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A Special Pack Trip with Billllama

Imagine you are a llama . . .

Five days out of seven in the winter, you are loaded into a trailer with two other llamas who want to beat on you . . . you travel to a strange place with a bunch of rowdy men . . . you are yanked from the trailer, tied up, a pack is put on your back and strapped in place none too kindly . . . you haul 80-pound loads of tree seedlings all day, behind the two other llamas . . . the pack grinds into your spine in two places where the straps pass over . . . it rocks from side to side, jabbing its thin metal edges into your ribs until the flesh must be pulp . . . the rigging saws across your neck, your belly, your legs . . . if you protest, you will be beaten, yelled at, kicked, your ears grabbed, your tail pulled, your testicles twisted . . . resistance is futile . . . communication is futile . . . escape is impossible . . . even though you know the consequences, you collapse in a kush and retreat to the haven of your own mind, the screaming and kicking seem to fade away . . . until excruciating pain brings you back to reality -- and to your feet -- to endure another kind of pain from the pack . . . again, and again . . . and again . . .

At the end of the day, you go back into the pasture . . . the two other llamas get a rest from the torture, but you must endure more -- from them. They keep you from the hay, they keep you from the shelter that provides some protection from the cold winter rains . . . they force you into submission again and again, taking turns beating and raping you . . . and tomorrow, it will start all over again . . .

° ° ° ° °

I first met Bill in 1987. Jim and I were doing a training consultation for three ex-tree-packing llamas. The person working with the llamas did not own them, but had obtained permission to learn about llamas from hands-on experience with the retired trio. She wanted some pointers for dealing with two of the llamas, and (because she suspected that perhaps these weren't normal llamas) she wanted my opinion on "where the llamas' heads were at." The third llama, she explained, she hadn't been able to do anything with, and quite frankly, she felt the other two would keep her hands full anyway.

We worked briefly with the first two llamas (who showed clear signs of their former abuse), and then tried to catch the third within the confines of the shelter. He blasted through us and out into the pasture. We rounded him back up -- a tedious process -- to make the point that we wouldn't give up, in case anyone ever did want to work with him. We then caught him (with difficulty) in the shelter. The animal was violent, and could be touched only in the center of his neck. Inching up to his head or reaching further down instantly resulted in spitting, kicking, and head thrashing, so we each "hugged" him briefly and then released him.

Afterward, I cursed at myself for not bringing a camera. The second llama was a remarkable true-calico, and the third llama had an ear that would be a perfect example for my class of why fighting teeth should be removed. Could I return again to take some pictures? The answer was yes.

When I arrived, the third llama stared intently at me and followed us from a distance. He had never acted this way before, I was told, and it must be that he remembered me. This time, I was able to halter him with assistance, and I was taken with the change in the animal. He seemed truly puzzled by my actions, and as I left, he stared after me. In his mind, I was clearly "the crazy woman" -- I had required virtually nothing of him, and yet seemed satisfied.

After that, I had to own Bill. I could not leave such an intelligent creature to waste away in fear. His owner thought him "psychotic," "crazy" and "a horrible wuss." Bill apparently had completely revulsed the tree planters by "allowing" himself to be raped repeatedly. He had a reputation of spitting all over anybody and everybody, not to mention kicking hard and accurately. No wonder no one wanted to work with Bill. The owners of Bill's pasture hated the fighting and screaming he was always involved in, and they disliked him as well. I finally bought him for $150 (probably too much), had him gelded (he wasn't breeding material), and brought him home. Things progressed fairly well until Bill found that I had a llama pack, too -- I foolishly put it on him, thinking that I would "show" him it would be all right. Bill stared straight ahead, his eyes vacant. His body stiffened and he trembled, but otherwise seemed to do fine. The next day, however, he would not be haltered and fought violently. The fragile trust he had given me was destroyed.

Over the next four and a half years, I learned many lessons from Bill, one of which was that time is the best healer of wounds. After months of virtually fruitless regular lessons, I stumbled on the fact that Bill did better when I interacted with him from a distance, merely caught and hugged him on a regular basis, and made lessons the exception rather than the rule. Applying this was difficult; my own impatience was bad enough, but I had to contend with people who wanted to know why I had "given up," or why I didn't just take him to an instant-fix training clinic, or why I didn't just unload the worthless, ugly lump of meat.

Despite the opposition, I managed to continue with the infrequent-lesson method Bill responded to. As the months turned into years, Bill had the opportunity to see people daily, but with few demands on him, and slowly he began to turn around. Bill was an exceptionally bright llama, as evidenced by his unique problem-solving abilities, and it hurt me terribly to imagine how such an intelligent llama must have perceived the senseless, neverending abuse he had suffered for years.

After a year and a half, I could catch Bill in the big open pasture and pick up all his feet, off-lead. Four years after Bill's violent fear of haltering resurfaced, I was able to halter him by unorthodox means for grooming, and I finally felt I could take him to a llama playday (no packs!). Upon jumping out of the vehicle, Bill transformed into a frightened and apprehensive wild creature before my very eyes. My heart sank, but he surprised me, actually calming down until he seemed normal in the afternoon.

