I know. I know. That phrase usually belongs to Christmas, and I love Christmas, but whoever first coined that phrase and applied it to Christmastime obviously didn’t know the joys of springtime on a ranch.
Out here in the Midwest, March is when the Earth starts to wake from her long, restless, winter sleep, but, like me before my first cup of coffee, she moves slowly, and yawning, meanders through the month in a bit of a cloud covered haze. March comes with sprinklings of hope and signs of warmth. But it also comes with snows and drops from 70 degrees one day to 25 degrees the next. March is the messenger that Spring is coming, but March is not Spring.
But April? In April, things come alive again. For about two weeks, I have been soaking in blue skies and green grass. Reveling in the new flowers, chirping birds, buzzing bees. I find that there is something deeply intoxicating about the color green, and I’ve spent hours and hours aimlessly wandering our fields to soak in the spirits of the season.
Spring is when the ranch wakes up again.
My first trip to the ranch was in the Spring, over 15 years ago now. I recently stumbled across that story, one originally written for a Master’s level class in creative nonfiction. If you’ve ever wondered how on earth I ended up on this ranch, this is it. That day was when my love affair with the ranch started; thus far, with ten years on my marriage to Jeremiah, it’s been the most enduring love of my life.
In addition to the twenty-eight llamas and alpacas at our place, Jeremiah shears roughly a dozen llamas and alpacas for other people. Some of them are better than others. A few stand as well as our own. Several fuss a bit. (I have a few who do that as well.) And a few of them full on freak during shearing. Thanks to one of those “freak out” llamas, I’m sporting several black and blue bruises and a now fading rope burn.
This weekend, I travelled to Northern Illinois with Jeremiah to shear three guard llamas. These particular llamas belong to wonderful sheep ranchers who had employed him last year for the same task. The owners are proactive about their livestock. They take excellent care of their sheep. And, up until my visit, they were largely misinformed about their llamas. In my opinion, their misinformation was perpetuated by the animals’ breeder, either unintentionally due to their own ignorance or intentionally to ensure easy sales.
For those of you who may not know, llamas are often “employed” to guard other livestock. They regularly guard sheep, goats, alpacas, etc, against natural predators. Being strongly bonded herd animals, they can be exceptionally good at this work because they bond with other types of livestock and will consider them to be their herd. And llamas protect their herd. Llamas are especially noted for preventing coyotes from attacking lambs and kids in sheep and goat herds.
As often as not, people who get guard llamas know almost nothing about llamas. They depend on the people who they’re buying the llamas from, or the internet, to fill in sizable knowledge gaps. And as often as not, they do not get accurate information.
When we pulled up to the sheep barn, I noticed that only two of the llamas were haltered. The owners explained how they caught the two llamas laying the halters across the llamas’ food and fastened them while the llamas ate. The third could not be caught.
“So, you can’t approach them?”
“Well, you know, they’re guards. So they aren’t supposed to be too friendly, and we’re not supposed to approach them…”
That right there…
The idea that guard llamas must, for some reason or another, be wild and crazy (or at least distant and unmanageable) is one of the most commonly perpetuated myths in the industry. The idea behind it is that you don’t want your guards to bond to you. They have to bond with the sheep, goats, etc. As such, breeders often slate poorly trained or badly behaved animals for guard duty. These animals often cannot be caught or handled without great difficultly. They are practically impossible to shear. You can’t trim their feet. You can’t vet them.
Oh, and sometimes they throw me into a fence while I’m trying to help shear them. And I don’t like that.
Let me be clear. Llamas, even sheep and goat guards, should be manageable. Training a llama to accept basic care and to lead will not magically remove its instinct to protect its herd, nor will such training magically bond your animal to you rather than its herd.
“Well, we were told not to handle them much by the breeder, and I didn’t see anything on the internet to contradict that…”
She had a point. Most of the information out there about llama guards says that they should be largely left alone. So lets bust some internet myths.
Myth 1: Guard llamas have to be mean to be effective.
