Lessons from the Llamas (or, First Class’s story)

The scrap of metal against cedar shingles and the crashing sound the shingles made as they hit the ground outside of my living room told me that Jeremiah was still hard at work on the roof.  He had been stripping that section for most of the day, an effort to get a watertight tarp over the leaking part before our near-week of rain began on Monday.

I didn’t want to bother him for evening chores, so I pulled a sweatshirt over my tank top and wandered out to the barn on my own to fill hay nets and otherwise attend to things. I walked into one of the stalls on the young side of the barn and untied a nearly empty net.  The barn was mostly vacant, but First Class, a younger, white gelding, stood alone in the next stall munching hay.

First Class in the Barn
First Class chillin’ in the barn.

First Class was born at the ranch.  He was a cute as a button as a cria. (Cria, by the way, is the appropriate name for a baby llama or alpaca.)  He used to be one of our most trustworthy, easy llamas.  When he was younger, he accompanied us to nursing homes and preschools.  He seemed to really enjoy that job, staying calm when other animals would have been thoroughly freaked.

He went to a new home when he was an adult.  A very nice lady with a couple of goats and sheep bought him as a herd guard.  She was new to llamas, but I worked with her myself for well over a month, teaching her to handle him properly.  They were getting along splendidly.

Then she left for vacation.

When she came home, he was like a completely different animal.  He ran away from everyone.  He kicked.  He spit.  Suddenly, this gelding, who had been so good, was acting like an abuse or neglect case.  It was as though he had been chased or threatened, and I wondered if teenagers (or someone) had spotted him from the road and slipped into his pen “to pet a llama” and that things had devolved from there.  (And yes, when you have livestock, these are the sort of scenarios that you have to worry about…)  All of that is really just supposition, but I was, and am, nearly certain that some kind of traumatic event occurred while she was gone.  We tried to fix it, but he was scared or angry and she was timid and afraid.  The combination made my efforts with them completely fruitless.

Eventually, once it became apparent that his behavior (fear, anger, whatever) was beyond his owner’s capabilities, L did what many breeders refuse to do and offered to take him back.  He’s gotten somewhat better since then, but he still hates to be handled.  I have my suspicions that with a lot of daily work he might be able to move past whatever hang up he has.  At this point, I don’t have that much time to spare, so he is largely living the life of a lawn ornament.  We really only mess with him when we have good reason.

Unfortunately, it was getting to be one of those times.

I’ve known for a while that his toenails desperately needed trimmed.  (What law of the universe is it that ensures that the animals who like being handled the least end up needing it most often?)  They were over long and starting to curl a bit.  Typically, we keep the llama toenails trimmed regularly, and they never look like that, but First Class has a talent for turning a simple chore that should be done in roughly three minutes into a three ring circus.

I’ll just say that has a way of making us a bit lax getting his toes done.

But I was there, and he was there, so I shut the stall door, haltered him, and grabbed my trimmers from the feed room.

Usually, my very talented farrier husband does the toenail trimming around here, but, unlike the horses’ hooves that I wouldn’t dare touch, I am capable of trimming the llamas and alpacas.  He quicker than me, and he tends to be able to trim shorter than I am able–I use hand shears; he uses nippers–but I’ve been doing that particular farm chore since well before he and I met.

Working as quickly as I could, I was able to trim three feet before First Class really started to get pissed.  But at that point, he was kicking at me and spitting a warning in the air.  That last foot wasn’t going to happen the way things were going.

I left him in the stall (to chill a bit) and wandered down to the back of the house where Jeremiah was working on the roof, asking him to give First Class a shot to calm him down a bit.  He obliged, and I waited.  In fact, I trimmed and wormed three other llamas (who wandered in to check on dinner) waiting for the shot to kick in.

Except it never did. Sometimes, with difficult llamas, their adrenaline and sheer force of will can trump lower level sedatives.  I should have known First Class would pull off that trick.

But he was still there, and we were still there, and the damn toenails were still there with the very real capability of making him lame if we waited too long to trim them.

So I held his head, and Jeremiah pulled out his nippers.  First Class spit.  He tried to kick Jeremiah in the head.  He laid down in the middle of the process, tucking his legs squarely underneath him.  Basically, this llama pulled out every trick in the book to prevent us from completely a very basic task.  When the llamas and alpacas stand as they should, it’s a task that literally takes two minutes.  He was going on closer to twenty or thirty.

Pissy Face
Pissy Face

By the time we finished trimming First Class, everyone involved was upset on some level.  Jeremiah was irritated.  First Class was still mad.  I was emotionally exhausted and smelled faintly of llama spit.  And it’s strange, because I was simultaneously upset with the adult gelding in front of me whose behavior was so antagonistic and sad for the cria I knew who had had such potential.  And I wished I understood more what had happened to turn the one into the other, and I wondered if the cause mattered when either way I was left to deal with the effect.

But honestly, somewhere along the line, his issue boils down to the same issue that so many rescues have: at some point, a human failed him.

I have a friend halfway across the country dealing with the same issue with a horse she used to own.  The mare had been sold young.  She met her again years later.  In the meantime, there had been trauma.  (In the case of this mare, likely repeated and intentional trauma.)   My friend bought the mare back, paying more than the animal was worth, to save her.  For quite some time, she deemed the mare so dangerous that she wouldn’t allow anyone else to even pet her for fear that she might hurt them.  (Of course, horses are capable of being far more dangerous than even the worst llama; my friend’s actions take far more bravery than mine, which mostly just require patience.)

In the days since the toenail incidents, something occurred to me: For all the drama that First Class still provides, a few years ago, it was worse.

Those first three toenails I managed on my own?  That never would have happened.  A few years ago, he had to be completely knocked out by the vet to be shorn and have his toenails trimmed.

And I guess I had hope.

Whatever happened to him, I think maybe it’s slowly working its way out of his system.  Granted, it won’t happen quickly, and I have no doubt he will spend several more years making things more difficult than necessary, but I’m beginning to think he’ll come back around again.

My friend’s mare is slowly coming around again as well.  We both occasionally see flashes of the animal we used to know, reminding us why we keep trucking along.  For both of us, for both of the critters, there’s a solid chance we’re looking at a long road, but, now that I think about it, sometimes long roads are the path to the very best of destinations.

First Class, who for all of his issues, is still basically adorable.
First Class, who for all of his issues, is still basically adorable.
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11 thoughts on “Lessons from the Llamas (or, First Class’s story)

  1. Your posts are always fascinating this post is no exception. Though I am completely out of my point of reference (or the zone around it) i very much enjoyed reading it, was a very good read indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. First Class IS adorable! It upsets me to think what may have happened to alter his sweet nature. People who are unkind to animals really disturb me. But, I’m so happy he has you and a safe home. I enjoyed reading your post. 🙂

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  3. One of the amazing things that First Class got so right was when we took him and Rabbit Christmas caroling. They had not been off the farm much for years (yes, this was after he came back from his visit with the goats), and he not only wore an antler headband that lit up, he walked down dark streets he’d never been on, and gave a kiss to a wonderful lady who was dying of cancer. Stood right next to her for flash pictures, too. Underneath all that fear and resulting bravado and awful behavior is a wonderful guy. I’m so glad he has come as far as he has. Keep the faith, Cherity!

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  4. I hear you. I have a “difficult” mare. It’s been a much longer process than I thought it would be to help her become a less “difficult” mare. I know for myself it becomes an emotionally draining process some days. Your post was a good reminder that as frustrated as I get I know she is just as frustrated- and even more.

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