After five years, I reintroduced the pack in a pen with Bill unhaltered and free to move about, rather than proving to him once again that submitting to the halter was putting his well-being in jeopardy. Bill remained communicative throughout that session and asked for a hug whenever he felt overwhelmed as he had been taught. I was able to tell from the hugs that although Bill was frightened, he was not yet pushed beyond his ability to control his fears. Still, I did not know when -- if ever -- Bill would be ready to pack again. I was very much afraid of undoing the scant results of my not-so-easily-mustered patience. However, there comes a time when one must try, even if failure might result.

Yesterday, Bill and I set out for his first overnight "recreational" pack trip. I was afraid he would "blank out" on me again when I put on the pack and that I would have to turn around and go home. To my relief, Bill was quite nervous (although he repeatedly requested "hugs"), and he stood still for cinching up, and kushed (and stayed!) to have the panniers put on. Bill carried a light load of 44 pounds and I carried a large internal frame pack . . . just in case.

As we started off, Bill ran stiffly ahead wearing "pain ears," but after a few hundred feet, he apparently realized that he wasn't actually in pain -- yet -- and adopted normal ear movements. He hesitated at the railroad tracks (my recurring nightmare was that he would kush on them and not get up), and then scooted across them. Once on the trail, he settled to a reasonable pace and after about a half-mile, his posture began to relax.

I made a point to stop whenever Bill pulled lightly back. He was not an authority-challenging type, and he did need to learn that I was willing to take communication from him. At the one-mile mark, Bill kept stopping and staring into the trees -- he had spotted a group of elk. Bill was apprehensive throughout that area, as evidenced by his hugs. He finally stopped pulling back, but began again after about another mile -- this time to look back down the trail.

After I insisted that I wouldn't accept that as a reason for stopping, Bill continued on again. Shortly thereafter, he pulled back hard -- and spread his legs wide to "go potty." Now this may seem boring and unimportant, but I was elated. Bill and his cohorts had been forced to keep walking, even when defecating and urinating. That Bill had developed enough of a self-image and confidence in my willingness to respond to him was nothing short of miraculous. That he had done so even after I had put a pack on him was even more exciting.

I rested Bill frequently all the way up because I knew he was not in condition and so that I could have an opportunity to assess how he was doing mentally. He most often pulled and looked back down the trail when faced with a difficulty such as a downed tree or a steep hill, but I was able to convince him to try. At one point, he refused to jump a tree and immediately started uphill to an easier spot across the trunk. Again, I was thrilled, because it meant that Bill was not too uptight to think clearly. Finally, though, just before the four-mile mark, it happened. Bill went down.

I assessed the situation. Bill's ears were up, and although he was probably slightly fatigued, he didn't seem to be down for strictly mental reasons. Given that, I decided to try to get him up. Although I would not resort to forcing him up, I did not want to set a precedent if I could avoid it. I pulled forward and said, "Bill, up" -- nothing happened. I calmly moved around to the side and repeated. Much to my amazement, Bill popped up. He was tired and a bit nervous -- as indicated by his hug -- and I gave him a good rest before we continued on.

At Yoran Lake, Bill wouldn't drink, but waded out into the lake. He continued to walk in the lake as I walked along the shoreline. Hmmm. In camp, Bill became increasingly nervous. He motored around at the end of his tether and stared at the trail out instead of eating. After much debate, I finally trussed him up good and removed the halter clip, buckling the poll strap directly. With elk season starting in the area next week, a llama-to-catch would be a llama-to-bury anyway, and Bill's level of agitation indicated that I hadn't a prayer of catching him.

Next morning, Bill was still nervous, although he hadn't so much as twitched at our midnight visitors (a small group of coyotes). He worked himself into a frenzy over being packed up on the tether line, and I had to reprimand him (cautiously) and tie him short, which he accepted reluctantly while continuing to request hugs (to my great relief -- I desperately hoped I hadn't ruined him again by speaking harshly or by bringing out the pack again). On the way back, Bill again waded in the lake (!), and he practically walked all over my heels for the first two miles. We made excellent time back to the truck, and Bill started humming impatiently when we got close. Much to my surprise, he kept trying to "hug" me through the bars of the stock rack as I closed and latched the doors.

This evening, Bill stood for me almost immediately and his hug was calm, not agitated or fearful. The trip had not caused him to backslide into fear. Training and teaching is mostly work, with an occasional reward as the student succeeds. Rehabilitation work is harder, and the rewards are fewer and farther between. Today, I am a success because Bill has finally succeeded -- with my help -- in shaking the effects of the most severe abuse I have ever known a llama to suffer. Bill may look like a nervous, scrawny, shredded-eared excuse for a pack llama to the outside observer. Few will ever understand how courageous Bill has had to be, and how much more he is than meets the eye.

"A Special Pack Trip with Billllama" originally appeared in the August 1992 issue of The Backcountry Llama Newsletter

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