or "sensory safari" — that uses Braille, audio and real preserved animals to introduce students to different species.
- Gregory and her daughter — who keep six llamas and seven alpacas at their farm, Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas — kept the place in mind when Rojo started showing signs of age and fatigue.
Upon learning that Rojo had stomach cancer, Gregory started searching for a taxidermist who would restore him after he passed away.
- "Nobody would touch the idea of doing taxidermy on a llama, because it’s not common," Gregory said, adding that she finally found someone in Vancouver who had previously stuffed a buffalo and was willing to try.
- Her daughter, Shannon Joy, posted a GoFundMe campaign and raised $13,000 for the work.
- "His fiber is still nice," Gregory said. "I mean, I'm not going to bury him back in the pasture."
The bottom line: Though Gregory now has several charming and gregarious therapy animals — like Smokey the llama and Jean-Pierre the alpaca — Rojo was her first, and she still chokes up when she talks about the days leading up to his death.
- "It was so surreal and crazy," she told me, "but the thought of him serving the School for the Blind is what got me through it."
My thought bubble: There's nothing like watching a pair of freshly shampooed 300-pound llamas stroll into a nursing home to brighten the day of the residents. Here's a story I wrote for the New York Times about my experience watching "llama therapy" in action.