Truth: Guard llamas have to bond to your herd to be effective. They have to be alert to be effective. They have to be adults to be effective. They should not be mean or unmanageable. They definitely shouldn’t perceive you as a threat to their herd.
Myth 2: All llamas make good guards.
Truth: Some llamas are not meant to be guards. If you’re in search of a guard, look for a fully grown gelding or female. Intact males should not guard other livestock; they will often try to breed them and could hurt them. Former breeding males can also be a poor choice (for the same reason that currently intact males are).
Young animals (under two) should not be considered as guards. Until that age, they are not fully grown. They need to be big enough and confident enough to do the job you’re asking of them. When they’re young, they should be protected by the herd, not the other way around, and it’s unfair to ask babies to protect babies.
Myth 3: If you want a llama to guard, you shouldn’t have other llamas around.
Truth: Llamas will guard together, but it’s probably best if you don’t buy a strongly bonded pair (such as mother and daughter) to guard together.
Myth 4: You don’t have to mess with a guard llama; just let them be.
Truth: This one falls in line with the “they should be mean” myth; “they should be mean,” but “don’t worry. You don’t need to mess with them.” However, just like all other livestock, they need vet care and worming. Toenails need to be trimmed. You have to shear them at least once a year, sometimes more often. “Mean” guard llamas (and they are usually not truly mean so much as untrained) often have their basic care neglected because no one can get near them.
Guard llamas can be fantastic. They will do a job for you, fending for your flocks of sheep or goats, sometimes even giving their own lives to defend your livestock against predators. In return, they should be given quality care, and they should be trained so that care can be given without stressing out you or the animal.
Final note: One last thing people need to realize. Llamas will protect their herd from predators. Unless you socialize them to know the difference, they will not be able to tell the difference between coyotes and the family dog. With proper socialization and training, the two species can and will happily co-exist. Without it, dogs who the llamas perceive as threatening will be treated as such. (And most guard size llamas are more than capable of killing Fluffy….) Yet another reason to socialize and train your llamas.
Oh – And for those of you who might be wondering, the sheep ranchers with the three llamas were very excited to learn that their llamas didn’t have to be difficult. They want to send them to me one at a time this summer for some basic obedience lessons.
EDIT: Another llama mama out there (who has a lot of experience with herd guards) pointed out that even bonded pairs sometimes do well as guards. It really just depends on the pair. I should clarify. Bonded or not, the llamas need to be interested in your herd. If they’re interested, they will guard. If they care more about each other, they might not guard well.
Can I just start by saying how blessed I am to have such an amazing husband? I know, some of you are probably sick of hearing about him, but yesterday, when I came up to him while he was in the middle of one of his projects to tell him that a few of my llamas were acting like they were getting pretty hot, he dropped everything he was doing and came with me to the barn immediately to shear a few more. No complaints. No questions asked.
Every year, around this time, we usher in the beginning of summer by shearing. For the past three years or so, Jeremiah has done our shearing himself. (While we were dating, he made the mistake of proclaiming that “I bet I could do that,” after watching someone else shear. Turns out, he could. And he was better at it than the original guy. Guess who got drafted?)
So, why do you shear?
You might not know that llamas and alpacas are wool bearing animals. Though not as famous for that job as sheep, they have a high quality, hypoallergenic wool. Unlike sheep wool, there is no lanolin to complicate the whole wool-to-product process. It’s lovely stuff.
However, in my area of the world, it isn’t just about harvesting a useful animal product, it’s about keeping my llamas safe and happy. Lamas and alpacas are Andean animals from Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Peru. While we would probably think of those places as hot, the truth is that, in the mountain ranges, it’s pretty temperate to chilly. Their wool protects them from the chill in those regions. It does a pretty good job of protecting against our winters. It can be a death sentence throughout our summers. We shear our llamas so they don’t overheat AND to harvest their lovely wool. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.
They just…stand there?
