Saturday, July 10, 2010


“Little kids bring a dollar”


In the world of pet assisted therapy, Hollis Hope, or Holli as her friends call her, is truly unique. Holli is an alpaca who was born prematurely and with a lot of health issues including a herniated navel and eye problems. In addition, she had trouble nursing from her mom, Dawn. Enter Michelle Zumwaldt, 48, owner of Alpaca Patch.

Michele brought Holli and her mom home even though as a preemie Holli needed extra care including supplements of rich goat’s milk.

Little Holli seemed to be progressing well and gaining strength when a major setback occurred. A rescue dog being fostered by Michelle startled the Alpacas and Holli was knocked down when the herd bolted. Michelle found her lying on the cold wet ground and immediately brought her inside.

Holli was bleeding from her mouth and her temperature was dangerously low so Michelle began warming her with a hairdryer. Fortunately, the bleeding only came from two chipped teeth and was not deemed serious.

However, the little alpaca did not seem to be able to move her rear legs, and this was very worrisome. Many owners in Michelle’s position with other animals to care for and having just been laid off from her long time job, would have given up on Holli and had her euthanized. Instead, Michelle decided to fight for little Holli to whom she had grown very attached. "She had such a fighting spirit and I knew she was special. I just couldn’t give up on her."

So, with dedicated help from her local veterinary hospital and vets at Kansas State University, Holli received acupuncture, hydrotherapy, and massage from a licensed therapist who lived nearby.

Various splints were tried on Holli’s back legs including some made of PVC pipe and Holli required almost around the clock care and attention from Michelle and a dedicated band of neighbors and helpers.

Eventually, Michelle and her mother fashioned a kind of support cart from a discarded walker to allow Holli to be ambulatory. Slowly, Holli’s injured back legs began to strengthen, much to the surprise of her vets. However, they discovered that her hips were also damaged so she may need hip replacement surgery at some point.

The job was not just grueling but expensive. Michelle estimated that she has spent more than $10,000 on the treatments. Along the way, she was laid off from her job as a car-repair insurance marketer and resorted to garage sales to help meet Holli’s needs.

Neighbors, friends and strangers donated generously. ‘‘Little kids would come to visit her and bring a dollar,’’ Michelle said.

Word about Holli spread through the alpaca show world. Valerie Smith of Topeka, Kansas, was so taken by Holli that she paid to have a $700, one-of-a-kind wheelchair built. A harness holds Holli up as she uses her front legs to inch her way along, while her limp back legs dangle between the wheels.

As if Holli’s progress wasn’t enough of a heart-warming story, she has now embarked on a career in pet assisted therapy. Visiting the elderly residents at Hidden Lake Center and other nursing homes and facilities. When Holli comes in with her specially adapted cart, she and the elder residents have a lot in common, and she is especially inspirational to the Alzheimer’s patients with her never-say-die attitude.

Michelle said that one Alzheimer patient who has difficulty interacting with people loved Holli’s visits and is able to remember her name, although he doesn’t remember Michelle’s name and calls her Holli, too. "That’s okay," said Michelle. "I just tell him: yes, I am Holli’s mom." (Photo: Michelle does some massage therapy on Holli's back legs.)

Holli also relates well to children from scout troops and school groups who love to visit her at the Alpaca Ranch. Visitors are common at the ranch although Michelle does no official advertising. When Holli is out she always draws a crowd, and her story has spread through word of mouth so many of Michelle's neighbors and their friends want to see her. Holli loves all the attention. It’s almost as if she understands and is giving back to all those who supported her and believed in her.

Holli and Michelle participated in Wheels for the World at Bridgeton, MO's July 4th parade this year.

Alpacas are usually prized for their coats. Annual shearing produces luxurious fiber durable enough to make heirloom clothing, blankets and rugs. But Holli is prized as an inspiration.

Despite all of Holli’s health problems, Michelle is able to shear her fleece and has even made some heart shapes from it that she used as thank you's at Christmas for all the neighbors and friends who helped save Holli. And, move over Martha Stewart, because a jeweler friend has begun designing some “Holli jewelry” made from her fleece.

Paralyzed alpaca provides
inspiration to people of all ages

 Holli the alpaca gets lots of attention on June 6, 2010, at Hidden Lakes Care Center from Helen Parsons, 89, left; Virgalee Shoptaugh, 92, center; and Ruth Seris, 91, right.

When retirees in wheelchairs gathered at a nursing home here in Spanish Lake, MO, to trade some stories recently, a guest with perhaps the most improbable story had nothing to say. It was Holli — not a person but an alpaca. On wheels.

Doomed twice but still going strong, the domesticated camelid in a custom-built wheelchair brings amusement to the old and young alike, validating the hopes of an owner who, with others, has spent a small fortune to spare her life. (Photo: Helen Parsons, 89, pets Holli at Hidden Lakes Care Center)

In the visit to the Hidden Lake Care Center, ‘‘Holli was able to come right up in her wheelchair and join the other folks in their wheelchairs and walkers and the ones sitting in rockers,’’ explained her owner, Michelle Zumwalt.  Holli loves people so much that she goes right up to the elderly residents, delighted to receive all the pats and attention they lavish on her. Terry Foster, Hidden Lake’s nursing director, said Holli’s visit was both therapeutic and fun. ‘‘It was such an endearing event,’’ she said. ‘‘I was just so proud to be part of it.’’

Unlike the therapy dogs that visit the Hidden Lake on Mondays, the spine-damaged Holli arrived in a wheelchair, at the same level as many of the residents, Michelle explained. ‘‘So they could reach out and really handle her, and she’s very patient and very energetic and enthusiastic to interact with them.’’ (Photo: Virgalee Shoptaugh, 92, pets and hugs Holli.)

Alzheimer’s patients are especially drawn to her, Michelle said. ‘‘She seems to really encourage them because she has never given up . . . She makes them laugh.’’ Children from schools or scout troops who tour the farm respond just as well. ‘‘She has a light that she shares with children that have had a very difficult life and been abused.’’

Michelle, whose farm has a reputation for rescuing endangered alpacas, obtained Holli in September 2009 from a south county farm that lacked resources to handle the premature newborn. ‘‘We just found that that is where our heart is, to help the ones that just need a little bit of help and then they thrive,’’ Michelle said. (Photo: Michelle brings a newborn alpaca over to play with Holli.)

Holli rebounded, but a setback came 20 days later. A dog, boarded temporarily with Michelle, spooked the alpaca herd, and the young newcomer's spine was damaged in the commotion. She was paralyzed from the waist down. That cut her life expectancy to months or less; a usual course of action is euthanasia.

Michelle chose a fight that came to include acupuncture, massages, water therapy, supplements and more.  (Photos: Michelle massages while her alpaca partner Bill Silkwood, 72, holds Holli steady on an exercise ball (above).  Below Holli gets some massage therapy at home from Jeanneane.)

Along the way, she said, caregivers watched for signs of suffering. ‘‘We will not ask anything of an animal that is beyond what they are comfortable with,’’ she said. "Our goal was always to try to give her a chance.’’ Holli responded almost immediately. ‘‘She did not want to give up.’’

Holly at Hidden Lakes Care Center

‘‘When I heard about Holli, I knew it’s just like a baby with multiple physical handicaps,’’ said Valerie Smith, 58, an occupational therapist in Topeka, Kansas. Smith and her husband sought medical opinions and helped bring Holli to the care of David E. Anderson, a professor of veterinary medicine at Kansas State University.

Michelle Zumwalt puts Holli in the front seat of her pickup truck after she and Bill Silkwood took Holli for a visit to Hidden Lakes Care Center in Spanish Lake.

Professor Anderson told a reporter that animals with profound problems — or their owners — often become overwhelmed and give up. But not Michelle and Holli. ‘‘These types of injuries require intensive daily care, physical therapy and muscle stimulation to maintain any hope of recovery,’ he said. 

When Holli isn't strapped into her specially
built lift, she is unable to walk.

"Holli’s progress," Anderson suggested, "is remarkable, perhaps miraculous. At this point, I would have to speculate that Holli has every chance of living a high-quality life. Based on her response to the therapy she has received, she may even have the opportunity to walk again. Her ready adaptation of the wheelchair is a testament to her desire to get up and going.’’ Toward that end, Zumwalt said the next step will be an evaluation in September, to see whether Holli might be a candidate for hip replacements.


GALLERY: See more images of Holli, the alpaca


Home Photos & How to Support Holli


(Contributed by Hilda who lives in Auburndale, Florida)

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