So You Think You Want Llamas?
Confessions of a Novice Llama Rescuer After the First Year with a Herd
Part One: How I Fell in Love with Llamas
I fell in love with llamas in April of 2005, when I visited Southwest Llama Rescue in Silver City, New Mexico. I blame it on F.E. Baxter (known to everyone in the llama rescue community simply as "Baxter") - she's the angelic woman who runs the SWLR sanctuary where I got my first llama kiss. On a warm April morning, after we'd spent a night at the SWLR llama lodge, I was greeted by a herd of llamas looking in the kitchen window. Later, Baxter gave me and my husband a blue bucket full of carrots and let us into a paddock full of lovely female llamas. We were soon surrounded by gentle, hesitant creatures with huge alien eyes, inquiring necks, and prehensile lips. My heart disappeared with the carrots.
This visit to SWLR was planned; the rapid slide into llama infatuation was not. My husband, Paul, and I had just purchased a 5-acre horse property in Edgewood, New Mexico, and we were considering getting some kind of herd animals to reside in the empty stable. Horses were the obvious answer, except that neither of us wanted horses: too much work, too expensive. So we talked about goats, pigs, burros, chickens but nothing clicked until Paul said, "How about llamas?" As a mountaineering guide who works every summer in Bolivia, Paul had spent a lot of time around llamas. His Bolivian guides use them as pack animals for mountaineering expeditions, so Paul had herded llamas, walked with llamas, loaded and unloaded llamas. "I think they're pretty low maintenance, but we should look into it," he said, wisely noncommittal.
Hence our trip to Southwest Llama Rescue in Silver City. A fact-checking trip, we told Baxter. We weren't sure if we wanted llamas; we just wanted to find out what having llamas entailed, what we'd be getting into, and whether or not these were the animals for us. Yeah, right: within five minutes after that first llama encounter, I was entertaining a pastoral fantasy in which our own sunny pasture was inhabited by a small herd of fuzzy-lipped llamas greeting me at the gate every morning for carrots and kisses. Kind of like My Friend Flicka, but with camelids. Later, on the long drive home, my husband read my utterly transparent mind. "You want llamas, don't you?" he said. I gave him my most irresistible, hopeful smile and nodded. He sighed. "I should have known this would happen."
Part Two: My New Llama Life
Okay, here's the disclaimer: If you want to believe that I float out to the pasture every morning with my coffee and a bucket of carrots, you can stop reading right now. Heck, after my experience with Baxter's herd at SWLR, I didn't want to hear what I'm about to say. I was a woman in love, dreaming of life with llamas and eagerly anticipating the arrival of my new friends.
And they did arrive, courtesy of Southwest Llama Rescue. Soon after our visit to Silver City, we learned that SWLR had five yearling males in need of a permanent home; would we be interested in adopting them? "In for a penny, in for a pound!" I told my husband cheerfully. Being the indulgent type, he didn't argue. In June, longtime llama owners and dedicated llama rescuers Pat and ET Little showed up at our house with five rambunctious young males.
We had problems from day one. Literally. Within 24 hours of their arrival, we realized that one of the boys, Padrino, had developed a large lump on his cheek. It was an abscess, which meant that we were one day into llama ownership and had our first emergency. Living in a horse area, we figured some of the local large animal vets might be willing to take a look at a llama. Well, we learned that day that lots of vets who work on horses and cattle don't work on camelids. Fortunately, one of the local pet vets had some experience with llamas. We were doubly lucky that he agreed to make a house call because we had no way to take a llama anywhere. That day, we got a quick lesson in intra-muscular injections, a bunch of needles and syringes, and some antibiotic solution. Two injections a day, the vet said. Keep it clean, rinse with saline and iodine. Call me if it doesn't clear up.
Have you ever tried to give an skittish male yearling llama a shot? It's actually not that difficult, once you've done it a few times and when got the proper equipment to catch and restrain a llama. Of course, I'd never given a shot in my life, and being totally unprepared for llama ownership, we had no catch pen and no restraining chute. To make matters worse, Paul was leaving for his summer guiding season and I'd be the solo llama mamma for the next two months. Well, I thought, I guess I'll just do the best I can.
