The Llama in the Room


He has modeled on the runway and been featured on TV, but this famous llama also has a healing touch


 Words Kevin Trevellyan | Photos Kyra Bailey | Video Shirley Chan

He’s always held himself like he’s the king of the llamas.” Lori Gregory is speaking of Rojo, the pet llama she and her family have cared for since his humble beginnings in the Pacific Northwest. But don’t just take the word of a proud owner. According to the International Llama Registry, Rojo is the top “Beyond the Showring” public relations llama in the world, selected from a pool of over 200,000. His fans can purchase “I Heart Rojo the Llama” bumper stickers online, and he’s worked a Project Runway fashion show, modeling a tiny chic top hat in front of an audience full of fashion enthusiasts. Rojo also recently had his international television debut with an appearance on Nat Geo Wild’s Unlikely Animal Friends television show. Nowadays, however, the distinguished llama spends most of his time serving the community at nursing homes, schools, hospitals, and charity events.

Paula Olson, a resident at Marquis Centennial, perks up when Rojo enters her room. “She loves these animals,” says Jessie Fowler, the program director at the assisted care facility. Paula Olson, a resident at Marquis Centennial, perks up when Rojo enters her room. “She loves these animals,” says Jessie Fowler, the program director at the assisted care facility.

Gregory found the chestnut-colored diva in 2001 while shopping for an alternate method to cut her family’s grass. “Little Rojo was only four months old,” recalls Gregory.

“He was following his [previous] owner around the yard while she was working. He was almost half-human.” The Gregory family purchased him immediately, relocating Rojo to their home in Vancouver, Washington. Over the ensuing years, Rojo, the living lawn mower, became a certified therapy llama. He has made almost 1,000 appearances since 2001, from birthday parties to parades.

Rojo’s even temperament is well-suited for therapy work. “He grew up to be this big, beautiful, hairy, lovable, huggable guy,” says Gregory, his owner and talent agent. He doesn’t seem to mind the jostling and petting that comes with his visits; the contact is light compared to the way llamas naturally interact with each other, which can include body slamming and neck wrestling.

As he does with several other facilities, Rojo makes monthly visits to residents of the Marquis Centennial assisted care facility in southeast Portland. Before they leave the house for a recent visit, Gregory has Rojo made up for the occasion. Shimmering gold bracelets adorn his ankles above jet black polished hooves. Freshly-shampooed auburn hair blows around like prairie grass, except for the fur matted underneath a sash draped over his back. It bears Rojo’s name in a decorative scrawl of purple embroidery. His aloof expression conveys a sense of ease, despite all the grandeur of his presentation.

Most residents react positively to Rojo's regular visits.

Most residents react positively to Rojo’s regular visits.

Gregory leads the llamas from room to room during nursing home visits, where they can interact with each resident.

Gregory leads the llamas from room to room during nursing home visits, where they can interact with each resident.

From her large, grass-filled backyard, Gregory leads Rojo through a sliding glass door into the family kitchen. She guides him between sofas on a path of runner rugs, avoiding stray barstools and shelves full of knickknacks and stuffed llamas. Eventually, they make it out the front door to the driveway. Rojo takes a seat in the back of a silver minivan while Gregory takes her own place behind the steering wheel. He waits patiently with his legs tucked underneath him as the van hits the I-205 South on-ramp. An alpaca named Napoleon sits next to him, with curly blonde hair framing a pair of dark eyes. He’s been a member of Rojo’s entourage for the last five years.

The van arrives at Marquis Centennial, and patients are elated when they see a pair of furry creatures walk through the otherwise plain, beige hallways of the facility. “A lot of the time the atmosphere around here is very sullen, even though people are trying to get better,” says Evan Werner, who just moved into Marquis Centennial. When Rojo makes his visit, the spirit in the building lightens. “I’ve got a friend’s father in here who has dementia,” says Werner. “But when I watched him with the llama, he woke up. It was like nothing mattered at that point—it didn’t take a memory for him to smile.” One resident compliments Rojo’s fluffy fur and subtle grin. Another resident attempts to sit up and give Rojo a “carrot kiss,” as he gently snatches the food from her mouth.

After a shampoo and grooming, Rojo’s coat and freshly polished hoofs shine like the jewelry around his ankles.

After a shampoo and grooming, Rojo’s coat and freshly polished hoofs shine like the jewelry around his ankles.

Gregory uses her van to drive the llamas to their scheduled events.

Gregory uses her van to drive the llamas to their scheduled events.

Between rooms, Rojo strides down the corridor behind Gregory with a swagger, Napoleon following behind as he stares with admiration at his idol (alpacas are pack-driven). The animals look distinctly out of place amongst the framed family photos that adorn patients’ walls. Rojo’s guttural grunts are out of sync with the sounds of soap operas or news programs that come from the televisions, his fur puffed out like a pair of parachute pants from the ’80s. One man lying on his bed near the end of Rojo’s visitation circuit scoffs when Gregory brings the llama by. “Ah, I’ve seen him before!” he says. But the other patients adore Rojo. “I never would have expected to see a llama in a rehabilitation care facility,” says Werner. “I don’t have a lot to be happy about lately, and that just made me smile. A smile one time during the day is better than not smiling at all.”

After several hours visiting patients, Rojo gets back into the minivan and sits down on the floor next to Napoleon. He’s spent, and hungry for some hay. The van exits the parking lot to travel north back to the stable, where Rojo can get some much needed rest. He has seventeen more appearances this month. Tomorrow he’ll pay a visit to an elementary school, fashionable as ever and ready to entertain. The life of a celebrity llama never slows down.

Rojo is rewarded with hay after visiting more than 100 residents at Marquis Centennial. He’ll return to his stable in Vancouver, Washington, before preparing for his next appearance the following day.

Rojo is rewarded with hay after visiting more than 100 residents at Marquis Centennial. He’ll return to his stable in Vancouver, Washington, before preparing for his next appearance the following day.

According to his owner, Lori Gregory, Rojo is an inspiration, motivating people to do things they wouldn't normally do.

According to his owner, Lori Gregory, Rojo is an inspiration, motivating people to do things they wouldn’t normally do.

Gregory's home functions as the llama's headquarters.

Gregory’s home functions as the llama’s headquarters.

Rojo is the original of four llamas and three alpacas, including Napoleon (right), that Lori Gregory cares for at her home in Vancouver, Washington.

Rojo is the original of four llamas and three alpacas, including Napoleon (right), that Lori Gregory cares for at her home in Vancouver, Washington.

 

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