For those seeking the companionship of domesticated alpacas, a journey 25 miles northwest of Boston will lead you to the Harvard Alpaca Ranch.

The ranch is owned by high school sweethearts who are dedicated to brightening people's days with their collection of 32 alpacas. Taking their commitment a step further, they have gone on to certify two of their alpacas as therapy animals through Pet Partners.

Sir Erik, one of the therapy alpacas, has gone to nursing homes, libraries, and — now — Boston Public Radio’s studio.

One of the owners, Matthew Varrell, said that therapy alpacas are like cats.

“A therapy dog is going to run up and lick your face and roll over and let you rub its belly,” he said. But an alpaca is going to bring a soothing and calming presence by staying still.

An alpaca stands in a building lobby, being pet by many people
Sir Erik joined GBH’s Boston Public Radio with his owners, Amy and Matthew Varrell, on Aug. 10, 2023.
Alexi Cohan GBH News

Erik has comfortably navigated unconventional places, boasting a spotless record devoid of any bathroom accidents. He has graced senior homes and libraries with his soothing presence and even made an appearance at the Boston Public Radio studio, complete with a dapper bowtie.

Unlike an emotional support animal, therapy animals are not trained to care for just one person. Instead, they are brought to volunteer in settings like hospitals, schools, and nursing homes, offering comfort and affection. These animals adapt to new environments and interact with different people.

“From the time we got [Sir Erik], we knew he was going to be suited for this,” Matthew said. “So I took him through training and everything. But really, his job is to go into, whether it's a nursing home or a school or a hospital or something ... just make people smile.”

As Boston Public Radio co-host Margery Eagan put it, Sir Erik was exuding “that Zen thing” in the studio.

The idea for the Alpaca Ranch started seven years ago when the Varrells’ son went away for college. They first encountered alpacas in the summer of 2013 while doing college tours with their youngest son, Rusty.

“We asked about local farms where potentially [Rusty] could work or volunteer at,” Amy Varrell, one of the owners, recalled. “So Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm was recommended to us by Unity College in Maine.

“My son was very sick in high school and college, and we had very limited things to make him feel better ... but he spent every single day [in college] at that alpaca farm,” she shared.

The Varrells noticed that their son was becoming healthier. Amy has a nursing background and became fascinated by how animals help people through difficult times.

“That transpired into starting a farm and trying to help other people the same way the farm in Maine helped my son,” she said.

In April of 2016, they started with a herd of eight alpacas. Their goals were to produce excellent fiber, the natural wool of the alpaca, and have alpacas that could interact with visitors. Now, they had 32 alpacas — and are open to tours for visitors to pet the animals.

Amy added that their ranch also educates people.

“We’re telling everyone about our farm, why we have this business, what the importance of raising alpacas is,” she said.

“So if you want to come for a visit, go on there and book a time,” Matthew added. They work hard to keep the ranch staffed when people want to visit.

“One of the most rewarding things that comes from us doing it is meeting all the people we get to meet,” he said. “We’re really making a difference.”

WATCH: Sir Erik and the Vattrells join Boston Public Radio