Fortunately for me, Padrino turned out to be the "friendly" llama, a little guy who followed me everywhere and who didn't mind coming into the tack room with me, where I'd distract him with llama pellets, grab him by the neck, hold him, get the needle into his shoulder, then slap a warm compress onto his face. It wasn't graceful, but it got the job done, and Padrino's abscess disappeared.
Of course, the very behavioral traits that made this guy so amenable to my rough veterinary handling soon became cause for concern. Initially, I was pleased that Padrino and his friend Chamuki showed such interest in becoming friends. While the other three llamas hung back, shy and skittish, Padrino and Chamuki greeted me at the gate, nuzzled my nose, and followed me around the pasture as I scooped poop and picked weeds. What personable llamas, I thought. I felt pretty terrible about Padrino's miserable start at our house, so I it was reassuring that he still seemed to like me.
Those of you with llama experience know what I soon found out: Padrino and his buddy Chamuki had some pretty significant boundary issues. Reading some of the many llama books, web pages, and articles I'd collected into a llama library, I became frightened that I was creating two llama monsters. After several sleepless nights spent worrying about Berserk Male Syndrome in llamas, I expressed my concerns to the Littles and to Baxter, both of whom emphasized the importance of setting boundaries by telling the boys to back off and putting my hand in the air. Unfortunately, neither seemed particularly awed by my attempts at a firm, "GET BACK," even when I held a tennis racquet in the air above my head. Within a few weeks of their arrival, they were marching right into my personal space, sticking their noses in my face and pulling at my shoelaces and ponytail. The low point in our deteriorating relationship occurred one morning as I added a few llama pellets to Chamuki's bowl - and got a face full of green spit. Reflexively, I yelled at him, slapped him on the nose, then walked into the tack room, wiped the goo off my face, and cried.
Well, it wasn't long before the SWLR volunteers were back to pick up Chamuki and Padrino and bring them back to the Littles, leaving us with three young males: Wadi, Sajama, and Ramah. Now that my more demanding llamas were out of the way, I thought, I can begin to get to know these other guys. It was time to start serious training, which equaled serious investment in building training pens. Eight hundred dollars worth of cattle panels later, I had some very nice looking catch pens, but the boys didn't want to come near me and, with Paul still off in the mountains, I had no way of herding them into the nice little school I'd set up. I tried luring them into the catch pens with some llama treats in their bowls, but whenever I walked close enough to shut the gate, they bolted out of the pen.
Once again, I found myself weeping in the tack room in frustration, wondering why on earth I'd gotten into this whole mess. Two months into this experiment, llama ownership wasn't turning out to be the easy fantasy I'd expected. I felt like an utter failure. Not only were the boys totally uninterested in carrots, but I was unprepared for llama care in every way possible: Paul had taken his truck for the summer so I was hauling hay, bale by bale, in the trunk of my Jetta. The shingles were falling off our barn. I worried constantly about unknown unknowns: what would happen if a snake but one of the boys while I was at work? What if someone broke a leg? I had no trailer to take the animals to the vet and no truck to haul anything. On top of it all, I had a 30-mile commute each way, every day, and was working 50 hours a week. Part of me desperately wanted to call SWLR and ask them to take the llamas away, but I'd made a commitment to the animals and to the organization and I felt terrible about letting everyone down.
Well, that was a year ago. It's now August of 2006 and we've had our llamas for fourteen months. We've had our ups and downs since then: icy cold temperatures and howling winds this winter; an infestation of nasty red ants; hay that's gotten steadily more expensive. We have a seeming infinity of weeds to eradicate - I feel like the Sisyphus of milkweed. We've had some minor crises as well, including a torn ear, a sore ankle, a cut lip, and a bad case of indigestion. And, of course, the routine llama stuff: picking up hay, scooping poop, finding time to do training, and dealing with health issues, including toenails and vaccinations, gelding, fighting teeth, and shearing.
