Questions Everyone Asks About
What IS that?
A llama (pronounced "LAH-muh" in
English, "YAH-muh" in Spanish) is a domestic member
of the camel family. Llamas and three other camelids originate
in South America: the guanaco (wild llama); the smaller, wild
vicuna; and the domestic alpaca, selectively bred for wool production.
All four are collectively referred to as "lamas" (with
one "l"). All can interbreed and produce fertile offspring.
Will it spit at me?
Only a spoiled, undisciplined or mishandled
llama would even consider spitting at a person. Spitting establishes
and upholds social order within the species, and most disputes
are resolved at the mere threat of a spit.
Will it bite me?
Llamas, like cattle, sheep, goats and deer,
have only lower incisors, and so biting is an inadequate defense.
Males do grow fang-like canine teeth for fighting rival males
at about two years of age, and these are usually removed for
both herd and handler safety.
Are they good for anything?
What do you do with them?
The South Americans use llamas as beasts of
burden, a secondary wool source, and even burn droppings as fuel.
Llamas are only eaten in South America when they become to old
and infirm to work.
In North America, classic llamas serve as
and are also driven
hitched to carts and other vehicles patterned after those traditionally
used with equines. Fiber
shorn from woolly llamas (and occassionally combed from classic
llamas) may be used by handspinners. Llamas are welcome companions
for walks and hikes, and most are capable of carrying light loads
such as water, a jacket, and lunch. Llamas have proven to be
popular pet therapists. Some llamas still have strong herd protection
instincts and are used for predator
control in flocks of sheep, goats, or alpacas. Both highly-trained
and particularly attractive llamas compete for awards in performance
and halter classes at shows.
Breeding is not a purpose! The point of making more llamas is to only make more
of those llamas who can perform one or more of the aforementioned
tasks. In South America, llamas do not live long lives and a
small herder must breed as many llamas as possible just to keep
his population (and the vital number of capable packing animals)
constant. Responsible breeders in North America will only use
a llama for breeding if it is healthy mentally and physically
and excels at one or more defined tasks. "Cria mill"
breeders and self-indulgent "backyard breeders" have
few standards for breeding stock and predictably produce a high
percentage of llamas who aren't suited to specific tasks, have
problematic dispositions or both.
What special words are used
to denote age and sex?
A llama younger than weaning age is called
either a baby or a cria (which is
the Spanish word for baby). A young llama under one year of age
who has been weaned is a weanling. Year-old llamas
are yearlings, and beyond that age, there is no
specific English terminology other than adult,
when the llama reaches four years of age. Old zoo literature
may refer to baby llamas as "calves."
Male llamas may be males (generic
term), intact males (to emphasize that they have
not yet been castrated), stud prospects (if they
are being considered for use in a breeding program), or studs
(if they are actively breeding). The term "sire"
refers only to the father of a specific llama and is often misued
within the llama industry. The term "herd sire" is
almost always used incorrectly (a "herd sire" lives
in a herd and is the only stud used -- that is, the sire of all
babies that year), but is wide-spread from the days when investors
sought to make llamas seem more fancy and adopted anything that
seemed to enhance them to that end. Occasionally, particularly
in zoo literature, male llamas are referred to as "bulls."
Female llamas are females (generic
term), prospective breeding females (if they are
being considered for use in a breeding program), or breeding
females (if they are actively breeding). Zoo literature
may refer to females as "cows"; German veterinary literature
may refer to female llamas as "llama mares."
Castrated male llamas are geldings ;
males castrated after puberty are also sometimes called late
geldings , which clarifies that they can be expected
to still retain some stud behaviors. Neutered female llamas are
Are there breeds of llamas?
Although "breed," in the strictest
sense of the word, is applied only to a population that reproduces
entirely true-to-type, breeds are in fact in constant evolution.
South Americans produced at least two breeds of llama (ccara
for work and lanuda for fiber production); early North American
breeders mixed them up, with predictable consequences -- mutts
that are only mediocre at best for packing and fiber production.
