All of the residents at the Bellingham Health and Rehabilitation Center in Washington are recovering from an illness, and many of them don't get visitors too often. The Center prides itself on providing a "home-like environment," but even so, it's got to get lonely sometimes.
Luckily, every few months the residents get a visit from two therapists with strange names: N.H. Flight of the Eagle and Marisco. They're both trained to interact with the residents and provide a moment of warmth and connection.
And they're both llamas.
The animals belong to J and K Llamas, a farm located in Bellingham. They train their llamas to be close to humans, nuzzling up to them for a hug or a kiss and providing a warm, safe moment of connection.
For residents at the rehab center, it's a pleasure to get a visit from N.H. and Marisco.
"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."
The image of a 50-kilo llama wandering the halls of a health-care facility might be strange, but studies have shown that animal therapy works.
A 2009 study from the University of Missouri found that human beings who spent 15 minutes petting a dog experienced an average 10 per cent drop in blood pressure and increased levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with happy feelings.
But while dogs are fairly common animal therapists, llamas are more rare. Of the 10,000 registered animal therapists in the U.S., only 14 are llamas.
Part of the reason is that very few llamas have the right temperament for the job. To qualify, an animal has to pass a series of tests examining how they react to high-stress situations.
For residents at the Bellingham facility, all that testing and training pays off. Getting a visit from a warm, fuzzy llama, and spending time touching and hugging the animal, is a profound experience.
"It's something different," says Holly, when Osborne asks how Marisco's visits compare to time with people. "The animals love you unconditionally."
And after they leave, Holly says, "I think about it. Fond memories. It fills your heart."
Llamas have been used in therapy in Canada in the past - back in 2005, residents at a long-term care facility in Sudbury got a visit from some local llamas from Kanerika farm.