Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas, the home of a beloved Portland legend, survived dangerous wildfires that sprung up across the state last week, reported Shannon Joy, the handler for the late, great Rojo the Llama.
During his life he gained many fans and friends in the Portland area and even held his retirement party there.
As a therapy llama, Rojo made hundreds of visits to local children’s hospitals, senior communities, schools, and facilities for children and adults with disabilities, along with other various PR and fundraising events, until his death last year.
He left behind an incredible legacy and a Dream Team of camelid coworkers and human educators.
We reached out to Shannon to see how Mtn Peaks had fared in the wake of the wildfires, as well as during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our interview follows, edited for clarity and length.
Bridgeliner: How are things currently? Was Mtn Peaks in any danger of evacuation from the wildfires or did you have to evacuate?
Shannon: We’re very fortunate our farm is located in Ridgefield, WA, and so we were not in an Evacuation Zone. However, we did experience a number of days where we had smoke from distant fires that did cause concern for the health of our animals and ourselves. What we endured here was nothing compared to what many llama friends in Oregon went through, as they faced losing their homes and barns to the wildfires and were forced to evacuate herds of smoke-stressed, scared, and disoriented animals to safer locations.
Bridgeliner: If you would have to evacuate, what would that process look like?
Shannon: Because all of our llamas and alpacas are male and most were selected because of their people-friendly personalities and are very used to being handled and trained to come to grain, it would be fairly easy to enclose and halter all of them in our feeding shed without much drama. We have a horse trailer and four vans, which we’re confident could transport all 13 of our fellas from our property in a quick and timely fashion. After getting them to safety, we would then try to return, if possible, to load our own possessions.
We’re fortunate our herd is smaller than most llama and alpaca farms, and our boys get along well enough to be taken off the farm in one trip. Many farmers of all kinds of animals don’t have that luxury, and we have heard stories of past experiences where they have had animals that wouldn’t load into trailers because of fear and stress from the smoke, so their only hope was to open the gates and let them all run free to have the best fighting chance of survival — which is heartbreaking. In these cases, the farmers will write their phone number on emergency halters, or on the sides of their animals, in the hope of finding them after the threat is over.
Bridgeliner: How many members are there on the Dream Team as well as those in training? And more importantly, how are all of you doing during these stressful times?
Shannon: Out of our six llamas and seven alpacas, we have four very experienced “Dream Team” members: Two llamas, Smokey & Beni, and two alpacas, Napoleon & Jean-Pierre. Right on the cusp and starting to leave the farm more for nature walks, as well as for short visits and events are llamas, Panda & Prince, and alpacas, Captain Jack, Maximus, & Andre! The four remaining llamas and alpacas on our farm, Rodrigo, Diego, Charlie, and Sasha, are still very loved by visitors, but, for various reasons, we don’t see them developing the qualities necessary to become an “off-the-farm” therapy animal. It takes a lot of confidence and healthy social skills to be separated from the herd for several hours around new sights, sounds, smells, and touched by countless strangers — each one of our animals has their own tolerance and comfort levels we always try to respect, for their security and well-being, as well as for the safety of the communities we serve.
Emotionally, we’re doing very well on the farm during these stressful times, even though all of our regular sources of income from off-the-farm therapy visits and special events were immediately shut down after Covid-19 hit, and we were forced to shelter in place along with the rest of the population. Prior to the pandemic, we were taking our animals off the farm almost daily during the midweek to visit inside adult care communities, rehab facilities, schools, and a wide variety of groups with special needs through our nonprofit, and our summer schedule was totally full of weddings, birthdays, camps, and local business events that normally supports myself, as well as our volunteer therapy work, and farm needs. All of these activities were cancelled indefinitely, which really shook our farm and forced us to think outside the box.
Thankfully, we have had amazing support from our fans and friends, and as everyone went digital for work and school around April and May, the concept of llamas “crashing” virtual meetings went viral, so life found me doing Zoom and Google Hangout meetings out in the pasture numerous times every day for companies, baby showers, birthday parties, and school field trips all over the country and around the world! As we head into winter, we’re having to strategize once again, to find new ways to share our fellas and provide much needed income.
Bridgeliner: Switching gears briefly: Did Mtn Peaks have to adapt its practices when the COVID-19 pandemic occurred earlier this year, and if so, what did you find successful?
Shannon: Yes, we definitely had to rethink our normal routine for all of the animal interaction experiences we were able to offer after COVID-19 arrived. We have been so thankful our therapy work is classified among “Essential Health Services,” so we have been able to continue to offer interactions for those individuals and facilities in need that felt comfortable having us come, as long as we all were able to comply with the required safety precautions. Initially, this meant visiting residents confined to their rooms through the glass around the outside of senior and rehab communities, Zoom Call “Farm Tours,” and distanced “drive-by” birthday parties and graduations. Eventually, we were able to bring our most clean and predictable animals to locations set up with cones for social-distancing, hand sanitizer, and a bowl of carrot pieces, and could just stand back while each masked person or family group took turns interacting and taking photos. Now, as more people have been tested, and the greatest fears have subsided, we’re being allowed back inside some facilities, still with very strict protocols involving regular screening by taking temperatures, wearing masks, hand sanitizing, and social distancing, but the staff and residents have been thrilled to see us after such long months of isolation. It’s been very healing for us as well, to see our animals bringing such joy to everyone again!
Bridgeliner: Moving forward, once the wildfires calm down and some semblance of normal returns, what is in the future for Mtn Peaks, events, etc.?
Shannon: FARM VISITS!
It’s been our goal and dream to be able to offer free therapy visits for those with special needs, as well as seniors being cared for by family members at our home, as well as private farm tours and special events, so everyone can enjoy the same wonderful, up-close and personal experience in the pasture with our special fellas we’re blessed to enjoy every day! Although a new large shelter for our animals is still being built out back, we have started to welcome individuals and small groups to visit our farm on an appointment-only basis, and as weather conditions allow. As our shelter is completed, we will then be able to host visitors rain or shine!
Opening our farm up to those who need one-on-one therapy has been a huge goal of ours since we relocated our farm four years ago from Brush Prairie to Ridgefield, WA.. With the open air and so much space safety during this pandemic, we feel these visits are exactly what we all need to help get through 2020! Weekend visiting times are expected to book out quickly, and we also offer discounted mid-week pricing, as well as homeschool educational visits to be affordable so all ages can enjoy a unique, hands-on, educational experience! We’re planning to begin promoting these activities a lot more after the I-5 Bridge construction is done in early October.
Bridgeliner: For readers missing the Dream Team and Mtn Peaks right now, where are some places they can find more information about you all?
Shannon: @Rojothellama on Facebook and Instagram are the best ways to stay connected and learn more about farm visits and tours. We will soon be promoting holiday photo sessions with the animals to have family photos taken with Reindeer Smokey, Napoleon, Jean-Pierre, and the others. I share a lot of behind the scenes and updates on our Instagram Stories. We fully believe in transparency when it comes to working and sharing animals for the public’s enjoyment and we try our best to show that through the gift of social media.
As a side note:
There are other farms forced to evacuate due to the wildfires. Donations to support those impacted can be made to:
Frog Pond Farms
How to support Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas: