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If you don't rescue ...


Chief's story

A "goat person" was deriding llamas on an internet chat list. "They're good for nothing! Nobody wants llamas anymore -- why, my neighbor is buying them up for slaughter!"

Anyone who has had their own llama friend can guess what happened next -- unbridled outrage and determination to find out where the llamas were and to save them. Unfortunately for us, the ten llamas turned out to be in our area, and so we dropped everything to negotiate for their lives.

The "llama owner" turned out to be the owner-operator of a pair of small auctionyards in the area. Any llama who did not sell (virtually all of them), he bought -- most of them intact males. At first he had tried to turn the llamas over for a profit. He initially sold a few out in Eastern Oregon as sheep guards, but as anyone with llama savvy knows, not all llamas guard, and all intact male llamas will mount and crush ewes in heat. Nobody wanted the remaining llamas, and they just kept eating and taking up space at the auctionyard. So much for "turning a profit."

After losing a few llamas to starvation and parasites (all were lice-infested), the auctioneer then decided to "fatten" the llamas on a friend's pasture and then slaughter them. He claimed to have buyers for the hides (to be made into rugs) and that the meat would become saleable jerky (the latter we doubted, but then again, once it's in the white wrappers, who's to say where it came from and whether it really was inspected?). The end result was that he would not take less than $200 apiece for the llamas -- a total of $2000. Who can afford THAT?

In less than a week, donations totalling $1200 came together from all over the United States, we and an acquaintance each chipped in $400, the acquaintance borrowed a huge stock trailer and a tow vehicle, and after a terrible day of wrangling wild llamas, we had a small paddock filled with scrapping males (and one weak gelding) of various ages, sizes, colors, and types -- all underfed, undernourished, and infested with parasites.

In return for our $400 (not to mention our time and effort), we chose two llamas from the group to keep, and the acquaintance did the same. Jim had picked out one young llama based on his physical potential when the llamas were running around in the pasture; we also decided to take on Shadow once we realized what weakened condition he was in, even though we knew we'd never see the $200 he supposedly represented. Of course several distant kibbitzers felt that for us to select and keep any llamas was "gleaning" -- and of course they were "too far away" to offer any help whatsoever, let alone select any llamas to keep themselves (and they hadn't sent any money, either -- gee, what a surprise ...). The next week, newly-named Chief Grey Blanket, barely 28 months of age, was castrated (at our expense, of course) and our real work began -- his coat was not a coat but a fleece (and it was a mess), he didn't lead or halter, and he was STRONG! So much for "gleaning"!

Over the next three years, we put a LOT of work into Chief. He was hard to catch (meaning that anything we did with him was guaranteed to be time-consuming from the start), and although he finally learned that "leading" means that the human does the leading (and not an opportunity for him to run sideways in front of his handler), for a couple of years, Chief not infrequently bolted out of our grasp if we had him anywhere that was not relatively enclosed. And because Chief was in fact a light-wooled llama, not a classic, we had to shear him ... but Chief's two years of learning to distrust humans and the fact that shearing isn't something we can practice frequently meant that shearing Chief was anything but a popular activity each year.

With time, maturity, and a lot of patience and persistance on our part, Chief came around. Despite his compromising fleece, we felt it was worth putting the time into training Chief for packing -- his build and movement were superior for the task. Although Chief took predictably longer to train to load into vehicles and accept the pack saddle and panniers, when he finally "got" something, he would do it well. His first pack trip included crossing a river and snowfields (that was an unusually heavy snow year and if we'd known, we wouldn't have done Chief's "rookie trip" then!); his second was a highly unpleasant experience for all because there were many bugs (Chief's shorn fleece exposed a lot of attractive area for 'skeeters) and his llama companion on that trip gradually and inexplicably lost her temper, then her coordination, and finally her ability to stand at all -- Kiowah, we later figured out, could not tolerate DEET, and we'd been covering her with the stuff all day long. Chief not only put up with Kiowah's spitting, but managed 14 miles that second day without complaint.

Chief put in a few more pack trips that summer, and as a result, a friend and forest ranger working with the Willamette National Forest decided she wanted Chief in particular to be her second llama. Judy could no longer carry a pack because of her back surgery. Camas, her first llama, was not physically an ideal choice for a pack llama, and although he was doing an adequate job with Judy's gear, he couldn't handle packing as much garbage out of the wilderness as Judy needed him to. Chief would handle the additional loads and perhaps provide Camas with some incentive to move along a bit faster, too.

When Camas broke his leg in a freak accident the following summer, Chief picked up the slack and packed all the gear -- and the found garbage -- for Judy. That's exactly the exceptional pack llama we thought we saw in young Chief all those years ago. Although Chief is not the "greeting committee" and "public relations specialist" that Camas is, and although he's not the kind of llama Judy can trust to stick around when she just drops the lead (Chief has to be tied; Camas always sticks around), Chief is much appreciated just the same -- and having a shorn fleece instead of an all-weather classic coat doesn't matter too much when you're always within a short few hours' walk of the trailhead and the nice warm van!

Now, don't you agree Chief would have been wasted as a rug?

Judy leads Chief (front) and Camas (before Camas's accident) along the trail.

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