Canadian photographer Jen Osborne is certainly no stranger to the odd and bizarre. Still, when the day came for her to snap photos of a truly weird subject, she was caught a bit off balance. For Jen Osborne, that day happened when she went on assignment to Washington at the Bellingham Health and Rehabilitation Center. When she got marching orders from Colors magazine to photograph two therapy llamas on the job at the center, she didn’t flinch, and just went at it. Once at the center, she trained her lens on the pair of therapy llamas that traveled from farm to hospital to cheer up a group of elderly patients.
The llamas are referred to as Marisco and N.H. Flight of the Eagle. Osborne captures their touching interactions with the center’s patients, all of whom were recovering from a variety of illnesses. “It seems normal to be surrounding old people with strange, beautiful animals,” Osborne tells Slate.
Colors Magazine says that the concept of using animals in therapy began in 1975 when a social worker named David Lee at the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane introduced his patients to small animals as “gifts”. The results were proof positive of the animal’s therapeutic effects. Fighting decreased among inmates, and the use of animals for therapy stayed ever since then.
Animals have been utilized for medical purposes for more than a century already, but scientists have only of late discovered the connection between exposure to animals and increased oxytocin levels. This chemical can lead to feelings of happiness and trust, which could explain the therapeutic effects of some animals on the convalescing. Typically, pets such as dogs and cats are trained as therapy animals, with dolphins and horses tapped also on occasion. Llamas, however, are a rarity, as Osborne discovered on her one-day assignment in January 2012.
Osborne patiently followed the two animals accompanied by their handler. They stopped at each bed to allow every patient to show their affection towards them. “They’re gentle creatures, llamas. They have a reputation of being aggressive. People say llamas spit all the time, but that’s an urban myth,” said Osborne. The llamas according to her were in superb behavior. “They were amazing. I wouldn’t even say they were like dogs, because they were even more obedient than dogs,” she said.
See these unlikely healers and bearers of good cheer on Osborne’s website.