In short, llamas are a lot more work than either of us ever expected, and that's on top of draining jobs, long commutes, work travel, dog care, family obligations, housecleaning, social lives, and finding time to get some sleep and exercise. Yet I can happily report that the thought of calling SWLR to surrender our llamas hasn't crossed my mind since last summer. In fact, last winter we adopted Zip, a retired, 12-year old packer with dropped pasterns who needed a new home. We renamed him Zed, to better reflect his molasses-slow movements, and to my joy, he's taught our younger boys that carrots are a GOOD THING. We recently discovered that his passion in life is fresh cabbage leaves. How can you not love an animal whose ears perk up when they see you holding a head of cabbage?
Part Three: What Made It Work?
Given how badly things were going that first summer, you might be wondering why I didn’t just throw in the towel, call SWLR, and surrender my animals. Part of it is dogged stubbornness, but I also wanted to see where my llamas would take me. That day, as I sat on a bale of hay and wept in the tack room, I realized that I had a golden opportunity to pick myself up by my bootstraps and learn from my experience. I was facing what my sister, a high school principal, refers to euphemistically as a ‘teachable moment,’ and my lesson was one of responsibility. If my fantasy wasn’t working out because I hadn’t prepared appropriately, that was my fault, not the animals’ fault. As a responsible owner, the onus was on me to seek the information and resources I needed make this situation work.
So I dried my tears and got on the Internet. Baxter had pointed me to a couple of llama listservs, but I hadn’t paid much attention to them. Now, I started pinging people with questions about llama behavior and training. I quickly discovered that most llama owners are happy to give advice and assistance to newbies like me. Rather than cry alone in my tack room, I developed an email and phone list of people who can commiserate with my frustration and give me tips on how to handle a particular problem before it develops into a full-blown crisis.
I also began educating myself about the nuances of llama psychology. I joined Rocky Mountain Llama Association and took advantage of their library program, which loans videos on training and handling through the mail, and started learning about the quirks of herd animals. I bought books, watched videos, and tried new techniques with my animals. I was particularly interested in Jim and Amy Logan's clicker training method. Based on the well-established principles of operant conditioning, it's a very gentle and highly effective way of desensitizing your animals so they get used to your presence and handling.
So I decided to try clicker training. I ordered some clickers and dug out a couple of old Frisbees, which I'd drop on the ground in front of the llamas' feet. When one came near a Frisbee, I'd click my clicker and drop a treat in it. Lo and behold, it worked! Pretty soon, I could hold a Frisbee in my hand and they'd lean in and touch it. It wasn't long before their llama noses were following me, my Frisbee, and my clicker all over the pasture. Soon we were into the training pens, where we did the touch-click-reward cycle hundreds of times. I knew things were clicking (so to speak) when I saw that my smart boy Ramah had developed the very cute habit of standing at the pasture gate with the Frisbee in his mouth, staring at the house and waiting for me to come play the clicker game.
Paul and I tackled some more basic infrastructure problems, too. For one thing, we realized that "barn plus pasture does not equal llama home." We needed a lot more equipment: mangers, storage areas, a well-designed catch pen and training area, and a sturdy restraining chute for medical treatments. Paul built a chute where we can restrain the animals for medical treatments, nail clipping, and shearing. He got creative with the other stuff: when he isn't out in the wilderness, he manages a ski area, where he gets lots and lots of old skis and snowboard parts from the rental fleets they retire. These recycle into great building materials, so we've now got a hay storage platform, a fenced-off storage area with a nice gate, a halter rack, and couple of mangers, all made out of old skis and snowboard parts.
We also did the healthcare homework we should have done before we got our animals. I called around and interviewed several vets over the phone, and chose a local vet, Jim Fallen, who has studied, works with, owns, and loves llamas. When I brought our boys down to be gelded this summer, he taught me how to do a shot properly, helped with teeth and toenails, and let me stick around to do the shearing in his yard while the boys were recovering from their anesthetic. Even though heÕs 50 miles away, he gives excellent medical advice over the phone.
