Twin Falls teen uses therapy alpaca to help others

Magic Valley
By: Julie Wootton
Photo: By Idaho Ed News

TWIN FALLS — A 5-year-old alpaca named Sprite is a star wherever she goes.

Her adorable, fuzzy face and loving demeanor may have something to do with it. Or maybe it’s her handler — Twin Falls High School senior Drew Moffitt — and his outgoing, friendly personality.

For his senior project, 18-year-old Moffitt became certified to use Sprite as a therapy animal.

He brings her to assisted living centers like Brookdale Twin Falls and schools, including Vera C. O’Leary Middle School special education classes and the Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind in Gooding.

Moffitt wrapped up his senior project two weeks ago with more than the required 40 hours of hands-on work. But he continues to volunteer with Sprite.

On Wednesday, Moffitt and Sprite made their first-ever trip to Magic Valley Rehabilitation Services in Twin Falls. The nonprofit agency strives to help people who have disabilities gain the skills they need to be independent.

Client ShyRea Harrell talked with Moffitt, who offered to let her to feed Sprite.

But the alpaca didn’t eat at first. “If you put your hands together, she’ll be able to see better,” Moffitt told Harrell.

Once Sprite started eating out of her cupped hands, Harrell squealed with delight.

The group was part of Magic Valley Rehabilitation’s adult day health program, where participants learn life and communication skills.

It was the first time they’d received a visit from a therapy animal, rehabilitation director Randalyn Hauser said, adding it was amazing to see the reaction from clients.

But an alpaca isn’t exactly a common therapy animal. So how did Moffitt come up with the idea?

During his junior year of high school, he was brainstorming potential senior project topics. It was his mother’s idea to get an alpaca certified as a therapy animal.

The family lives on a four-acre property near the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Twin Falls. They have three alpacas — including Sprite — and three llamas.

Moffitt said he loves animals and is interested in animal genetics, but also loves interacting with people.

“I’ve always been interested in medicine,” he said, and he wants to become a pediatrician.

The alpaca therapy project is a natural fit for the teen, who’s also an active community volunteer.

Moffitt was recently recognized through the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

The nationwide program honors middle and high schoolers for their community service efforts.

Twin Falls High nominated Moffitt, who volunteers at a soup kitchen, for the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center and as a student ambassador for the Twin Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.

And now, he provides alpaca therapy, too. Moffitt hadn’t heard of anyone using an alpaca as a therapy animal.

After doing Internet research for his senior project, he discovered a nonprofit organization called Pet Partners, which registers therapy animals.

He completed an eight-hour online course and Sprite went through a health screening.

The alpaca, who has been part of Moffitt’s family for four years, already had experience being around 4-H children. Plus, she’s hypoallergenic, so she won’t cause anyone to have an allergy attack.

“She was already human acquainted and all that,” Moffitt said.

The next step was helping Sprite become comfortable inside buildings.

Moffitt called D&B Supply stores in Twin Falls and Jerome with an unusual request: Could he bring Sprite into the store? Employees said “yes.”

Moffitt spent an hour each week with Sprite inside a store. Sometimes, they stayed for even longer to visit with curious shoppers.

Sprite learned valuable skills like how to meet friendly strangers, walk through a crowd and navigate sliding glass doors.

After going through final testing in Rupert, Moffitt became registered to provide animal therapy services. Then, he made flyers and distributed them to care centers in Twin Falls.

While working on a research paper for his senior project, Moffitt learned alpacas are sensitive animals and are great around people who have a disability, such as autism.

And Sprite has behaved during the outings. She even waits to take a bathroom break until they arrive home.

Moffitt and Sprite will continue to make their rounds until July. Then, Moffitt will leave for Brazil on a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Once he returns, he plans to study biology or animal sciences at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

After that, he hopes to get into medical school at the University of Washington and eventually return home to Idaho.

Back at Magic Valley Rehabilitation last week, a crowd of at least a dozen people filtered in and out of a back room to see Sprite.

One employee told a client: “Come check this out. It looks like a stuffed animal, doesn’t it?”

Moffitt answered questions while dressed in professional attire and wore a Pet Partners identification badge. He let adults who were interested feed and pet Sprite.

He told the group Sprite loves to roll around in the dirt.

How do you transport her, one employee asked. Moffitt collapses the back passenger seats in his white Toyota Matrix to make room for Sprite.

“She usually jumps in,” he said, “but sometimes she makes me pick her up.”

As the visit was winding down, Harrell patted the top of Sprite’s head and announced she loves the alpaca. She told the animal: “Nice to meet you.”

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