“Do you know of anyone who wants a llama?”
That question caused me to look sideways at my husband who simply rolled his eyes. Sid the llama needed a new home because his owner didn’t want to feed him through the winter as she had just acquired some horses. We met Sid later in the week and fell in love with his goofy expression, his willingness to work and his mild manners. We came home with Sid who is an absolutely fun pet.
Not Just a Pretty Face
Llamas are camelids, meaning that they share a common ancestor with camels, dromedaries and alpacas. Llamas are from South America and are still used extensively as pack animals and for meat. According to the Oklahoma State University, llamas originated in North America some 40 million years ago and migrated to South America. So, bringing a llama to Montana sort of brings them back to ancestral territory.
Llamas reach about 250 to 400 pounds and can carry about a quarter of their weight. Full grown, they reach between five and a half to a bit over six feet at the top of their heads. They’re smart and can learn. Their hair (called fiber) is naturally lanolin-free and can be spun for yarn to make very warm clothing. Llamas are intolerant of predators and make good guard animals, chasing away coyotes and dogs from sheep.
Llearning about Llamas
When I first heard about Sid the llama, I immediately bought a few books on llamas and read up. I learned some fundamental things: llamas don’t eat as much as horses, they poop in one spot, they’re relatively friendly and inquisitive creatures and the spitting part is vastly over-emphasized. Nobody knew how old Sid was, although he had been adopted out from a llama pack train. The outfitter got out of llama packing and the woman who adopted him didn’t know his age. After consulting other llama owners on the web, I came to the realization that you can’t age a llama by his teeth. Llamas can live to about 20 years, which isn’t a bad age for an ungulate.
Examining the Llama
I wanted a llama for packing, so I studied the llama conformation from books, hoping to be able to recognize structural faults. Sid was down on one of his pasterns either from age or hard packing work, but I figured that with a bump in nutrition and light exercise, I might be able to get it to improve. He was a bit shy at first, not wanting to be touched. After about 20 minutes of patient handling, I was able to get him to allow me to run my hands down his body. Using a stick, I gently touched his back legs and he kicked. He had not been desensitized to being touched in the back.
I tried to get him to “kush,” that is, lay down like a camel. No go. We took him for a walk and he matched our speed whether we walked fast or slowed down. Using typical mule-driving commands such as “get up,” “gee” (right), “haw” (left), and “whoa,” we were able to determine he really was a trained pack llama.
Sid wasn’t abused and came around quickly to my touch. An abused animal will be more than shy and may be fearful to downright dangerous. You should only consider adopting project animals if you’re very experienced working with large animals and able to be patient and rehabilitate an animal that could be dangerous. Three hundred pounds is a lot of animal, and you should avoid adopting any llama that makes you afraid or is aggressive.
What You’ll Need to Own a Llama
Llamas are pretty hardy critters, but they do have basic needs: food, water and shelter. Sid has a pen behind the barn with a roof for shelter, a feeder with hay and llama pellets and a waterer. He has a halter and lead rope so I can walk him and give him some light exercise. Furthermore to keep his coat in good condition, he’ll need clippers and various combs and rakes. His coat is matted and with winter coming, I dare not shave him until spring.
Llamas need their toenails clipped once a year if they don’t go over rocky ground. They also need companionship of other ungulates, something we’re currently working on to provide. They need vaccinations and to be wormed regularly. Beyond that, they’re a fairly low maintenance pet.
Adopting a Llama
I fell into llama adoption out by accident, but there are llama adoption groups across the country. Llamas are not as trendy as their cousins the alpacas and you may see free to good home llamas available through Craigslist.org, in the local paper or other free sites. If you do decide to adopt a llama whether for a pet, packing or guard duty, be sure to find a veterinarian who knows llamas and will examine the critter. Some llamas are free to good home; others, will cost a nominal adoption fee. If you get a male, be sure he is gelded (neutered) or have him gelded by a veterinarian when you get him.
Be sure to ask questions of the owner as to why they are getting rid of the animal. Ask what training the llama has had, if any, because it may make a difference in how he behaves.
The Wow Factor
My neighbors were amazed when I introduced them to Sid. His mild manners and goofy face won them over and everyone wanted to know if he ate weeds (he does). Almost everyone is afraid that he will spit, which is pretty funny because even though spit is a bit foul, it’s pretty harmless. Sid isn’t a huge spitter, so it’s a moot point. What’s more, you can train a llama to not spit.
He’s just odd enough that people stare and ice age enough to look like a throwback in time. He’s great on walks and has been trained with dogs, which shows just how smart they are. You can train them to tolerate dogs well and not spook. So, if you want an animal that’s useful and out of the ordinary, check out a llama. You might experience llama llove too.
Oklahoma State University: Llamas
Sandi Burt, Llamas: An Introduction to Care, Training and Handling, Alpine Publications, 1991.
Gale Birutta, Storey’s Guide to Raising Llamas, Storey Books, 1997.