I’m not sure why, but most people seem to be under the impression that shearing is a knock down, drag out between us and the llamas. It’s really not. While some animals are more difficult than other–one particularly petulant little monster did manage to kick Jeremiah pretty good this year–most realize that having no wool feels far better than having gobs of it, and they will stand accordingly. (I’ve noticed their behavior for shearing is even better when it’s hot on shearing day.) Even our alpacas, who some people in the industry insist on laying out like sheep, stand very well to be shorn. I’ve heard horror stories of shearers who, for example, tie the animals’ feet and drop them to the ground. In my experience, that sort of procedure is traumatizing and unnecessary. Also, those shearers are the ones most likely to kill an animal by accidentally breaking it’s neck.
How do you decide who to shear first?
I have had several people ask me this year how I decide who to shear first and how I pick their haircuts. (We stretch shearing out over a week or so. Not everyone is shorn on the same day.) It’s fairly commonsense. If an animal looks hot, or has a risk factor (age, especially heavy wool, etc), he or she is shorn early. Older animals, however, end up keeping more of their wool (especially on the neck) because wool growth slows down as they age. I want to make sure they will be able to keep warm over the winter.
What do you do with all of that wool?
With twenty-eight wool-bearing camelids on the ranch, that’s a pretty fair question. Some of the wool is sold; some is given away. Some, especially the wool that isn’t as nice, is thrown out. (There are uses for that wool, such as felting or garden mulch, but I don’t really have the time to deal with it.)
Some, we use to take funny pictures.
Are any of you wondering about llama wool or shearing? (Or llamas in general?) I would love to field questions! Shoot!
Some of you have expressed interest in learning about the critters, so I decided to start with the one who, for me, really started all of this crazy. Minnett Mann, my first gelding, is, and always has been, my sweet boy. I wrote the following during graduate school, about five years ago.
Just a Minnett
I’ve never been good at goodbyes, and, in August of 2005, when I stood at the gate of the Illinois State Fair cattle ring, waiting to show my favorite llama for what was supposed to be the last time, it felt far too much like a goodbye. He was four, considered an “adult male,” and was misbehaving. I was nineteen, barely an adult myself, and trying very hard not to cry. I knew that I would never walk into the show ring with Minnett again. I was going away for three months, and he would be sold before I came home.
EDR Chilean Mystic’s Minnett Mann was the first newborn cria (baby llama) that I ever saw. He was born the first spring that I worked at the llama ranch, making his appearance only a few months after I was hired. His birth, I am told, took a grand total of fifteen minutes, a brisk entry even by livestock standards. When I first saw him I was instantly taken by his good looks, his wool the color of dark chocolate except for his white chin and bangs. His legs had the “too long” look of a newborn foal or calf. Still, despite his spindly, shaky legs, he had a unique presence about him from his earliest moments. He was ostentatious enough to demand that he be taken seriously within the herd from a young age; his dam’s (mother’s) place in the herd hierarchy was high enough that he could get away with it.
Minnett matured enough to show at about the same time that I started to become comfortable at the art of showing llamas. We learned together, bonding in a way that few people will ever really experience. In the first two years, he cemented a place in my heart. Though I didn’t own him, even L, my boss and his owner, began to refer to him as my llama.
L walked up to us as we were preparing to enter. She is the sort of individual who no one will ever think to describe as “old,” no matter how many years she lives. I feel fortunate to say that, aside from my parents and grandparents, she has had more impact on my life than anyone else I can think of. It was L who I ran to when I had a fight with my mom. She was the one who I told when I had a crush. She was the one I talked with about arguments with my best friend. She was sometimes the only adult in my life who didn’t try to keep me from growing up. Knowing me as well as she did, knowing the loss I was already starting to feel, she was also trying to suppress tears.
My attempt to steer the conversation away from the goodbye that was pressing in on me from all directions was fairly transparent. I don’t remember what I started talking about with her, but it didn’t fool anyone, least of all L. Drawing a deep breath in, she cut through my pretense, catching me off-guard.
“I can sell him to you as a gelding for $300, but that’s the best I can do.”
With that, she turned on her heel and walked away.
It was as if someone had given me my floor back. Minnett’s true value probably fell between $1,500 and $2,000. L was offering him at $300 because it was me. Turning to Anna, another worker at EDR, I asked if she wanted to buy half a llama. A whirlwind couple of weeks later, we owned him.
Minnett is not “easy.” He had been misbehaving himself when she offered to sell him to me. At that point in his life, misbehaving was his normal state of being. It hadn’t always been like that.
When he was young, he was EDR’s primary Public Relations animal. From visiting nursing home residents when he was barely old enough to show, walking into their rooms or up to their wheelchairs without a second thought, to meeting and greeting children who were visiting the farm, he was up for anything.
When he was two and his hormones kicked in high gear, he became increasingly difficult to control. When he became a breeder, he joined the ranks of the untrustworthy. I remember one day, a while before I bought him, when he charged one of my co-workers. When she entered his stall and tried to kick him out, he tried to knock her over. That sort of aggression is a power play. He was telling her that he outranked her; that he would win in a fight. It’s exactly the sort of aggression that breeders and trainers cannot tolerate. When 350 pound animals decide to push, you have to push back. Harder.
Hierarchy in the herd-animal world is largely psychological. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. It would be illogical for herd animals to waste precious energy infighting when they may have to use that same energy to defend their herd. When humans deal with these animals, this psychological rationale works in our favor: we cannot win in a physical fight, but we can psychologically establish dominance. Llamas’ muscle is hugely disproportionate to their mass: they are far stronger than they look. (In fact, they are stronger, per pound, than a horse.) If you cannot trust that your animal will not use his strength against you, you cannot keep him. It’s dangerous for everyone involved. Luckily, few of them ever challenge the hierarchy we set when they are young. Those who do must be swiftly dealt with.
When she told me what happened, I had to do something fast. Minnett was my baby, and allowing his future to fall prey to his idiot hormones was out of the question. My course of action was crystal clear and clearly stupid: if he wanted a fight, if he wanted to challenge someone, it was damn sure going to be me.
When I entered his stall, my jaw set in concentration, he seemed surprised. When I entered his stall, my stomach in knots over what I had to do, he barely gave me a second thought. He had no real interest in challenging me. His attitude shifted when I set about finishing what my coworker had tried to start. I pushed him, trying to get him out of the stall. Most animals will accept this behavior, docilely walking out without pause. He got angry.
Still effectively glued in place, he put his ears back and began to cluck at me, warning me that he had every intention of spitting. I refused to be warned and pushed again. He pushed back, not coming after me like he had come after her, but feeling me out.
It was enough. I began to slam my knees into his chest, one after another. The knees to the chest imitate the way llamas fight: they run, crashing into one another chest to chest. There is far more power in their crashing than there was in my kneeing; I knew that I almost couldn’t produce enough power to phase him, let alone hurt him, but the action killed me nonetheless.
Tears stung my eyes. I knew that if he chose to rear up and throw his whole weight against me, I would be hurt. I also knew that if he pulled that dominant shit against another human, someone less likely to understand and more likely to sue, he would probably be gone, sent to a refuge in Montana where he wouldn’t pose a threat to people.
The altercation ended swiftly. Even though I have always believed that Minnett stands among the few llamas who understand how big they are, he never really used his size against me. It was not long before he gave up. Hierarchy is psychological, and I refused to be dominated.
When I chose to buy him, it hardly mattered to me that he was difficult. I didn’t see him that way, even though a mild belligerence was an undeniable part of his personality at the time. I bought him because I couldn’t stand to see him sold somewhere else. I couldn’t handle saying goodbye, even if he did act like a moron most of the time. Gelding him helped, calming him down.
