OLDSMAR — For members of the Zephyrhills High School Future Farmers of America chapter, cows and pigs are the predictable animals of choice.
But Victoria Tinney is different.
She loves llamas, the camelids generally found in South America and known for their social manner and soft wool.
"They are so sweet,'' said Tinney, 19, who just graduated from high school. "Most people might pick another animal. But I have a passion for them."
That passion helped earn Tinney the Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest achievement in Girl Scouting. The award was presented Saturday at the Nielsen Center in Oldsmar.
Tinney was among 36 Gold Award recipients from the Girls Scouts of West Central Florida, which includes Pasco, Citrus, Hillsborough, Hernando, Marion, Pinellas and Polk counties. The award recognizes sustainable and measurable service projects — projects that focus on community issues and require at least 80 hours of planning and implementation.
Tinney's project, "Youth Llama Barn and Program," utilized the animals as catalysts to raise money for the building of a new barn and pastures at Zephyrhills High. Additionally, she established a program that educated students on the care, training and agricultural use of llamas.
That included animal therapy.
"We actually go to retirement homes or rehab centers and visit people who have nerve damage, who don't even know their own name, who never get to walk or go outside," said Tinney, who owns and cares for about 12 llamas. "We bring the llamas in there so the patients can see their faces or touch them.
"Our kids can see that it's not just about sending a steer to the slaughterhouse or having a goat for its show year. It's not just for food or clothing. Agriculture can be something different. It can help people. That's really exciting to me."
The Gold Award, available to high school-age students, is conferred on fewer than 6 percent of Girl Scouts annually. Approximately 1 million Girl Scouts nationwide have earned the award since its 1916 inception.
"It's my favorite day in Girl Scouting," said Jessica Muroff, chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida. "What these young ladies have done shows so much creativity, vision and leadership. It's inspirational."
The projects ran the gamut of causes, involving children, the elderly, the homeless, domestic violence, teenage mental health, literacy, the arts — and llamas.
Tinney, a musician who has worked with the Zephyrhills Mayor's Youth Council, will attend Santa Fe College in Gainesville to study zoology. Her ultimate goal is to do graduate work in zoology and psychology, then become "the head zoologist at Disney World."
Last year, Tinney was among 100 students selected nationally for the Disney Dreamer Academy, where she got a firsthand look at the work necessary to become an animal behaviorist or trainer.
"Victoria just knows what she's passionate about," said Andie Frederick, Tinney's mother. "I wish I would've been passionate about anything at that age. We're so proud of how she throws herself into what she loves."
"Victoria is one of my most outstanding girls," said Tammara Whitworth, the leader of Girl Scout Troop 148 in Zephyrhills. "She's very outgoing, very goal-oriented. I think she will do whatever she wants, and it will probably be with animals. And I think she will be effectively marketing her cause. She has no problem being in front of crowds."
For Tinney, the most enjoyable aspects of her passion don't involve awards or public speeches. Her satisfaction comes from something more basic.
She spoke with pride about a student, sort of withdrawn, who couldn't find a niche. He had little passion for school — or anything else.
"He got involved in our program, and it helped him to blossom," Tinney said. "He did the shows. He talked in front of the judges. He got first place. It was his happiest moment ever."
Then there are the trips to the retirement home.
"My favorite patient is John, and he loves this llama named Maverick," Tinney said. "He can't talk. He kind of screams. But he'll try to mouth 'Maverick,' and I swear I can hear him say that.
"Well, we took Maverick in there. We squeezed him in between the wall and hospital bed. John was touching Maverick and just kind of screaming. But it was a sound of joy. Maverick understood. He was giving John some affection. I just thought it was the most amazing thing."