Lastly, to my great relief, we can now move our llamas. We invested $600 in a trailer hitch for our truck and, until we buy our own trailer, we have a deal with our very kind horse-owning neighbors: they lend us their spare stock trailer, and we dog sit for them when they're out of town.
Part Four: Lessons Learned
So would I do it again, knowing what I know now? Yes, I probably would - but we were darned naive about what we were getting into, and way too impulsive about our decision. Here's what I wish someone had told me before I dove headfirst into herd management:
BE REALISTIC. If your experience with animals is limited to your average dog, cat, or bird, and you're expecting llamas to provide a friendly introduction to the wonderful world of large animal care, think again. Yes, they are easier than a lot of large herd animals: they have simple dietary needs, they're remarkably hardy, and they always poop in the same place - nice for pasture cleanup. But llamas aren't maintenance free, and they have quirks that make them completely different from more domesticated companions.
TEACH YOURSELF. Join a regional llama association. Get on the internet and lurk on llama listservs. Buy books - llama books are good; so are books about animal training in general. Go to shows, meet with llama owners, visit their farms. Decide which operations you like best and ask the owners if they'd be willing to mentor you. Spend some time helping them out with their herd, maybe doing health management and some training. They'll appreciate the help, and you'll get a much better sense of what you're about to get into.
EQUIPMENT. Talk to other llama owners and ask them what their most important equipment and facilities are. I can tell you mine: cattle panels, halters and leads, a flat-bottomed poop scoop, clickers and the Frisbee. Invest in those things and get familiar with them before you try them out on your animals. For example, when we bought our first set of nail nippers, we practiced on our dogs before we went near the llamas.
MONEY. Llamas are inexpensive, compared to horses and other large animals, but that doesn't mean they're free. Your animals will need feed, gear, vet care, medications, and dietary supplements, among other things. For four animals, costs for our first year of llama ownership, including vet bills, adoption fees, consulting with trainers, feed, weed eradication for our pastures, medications, books, association fees, pet sitters, and basic equipment, was somewhere around eight thousand dollars - and that doesn't include time off work to meet with vets and trainers.
TIME. If your life is already full of work, family, travel, or other commitments, like mine still is, get ready for llamas to challenge your time management skills. Be prepared to carve out an hour per, minimum, for training, feeding, poop removal, and general care. Not only does structured training and interaction time make for well-mannered, properly socialized animals, but hour or so you spend in the pasture every day will make you familiar with your animals' habits and mannerisms so that you'll be able to tell immediately if something is wrong.
EMERGENCIES. As hardy as llamas are, they aren't invincible. Get a good first aid kit, build a restraining chute, and get your llamas accustomed to moving in and out of it. Since ours arrived a year ago, I've dealt with an abscessed cheek, a ripped ear, a sore ankle, a cut lip, three gelding surgeries, and a very acid stomach that required dosing with Tagamet and Vitamin B Ð in addition to the routine toenails, deworming, shots and shearing. Your animals will need your help, probably sooner rather than later, and you have to be ready to give it to them.
FIND A GREAT VET. Good llama vets are few and far between. Take the time to locate and screen possible vets and pick one you like. Program his or her numbers into your phone. Make sure you have a way of getting the animals to the vet, or getting the vet to your place.
Part Five: Epilogue
As I write this, the boys are wandering through our front yard, which is a 3-acre pasture filled with green grass, juniper trees, and rabbits. This is their reward for good behavior during our hour of school, though it's a reward for me, too. Watching them look at their reflections in the windows, investigate the lawn furniture, bury their faces in the juniper branches, pull the petals off the sunflowers, and chase each other around the house is a delicious treat after a long day. In fact, things are going so well that we're about to take in a fifth llama, Coyote, a three-year old male who was recently rescued from a life of complete neglect at a horse farm. He's quite shy of people and is going to need a lot of desensitization before he's handle-able. I think I'll buy him his very own special Frisbee.