Now, three years later, he is still mellowing. Sometimes I think that he is daily reaching backwards, becoming, again, the gentle young animal that he once was. For me, now, he usually behaves perfectly. At this point, I can release his leadline, swinging it over his shoulders or stuffing the end of it in my pocket, and still depend upon him to walk beside me. He would all but follow me through fire, and he would think seriously about the fire.
Still, when you get right down to it, his behavior isn’t mine to dictate, as much as I would like to believe that it is. In reality, training only takes you so far; at some point, animals’ actions are about what they want. Minnett is slowly becoming the animal that he was before the hormones, and I have little to do with it. I see that more and more clearly as time passes. This summer, behaving better than ever and enjoying it, he blew me away.
At first he was anxious, pacing his stall and trying to draw the attention of the visitors. His interest in them was evident; when he chose to stand still, it was so that he could inspect them, giving “kisses” (softly sniffing their faces) when they were close enough. It thrilled him when individuals diverted their attention to him, rather than his counterparts in the center of the barn. He wanted out of his stall; that much was plain.
At seven years old, Minnett had long since ceased to be our PR animal, but, that day, he was campaigning for his former position with gusto.
I was holding the leadline of another animal, Minnett’s half-brother, Jackpot, I had a suspicion that Minnett, were he brought out, would do very well. He was enthralled with the visitors, and had already claimed a few votes for “favorite” from over the stall door. Jackpot, on the other hand, was frightened of the new people. His dancing steps betrayed his uncertainty, and his attempts to back away decided the issue for me. I returned him to his stall in favor of his brother. Minnett seemed well-aware of my intentions, walking up to me and sticking his nose through his halter, as if to hurry the process.
I walked with him to the center of the barn, and we took our place next to L and Kniggett. Despite the instinct that told me he would do well, that he wanted to be out there, I found myself a little nervous. There was a lot about this group that could scare him.
This was not our typical tourist group. Of the individuals in attendance, half had severe physical or mental disabilities. Minnett’s audience was largely wheelchair bound, and it was difficult for some of them understand that llamas don’t like sudden, loud noises, or that they preferred being petted on the neck to being petted on their faces. This sort of audience is the reason we want our PR animals to be bomb-proof, afraid of nothing. I probably held my breath for a moment as the first individual, a young man who walked up without the aid of a walker, approached Minnett. I needn’t have worried.
I believe that most animals are more sensitive and kind than we give them credit for, easily more sensitive and kind than most people. Time and again, I have seen animals intuitively give love and affection where it is needed most. In nursing homes, I have watched a young animal take an interest in an older woman who, previously, had been passing her day starring out her window. Some older individuals, especially those who grew up and lived on farms, seem to wake up when the llamas come to see them. When the animals walk up to them, timid perhaps, but not afraid, smiles become infectious. Petting their necks and cooing to them about how pretty they are or how sweet, conversation somehow seems two-sided, the llama’s half silent, but no less salient. It doesn’t surprise me that the Incas nicknamed llamas “the silent brothers” when they domesticated them more than 4,000 years ago.
I looked from Kniggett, a red and white gelding with the calmest temperament I have ever come across, to my Minnett Mann, whose behavior has more than once left something to be desired. Minnett was undeniably the more assertive of the two animals. He was older, larger, and generally more set upon getting his way. Kniggett, being his usual, wonderful self, stood like a rock and allowed himself to be petted and prodded in whatever fashion necessary.
But Minnett, from the moment that first individual approached, entered a state of bliss. His behavior was more than Kniggett’s quiet, gentle stoicism. It wasn’t a simple acceptance of the individuals around him. It was utter enjoyment. He leaned into their admiration, and gave it right back to them. He hadn’t been that intuitive PR animal for a long time. Watching him, it was like our past was flashing forward into our present. His kisses continued as he greeted the first half of the individuals; after that, he became very interested in the people as a group. His distraction left him less focused, but not less amiable.
By the time the blonde girl came up to him, shuffling, with a steadying arm on her handler, Minnett was no longer as quick to say hello. He was watching everyone, not just the person in front of him. She, however, only had eyes for him. She was enthralled and waiting for him to give her the same attention that he had given her friends.
