Let me tell you about the most famous llama in all of Portland, and perhaps someday — if there is any justice — the most famous llama in America. His name is Rojo, and he is beloved.
Rojo — Spanish for “red” — is for now a cherished municipal institution in the greater Portland metro area. He’s been profiled in national publications including CBS News, USA Today, and the Huffington Post. He features in his own line of children’s books, and enjoyed a spotlight on the official @instagram account (284M followers). He’s served as Grand Marshall in the city’s annual Rose Festival parade, modeled original fashion design from a Project Runway winner, and received the Oregon Humane Society’s Diamond Collar Hero Award. Rojo is probably the biggest celebrity in Portland not named Damian Lillard or Duane Sorenson.
He is the most remarkable color, a kind of glowing lustrous ochre, with long, flowing fur and a distinguished, expressive grey muzzle. His facial structure and ears evoke the kangaroo, or maybe it’s a jackrabbit. At four hundred pounds and five and a half feet tall, there is no mistaking him, and his gentleness is legendary. All official @rojothellama social media accounts offer a near-endless bounty of photos in which he is snuggling, nuzzling, or being hugged by a human friend in his thrall. Rojo’s signature move is the “carrot kiss,” in which a well-wisher holds a carrot stick between their lips and is relieved of it immediately by Rojo’s impressive set of buck teeth, bringing the great beast’s maw only inches from your own. To be kissed by Rojo is to truly live.
Shannon Joy is Rojo’s caretaker and friend — terms like “ward” or “handler’ feel insufficient to describe their relationship, which dates back more than a decade. Rojo joined the family at just nine months old, brought to her family’s farm outside of Vancouver, Washington (just across the Columbia River from Portland) as a 4H Club exhibition animal. He soon became much more.
Rojo’s success snowballed after some early flirtations with social media virality in the internet wedding world — he makes a charming guest-for-hire — which begat local media profiles, then national press. Joy claims little virtuosity behind the achievements of her companion, and instead credits Rojo’s success as a therapy animal (to say nothing of his status as a local celebrity) to some innate goodness within the creature itself. “Just like humans,” she tells me, “some animals are more gentle and calm, while others are abrasive and alertful. With Rojo, it was all him from the very start. We just try and guide him.”
He was not trained or taught to be special; he simply is.
These days Rojo is almost too popular, and you can find him roughly a hundred times a year at public and private events across the region — at promotional shindigs and children’s disability camps, memorials and weddings, Finals Week therapy sessions at the local art college and elaborate marriage proposal schemes (three so far, with a fourth planned for later this spring). Shannon Joy and her mom maintain a strict workload restriction on Rojo’s behalf, limiting the gentle beast to no more than three consecutive trips off the farm per week, and a drive radius of one hour max. “In the summertime I shorten it to forty minutes because I’m so paranoid about a vehicle breakdown,” Joy says, with worry in her voice. “We’re protective of his emotional health — If he ever gets upset he’s a four hundred pound liability.”
In 2013 Joy and her mother created a non-profit entity, Mtn. Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas, for which Shanon Joy is the Vice President and through which Rojo’s considerable therapy schedule is maintained, visiting assisted living homes, autism seminars, public libraries and elementary schools. A separate LLC, Classy Camelids, is maintained for work of a more commercial nature: the local small business Christmas fair, say, or an evening celebration at an artisan food hall. Like many famous animals, he works — and earns — more than many American adults.
“People aren’t used to seeing a llama up close. It’s almost like an elephant or a giraffe, except he’s domesticated”
Children love Rojo, of course, but apparently it’s a common thing for otherwise perfectly normal and healthy grown-ups to lose their everloving shit around him, to well up in tears and go flush, lost in deep, heaving sighs and joyful outbursts. Joy has seen it all — rapturous reactions devolving into uncontrollable laughter, a wellspring of emotional resonance provoked across generations and backgrounds. “The closer people get towards him in line, the more and more they become overwhelmed,” she says, and I believe her. “People aren’t used to seeing a llama up close. It’s almost like an elephant or a giraffe, except he’s domesticated — you can pet and kiss him and hug him and be enveloped in his hair. It’s just amazing.”
I fully cop to being one of those hysterics for whom visiting Rojo is meaningful, near-spiritual experience. He’s just so beautiful, the very best and most handsome llama I have ever known, and when you’re with him the rest of the world just sort of… melts away. There is a great calmness and spiritual peace that comes over me when I’m in the presence of the llama. I feel like the Bhagwan’s lawyer from Wild Wild Country — moved to the point of discipleship, in awe and at peace and yet highly engaged, unable to look away.
Shannon Joy has heard those comparisons before — that meeting Rojo is almost like sitting at the feet of some great spiritual leader — but she eloquently rejects the notion. “I think something really great about animals in general is that they don’t judge you,” she tells me. “It’s not actually like a spiritual leader, or a celebrity or something, who is judging you and contemplating the reaction when you meet them. With Rojo there is no judgement. You feel fully allowed to express yourself with him.”
At a recent promotional appearance for one of Portland’s artisan night markets, I heard someone shouting across the room at the very sight of Rojo, a fool in public yelping in ecstasy as if before some messianic figure. I remember the sound vividly, heard this person cry out, “Look — it’s Rojo! I love you Rojo!” Only now, months later writing this, do I realize that someone was me.