Current North American breeders have defined
types and are definitely on their way to re-creating pre-existing
llama breeds, but with North Americans' needs and demands in
mind. The classic
llama is the work llama of North America; fiber
production llamas are being separated into silky and woolly
fleece types. "Suri" llamas (with ropey, dreadlocked
fleeces) are the result of introducing suri alpacas into the
woolly llama gene pool; whether they will become a useful and
distinct fiber breed or be relegated to being visual novelties
remains to be seen.
How many are in North America?
One estimate is over 250,000 as of 2000 --
that's quite an increase over the estimate of 8000 in 1985. Importation
was banned in the 1930s and reopened on a limited basis in 1983.
It is an extremely difficult and very costly process.
Aren't they expensive?
You can imagine that when there weren't very
many llamas in North America, prices were very high regardless
of quality. The prices now come much closer to reflecting the
actual value of the animals, and most people consider them very
affordable, although the better the llama (and the more intesive
the use), the higher the price will be.
First, some important background information:
Except for those individual llamas that achieve self-actualization
through guarding another species, the vast majority of llamas
are notably stressed or become problematic unless they live with
another llama. This certainly increases the initial purchase
Price for an enjoyable PAIR of nonworking
pets may range from $500 to $2000 depending on wool type,
color, training, and show potential.
A good pack llama costs a bit more
than a good pack horse -- a single, well-trained and experienced
pack llama usually sells for between $1000 and $2000. Young llamas
of unknown merit cost less (between $400 and $750) because of
the high risk to the buyer -- they often do not work out as a
studs and females usually command higher prices ($1500-$5000).
Adoption fees for rescued llamas average
$200. Generic llamas needing rescue or fast relocation
are often free; there are many hidden costs for these llamas
(neutering, suitable halter, deworming, delousing, grooming or
shearing, and remedial training).
In the past, the media delighted in reporting
fantastic five- and six-figure prices paid for the occasional,
extremely woolly or unusual novelty llama, and some high-roller
"investment breeders" still trade offspring (often
at rigged auctions) and falsely claim a five- or six-figure sales
price was paid for each -- hence the still-common belief that
llamas are (or can be) very expensive.
Can you shear them?
Woolly llamas can indeed be shorn. Shearing
to the skin leaves the llama vulnerable to sun, rain, cold and
insects. Hand shearing, leaving about one-half to one inch of
the woolly variety's dense coat for protection, is preferred
in most areas. A woolly llama can yield five to ten pounds of
wool per year. There is no large commercial market for the fiber
The weather resistance of the lighter- and
sparser-wooled classic llama is compromised by shearing: The
protective guard hairs, which shed water and keep out debris,
are rendered ineffective when cut to the same length as the wool,
and the relatively sparse undercoat is inadequate for protection
from the elements. The two-fibered fleece is more difficult to
prepare and also has a much lower yield. Thus, classic llamas
are shorn only in unusual circumstances, such as after years
Shearing does not allow the dense-coated,
woolly llamas to pack or drive and remain adequately cooled unless
they are shorn to the skin, a practice that produces it's own
problems. It is also impossible to remove enough fiber to allow
woolly llamas to be comfortable and healthy at pasture (1"
maximum) and still leave enough fleece (2" minimum)
to adequately protect them from the elements.
Do you have to shear them?
Woolly llamas and those densely-wooled llamas
that result from crossing the two types are much healthier when
Shearing true classic llamas is not necessary
nor desirable. Their wool is too short and sparse to interfere
significantly with cooling if regularly brushed and combed.
Shearing pack llamas is particularly risky
because it leaves them vulnerable to the elements, and there
is never guaranteed access to shelter in the backcountry.
What colors do they come
There are a myriad of genes affecting the
basic llama colors with the result of almost infinite variety,
but it appears that there are in fact only three actual genetic
colors: red, black, and ruddy
or dark bronze (usually incorrectly called "brown").
The addition of the common dilution gene results in what
are colloquially referred to as orange or fawn,
grey, and light bronze, respectively.
Dilution plus the less-common reduction gene results in the colloquial
"color" names cream or light fawn, silver,
and gold, respectively. White is not
a color, but rather the absence of any pigment. It is inherited
differently, and in fact there are at least four distinctly different
genes resulting in what appears "white" to our eyes.
