14 May 2019 | Midlands
Llamas and alpacas prove wonderful co-therapists for those having counselling.
It’s certainly not the conventional means of counselling those in need in the community. Meet Victoria Barrett who uses alpacas from South America and llamas to help people come to terms with trauma, mental health issues, and to boost confidence and self-esteem.
The unusual co-therapists however have proved remarkably effective in treating those in specialist need around Worcester, where her farm Simply Alpacas is based.
Victoria says: “Working alongside the animals offers a different way of exploring difficult and sensitive issues as clients may find it easier to express their feelings and recount painful experiences.
“It is well documented that holding and stroking animals can reduce blood pressure, lower pulse rates and alleviate feelings of tension and anxiety.
“The animals offer attention and unconditional acceptance. They are responsive and don’t mind who you are or what you look like. So they are ideal for working with people who find themselves confused or threatened by human relations; many clients feel safer and less threatened around animals. A child I work with who is in foster care struggles with empathy and social cues. But being with the alpacas has changed everything.”
Victoria, 55, came up with the idea for alpaca therapy after working as a paramedic for more than 30 years.
Alongside her frontline role with the West Midlands Ambulance Service, she was also a trained counsellor, helping people battling depression and mental health problems for almost twenty years.
She relaxed by caring for alpacas and llamas at her farm. So when she decided to leave the ambulance service, she realised she could combine her experience and skills with her hobby to help other people. She is a fantastic example of people using their skill-set to help others.
After some research it became clear she was in the perfect position to offer therapy using her alpacas and llamas. The alpaca is a species of South American camelid similar to, and often confused with, the llama. However, alpacas are often noticeably smaller than llamas. Victoria retrained and now offers a Camelid Assisted Therapy programme. It uses the animals as “co-therapists” alongside a human therapist in a structured treatment plan. Clients come from all walks of life including children in the care system.
They come to nurture and care for the animals, which in turn builds self-esteem, confidence and morale while reducing anxiety and depression.
Meeting the animals, it is clear just what makes them so special. With their large baleful eyes, and soft fluffy fur, the alpacas are incredibly endearing. They are also intelligent. The llamas are much bigger but also captivating. It is obvious why it might be easier to open up in their company.
For youngsters with behavioural issues, just being around the animals and learning to feed or groom them induces calm. “I have a group of autistic children who come and the alpacas won’t respond if the child scares them so they quickly learnt to adjust their behavior.”
Victoria adds: “The alpacas can encourage our nurturing and empathic traits and, for survivors of abuse, offer an opportunity for ‘safe touch’.”
Just one person whose life has been transformed is Daisy, 33, who suffers from multiple personality disorder following years of neglect and abuse as a child.
Daisy remembers her first encounter with one of the animals. “I remember looking up and seeing this huge llama. I thought I would feel scared but I actually felt calm. He nuzzled me and it made me smile. I had not smiled in a very long time. Meeting Eddie gave me my smile back. We have such a special bond and I love him.
“Four years ago I was having a very traumatic time. I also had become a double amputee due to complications from diabetes and the neglect. Victoria is an amazing woman and being around the llamas and alpacas is the only thing that has really helped my mental health. I can’t express how uplifting they are.”