Stanford alum brings therapy llamas to campus to promote mental health app

Jan. 24, 2019, 12:00 a.m.

Deep breathing, exercise and eating nutritious foods are likely some of the first activities to come to mind when thinking of relieving stress. Petting llamas usually doesn’t make the cut.

On Tuesday, however, Paul Watkins ’17 brought four “therapy llamas” to campus to decrease stress and promote wellness on campus. Sponsored by the Trancos dorm in Wilbur Hall, the event was also an opportunity for Watkins to publicize his mobile app, Vibe, which aims to promote mental health by allowing its student users to find on-campus peer support.

Watkins founded Vibe’s parent company Ayce Labs in 2017 and since has made Vibe available to San Jose State University students. In the future, he aims to expand to colleges across the country.

During the llama visit this past Tuesday, Watkins emphasized his own stressful experience studying at Stanford as a source of inspiration for Vibe. In recent years, Stanford students have criticized the underfunding of mental health support on campus and the so-called “duck syndrome” culture.

“I know how Stanford is, and when I left, I wanted to create this startup that focuses on mental health support in a more accessible way that is also less stigmatized and expensive,” Watkins said.  

Associated Students of Stanford University Co-Director of Mental Health and Wellness Jennalei Louie ’21 said that the therapy llama event formed part of a current groundswell of efforts to improve mental health at Stanford.  

“There is a current movement toward recognizing that psychological health pertains to each and every individual,” Louie wrote in an email to The Daily. “The therapy llamas … directly relate to the efforts of Stanford students, faculty and staff to promote mental health on campus on a more grassroots level. On another level, there are student organizations, mental health advocates and administrators that are working to improve institutional mental health resources.”

“I’m hoping that the combined efforts will help to address the concerns of Stanford students and promote mental health more broadly,” she continued.

Watkins said he chose January for the llama visit due to the increased academic stress that often accompanies winter quarter at Stanford.

“Winters were always my worst [course load],” Watkins said. “As a student here, one day I saw a therapy camel on campus, and I love animals, so I figured [bringing in llamas] would be the best way to bring people outside today.”

The llamas came from a farm about 150 miles east of Stanford called Llamas Circle of Home, which houses 26 llamas and specializes in llama-based therapy programs. According to their website, their llama-assisted therapy encourages “improvement in human physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive functioning.”

Founded by George Caldwell, who has been raising llamas since 1983, Llamas Circle of Home also allows individuals to sponsor, visit or hike with the llamas.

Throughout Tuesday afternoon, Stanford students crowded around Wilbur Field to pet, feed and take photos with the animals.

“My roommate burst through the door and said, ‘There are llamas outside!’ so I ran out here and was completely shocked to see all of them here,” said Natalie Hampton ’22, who participated in the event. “This is one of the best days. I’m not sure when I’ll get to pet a llama again.”

Saloni Sanwalka ’22 echoed Hampton’s sentiments, emphasizing her appreciation for the visit.

“It was the best day I’ve had at Stanford,” Sanwalka said. “The sun was out, the llamas were fluffy, and their visit just made the day better in every way.”


Contact Alexandra Chang at alexandrachang ‘at’

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