She looked to me, looked at him, and looked back to me, making “kissy” faces. She wanted Minnett to give her llama kisses like he had everyone else, and she wasn’t quite sure how to make that happen. I was puzzled for a moment: it isn’t a behavior I can force. After that second’s pause, I came up with an alternative, and, making sure that she was watching, threw my arms around him in a hug and kissed him. She watched me, and her face lit up. This was a more than acceptable compromise. I released him and watched as she mimicked my movements. Minnett was momentarily surprised, but, once he was aware of what was going on, seemed perfectly content to be held by this small, frail girl. The hug lasted longer than most. Minnett didn’t seem to mind. He gave her exactly what she needed. The smile that crossed her face when she finally did pull away proved that to me.
I put him back in his stall after they left. As anthropomorphic as it sounds, I would swear that, as I removed his halter, hugging him and practically exploding with pride in “my boy,” he had a proud look on his face. He knew how well he had done. I watched him walk down the corridor, towards his field and his herd. He’s always been mine, but I guess I’ve always been his too.
I recently lead another tour around the ranch. I brought them into Minnett’s pasture, not knowing entirely to expect. I never know entirely what to expect. I figured that it was just as likely that he ignore them as anything else. He surprised me again, walking over to them and saying hello, charming as ever with his chocolate brown wool and white facial markings. I suppose he stood there with us for fifteen to twenty minutes, introducing himself as I answered questions. The tour group looked at him with interest, seeing a friendly large animal, one who undoubtedly left an impression. I looked at him too, but I saw seven years, the small, chocolate colored cria that captured my heart, the petulant adolescent male that I fought, the adult gelding whose gentleness had had such an effect upon a very special audience, and a connection that I still can’t explain.
Over four thousand years ago, one of the Incas deemed llamas their “silent brothers.” I wonder if that wordsmith had a Minnett.
I started working with llamas when I was fourteen years old. I haven’t stopped yet. To most people, it’s one of my defining characteristics. In high school, I was the one who “can’t come because she’s at a llama show.” In college and through graduate school, I was “the one who had llamas” or “the llama trainer.” When I was a camp counselor, I was the “llama mama” or “llama whisperer.”
Ever since that first week working on the farm, I’ve been fielding questions about these critters that I spend so much of my time with.
“Don’t they spit?”
“Can you ride them?”
“Do people eat those?”
“How big are their eggs?” (That particular person had them confused with Emus…)
–And the big one–
“What do you do with llamas?”
I guess its only natural that people are curious about them. Though they don’t seem strange to me, it isn’t like everyone has a llama in their backyard, let alone twenty-five of them. There are a lot of reasons that people keep llamas–they act as everything from wool producers, to herd guards for sheep and goats, to therapy animals–but there’s more to them than that. I love keeping llamas because they give me a peek into something bigger than myself.
See the little guy laying down in front? That’s Scarecrow.
Scarecrow originally came to the farm from Kansas as part of a set of three geldings. L, his owner, named them Lion, Tinman, and Scarecrow. They weren’t overly young when I started working at the farm in 2001. At the time the above picture was taken (January of this year on one of the coldest days), he was the last of the original three still alive. We figured that this would be his last winter. Nearing twenty years old, he suffered from Alzheimer’s (yes, animals can get that) and some arthritis. Still, he was sweet as pie and a perennial favorite. We all knew we would miss him.
For the past week, L and her husband, Jeremiah (my husband), and I have all known that the little guy was going downhill. We kept him comfortable, and I think he enjoyed his last few days, but what amazed all of us was that we weren’t the only ones keeping vigil. The other llamas and alpacas in his herd took turns cuddled up to him, staying with him for hours on end and in shifts.
They didn’t leave his side until he had passed on.
And this is very “llama” behavior. They have deep relationships and friendships. They take care of each other.
To my mind, I am really just an observer out here; I have had the privilege of watching how good and kind they are over and over again.