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Dozens of people from San Francisco software company Benchling Inc. were logged into a video call featuring a special guest when the meeting quickly went off-script.
Benchling had paid Sweet Farm, a 20-acre animal sanctuary, to spice up the virtual gathering with a video feed of animals including Paco, a 5-foot 9-inch rescue llama. When sanctuary co-founder Nate Salpeter stood up too fast, a startled Paco retaliated by spraying him in the face with a mouthful of spit.
“It took everyone off guard, especially Nate,” said Yujia Zhao, an account executive at Benchling. The call erupted in laughter.
“They have quite a range on their spit,” Mr. Salpeter said. “It smelled largely of hay.”
Repetitive virtual meetings over the past year have sapped morale in many workplaces. So companies are hiring four-legged guests—sheep, goats, tortoises, llamas, bearded dragons and more—to paint smiles back on the faces of jaded employees. Hosting animal video calls has become a lucrative revenue stream for many farms, sanctuaries or petting zoos.
The animals don’t always play along. Chickens squawk over guests, goats nibble at fingers, cows gallop away. So farmers have become experts at pampering their talent. They’ve found themselves shampooing fleeces, banning troublemakers, blackmailing with treats and belly scratches—anything to keep the animals happy and performing at their best.
“We give the hedgehogs baths, which is really cute,” Chelsea Phillips, founder of Tiny Tails to You, said. “We have baby shampoo, which is fine for them to use, but you also want to follow that up at the end with an olive oil spray because they can get really dried out pretty easily.”
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Tiny Tails, a virtual petting zoo in Austin, Texas, provides a full tour—hedgehogs, chinchillas, rabbits, chickens, tortoises and more, all competing for attention—with hangouts starting at $65. It was a way of boosting revenue when visits stopped last spring.
One of Tiny Tails’ more mischievous animals is Jeffrey the gecko, who, if held too close to the laptop during calls, leaps onto the screen. “He’s a bit of a wild card,” Mrs. Phillips said. Now, they keep the two-year-old Jeffrey far away so he’s not tempted to dive-bomb the tech.
Stephanie Prevost, director of operations at Vendr Inc., which helps companies buy and renew software, brought along her three children for a work social with Tiny Tails.
Things got chaotic when tortoise Knuckles Tortellini, 13, showed up. “This is so silly, but the tortoise at the end was pooping on the table, and the adults and the kids were laughing so hard,” Mrs. Prevost said. People still joke about it on Slack.
In response, Mrs. Phillips said they now feed the animals well in advance to avoid unwanted accidents.
Alison Johnson at Bowbridge Alpacas Scotland in North-East Fife, U.K., is constantly chasing after her herd. A trained optician, Mrs. Johnson got her first alpacas in 2015. She charges £39 ($55) for a 30-minute tour and an adoption pack.
Six-year-old Balthazar, a Huacaya alpaca with a windswept fringe, is the herd’s most mischievous member, and tends to influence the others. On one call with Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co., he kept wandering away from the camera. Soon enough the alpacas were chasing each other around the paddock. Mrs. Johnson had to race over to the field’s far end to catch them.
“By the time she turned around they had wandered off to the other side,” Kirsi Swinton, an executive assistant at Hewlett, said.
“It’s keeping me fit and healthy,” Mrs. Johnson said.
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Mr. Saltpeter’s Sweet Farm has over 150 rescued animals including pigs, turkeys, cows, chickens, sheep, horses and goats. These days, a ten-minute “Goat-2-Meeting”—a pun on GoToMeeting conferencing software by LogMeIn Inc.—with unlimited guests costs $100, helping to raise money for Sweet Farm and a collection of other animal sanctuaries. Sweet Farm has conducted over 8,000 calls.
Goats can’t always be counted on to behave either. Farmer Dot McCarthy has used many of them from her roughly 40-strong herd in Zoom calls to raise over £50,000 ($70,000) for her Cronkshaw Fold Farm in Lancashire, England. The money allowed her to hire five new part-time employees. Now she plans to invest in sustainable technology like solar panels and electric vehicles.
People can invite goats to video calls—£5 for five minutes—and even create personalized messages for the goats to eat using edible paper and ink (£10).
Multiple times, the goats have shoved her out the way and chewed the paper snack before joining the Zoom. “So if we’re ever late for a call, that is why, because we’ve had to go and rewrite the note,” Ms. McCarthy said. It doesn’t get any easier when the cameras are rolling. The farm uses a smartphone, and the goats are constantly nibbling at its biodegradable case. "I think it’s some kind of plant-based material,” she said.
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