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Feeling beastly? Try a little llama therapy

David Usborne on the latest treatment offered to troubled Americans
Llamas, they say, are splendid beasts of burden. Sturdy and always sure-footed, they will carry your load up the steepest of paths and around the most awkward of obstacles. Soon, however, they may earn themselves a variation on the monicker. Ah yes, llamas, those furry beasts of unburden.

All will depend on an experiment about to get under way in western Canada. In a place called White Rock, outside Vancouver, there is an accountant and part-time llama farmer named Mike Loynes, who reckons that llamas, in spite of their habit of spitting, could also make fine psychotherapists - not for each other but for humans. Message to the stressed-out: head not to the analyst's couch but to the llama farm.

Mr Loynes, who himself seems perfectly sane, is one of an increasing number of believers in llama karma. According to latest estimates, there are some 100,000 of the camel-related creatures now on ranches and in zoos across North America and their reputation for soothing all who meet them is spreading fast.

Thus, for example, prison authorities in Idaho have been running a pilot project to introduce llamas to young first-time offenders during their first few weeks behind bars. The inmates spend time petting and grooming them and, in theory, deriving from the experience a new commitment to caring and non-violence.

Llamas, as well as other animals, are also being used to help children with developmental difficulties. Mona Sams is an occupational therapist in Roanoke, Virginia, who takes her llama, Ricardo, to schools with autistic pupils. "Llamas are a particularly intelligent animal, so it's easy for them to know what to do," she said. "And because the animal looks so different, the kids are immediately drawn to them".

After starting 10 years ago with one llama that was a birthday present to his wife, Mike Loynes now has 50 of the beasts. The first useful employment he found for them was with two local golf clubs which have been using the llamas as caddies. "They have soft-padded feet so they don't harm the greens," explains Loynes. "But they can be a bit weak on club selection".

The idea for his new project came to him when be began to notice the effect that his llamas had on his tax-practice clients . "They would come all wound up tight and revved up and 20 minutes to half an hour later they would change their personalities. People would just start to relax".

So, after founding the "Llama Therapeutic Group", Mr Loynes plans later this year to open a llama retreat deep inside the British Columbian Rocky Mountains. For a large fee - he won't say how much - people who might otherwise seek more traditional therapy, ranging from patients suffering from post-trauma syndrome to corporate executives afflicted with burnout, will go there and commune with the llamas.

Each resident will be assigned a single llama for the full week of their stay. "There will be a process of relationship-building with the llama," explains Loynes. "They will learn how to care for the llama, how to feed it and groom it. In the process, they will be focusing on the llama and forgetting about what it was that was worrying them at the workplace".

The week will end with two-day trek, human and llama padding through the mountains in perfect harmony.

Why llamas? Why not donkeys? "Because donkeys will break your toes if they stand on them," begins Loynes. "It is a difficult thing to explain verbally. Llamas don't kick, they don't bite and they're extremely clever. And they have this ability to assess humans and start these relationships".

Loynes, meanwhile, has been busy training his animals for their new profession. Exactly what this involves, he will not say, but extended periods spent in the company of humans is part of it. Thus, he admits, llamas not only come into his home, but even climb the stairs and often settle down in the bedroom of his daughter while she does her homework.

There have been requests for reservations at the retreat, even before it opens, from as far away as Japan and Thailand. But Loynes is being careful not to overstate what future patrons should expect. "We are not going to cure anyone of anything. But what we will be doing is teaching people how to relax and the llamas will be the catalysts."