Around the farm, it’s important to have the right tools, and it’s just as important to have tools capable of pulling double-duty.
How about a tool that can carry cargo, watch your sheep, keep you warm, haul your stuff, and feed you in a pinch? It’s no lie and no illusion: It’s a llama!
Millions of years ago, back when it was possible to travel from Russia to Alaska without GPS via the Bering Strait land bridge, a few descendants of the camel decided to see what all the fuss was about in North America. One of them, the guanaco, moseyed on down to South America and, in due time, launched the llama. The Incan people noticed the new critters’ surefootedness on steep Andean mountains and perhaps thought, “Aha! Meat and blankets on hooves.” Subsequently, they domesticated the llama somewhere around 6,000 years ago.
Llamas, by the way, are not alpacas, nor are they vicunas. The latter two are only llama-like, and only a llama can be called Lama glama.
For centuries, people of the Andes revered the llama, both culturally and religiously, and with good reason: Llamas make great companion pets, they can carry a load equal to around a third of their own weight, their wool is soft and warm when woven, and their meat is a nutritious source of protein. All are good reasons to put llamas first in the Andeans’ book. Experts have speculated that llamas may have even been used in fertility rites.
When the Spanish came to South America in the early 1500s and brought sheep with them, it was baaaad news for the llama. The Spaniards loved their “woolies,” and for the next 300 years, llamas and their alpaca cousins were treated like a loud uncle at a fancy wedding. Then someone noticed that sheep aren’t exactly great on trails, and someone else said anew, “Aha! Blankets on hooves!” and llamas were loved once again.
Meanwhile, back in North America after the turn of the 20th century, U.S. House Representative and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst brought a group of llamas to his San Simeon home in California. It took some 70 years for the animals to shake the “exotic” label and to become an animal anybody could keep in their pasture.
The llama on your lawn can live well past his teenage years. He can be as tall as a man and weigh upwards of 400 pounds. Llamas do not have hooves, in the traditional sense, like a horse, cow, sheep, or goat. Instead, they have toes, which may need regular or annual trimming, and a soft leathery pad, not all that dissimilar from the padding on a dog’s foot. They do very well in pastures.
Your llama may be one shade of brown, white, or black, or he may be multicolored. He could have ancestors from Brazil, Chile, or Argentina, and you may even find llama drama in Yokohama.
Breeding season is generally anytime March through October, although llamas have been known to breed year-round. After about 11 months, the llama mama gives birth to a cocker-spaniel-sized cria, which is as cute as the dickens.
What’s probably the llama’s most notorious “talent” is known as the spit bath. It’s said that their accuracy is uncanny at up to six feet, sometimes as far as 10 feet. Llamas will also nip if they don’t like you.
All that aside, though, young llamas are generally sweet-tempered and will follow the people they love, much like a funny-looking puppy. If you plan on hiking with yours, it’s advised that you halter train them and start them out with small packs.
They’re pretty simple to feed. They mostly eat what sheep eat, which is great for shepherds who want a helping hand. Llamas are known to be fierce protectors of their herds, and they seem to enjoy being with sheep. That is, despite the way their ancestors were treated by sheepherders centuries ago. Even so, most breeders recommend that you have another llama around for companionship.
In the end, if you want a little love, a lush fleece for a layer of warmth, or something to haul your luggage, then look no further and feel no trauma. What you want is some llama drama!
Learn how to raise llamas for a life full of laughter with an unusual animal.
Terri Schlichenmeyer, book reviewer and trivia collector, lives in Wisconsin with her two dogs and more than 11,000 books.