Technically speaking, ALL mammals come only
in brown -- the variations we see, including the genetically
distinct colors and white, are merely the result of greater or
lesser pigment clumping. Although you may hear of "brown"
lamas, geneticists reserve the term "brown" to describe
a very specific type of pigment . . . and that specific pigment
does not occur in lamas!
Colors and white can be arranged in many patterns.
The most common fixed patterns are pointing, original type,
results in black, grey, or silver points on the face and legs.
It is only visible on red or its derivatives. The term "bay,"
the colloquial name for a red horse with black points, is not
appropriate for describing pointing because the pointing gene
also appears with orange and fawn, ruddy and salmon.
looks much like the wild guanaco ancestor, with a lighter color
on the belly and insides of legs, usually up the front of the
neck, and also usually under the chin and in a line along the
cheeks to the ears. Red and its derivatives appear with what
appears to be white (actually a very light cream); black and
its derivatives appear with a washed-out red derivative (usually
bronze or gold in appearance).
In appaloosa patterns, spots
of color appear on a ground of another color or what appears
to be white. The spots are variable in size from animal to animal:
the spots may be so small that the llama appears to be entirely
the ground color, or so large that the llama appears to be entirely
the spot color. "Reverse appaloosa" is a colloquial
term for when the spots are very large but still allow some of
the ground color to be seen.
Both solid colors and fixed patterns may be
overlain with pattern white, the dominant white
gene responsible for most white markings in llamas. Depending
on several genetic factors, pattern white may appear as small
white patches on feet, head, neck, or chin; larger amounts covering
roughly half the body and producing a "pinto" effect;
or almost the entire body, resulting in a nearly-white llama
that appears to have small "markings" of color, usually
on the head and legs.
To complicate matters, guard hair pigment
is manifested differently than wool fiber pigment, and the pigment
in guard hair is also more susceptable to environmental fading
(wool fiber will also fade with exposure). To make an educated
assessment of a llama's actual color, you'll need to part the
coat to the skin.
Can you ride them?
Llamas are not as hefty as they appear and
none are usable for pleasure riding by adults. An exceptionally
well-built and well-conditioned pack llama can be trained to
carry a lightweight adult in case of emergency.
A well-trained, responsive gelding led by
an adult makes a highly satisfactory trail mount for a child.
Because of llamas' intelligence and highly flexible, strong necks,
they can easily avoid responding to directions and so allowing
small children to ride a llama controlled by reins alone is unwise
under most circumstances.
Do they make any noises?
Yes, but not very often. The majority are
for expressing negative emotion and stress. The most common noise
is called "humming" and includes a myriad of inflections
(including grunts and moos) for many different situations. Regardless
of what you may be told, llamas do not hum when they are happy
or to "talk."
Other common vocalizations are the "alarm
call" (a unique hiccuping bray), which alerts other llamas
to strange creatures in the distance, such as deer, dogs, or
coyotes; "squealing," which announces the sighting
of another llama; "screaming" (a near-continuous, blood-curdling
shriek), which occurs during male battles or when a female is
unable to fend off an unwelcome suitor; and "orgling"
(a guttural, burbling sound), made by sexually aroused males.
Does "ears back"
mean he's mad?
Not always (in fact, rarely). Llama body language
is not exactly like that of other, more familiar, domestic species.
"Ears back," for instance, can show boredom, relaxation,
irritation, fear, dominance or submission. The differences are
often subtle and must be interpreted in the context of both the
situation and other body language.
How old do they get?
South Americans wear out their animals and
then stew them between the ages of eight and twelve. Average
lifespan is always being revised with better management and record
keeping. Currently, twenty-plus years seems normal; there are
excellent indications that superior genetic stock may exceed
thirty years of age when well cared for.
What do they eat?
Llamas prefer grasses, but they also browse
on a variety of trees, shrubs and "weeds" -- including
blackberries and poison oak. They tend to sample a large variety
of plants and so, like goats, are not often poisoned, although
poisonings do occur. Grass or oat hay is often fed as a supplement
to poor pasture and/or in winter. Alfalfa hay is far too rich
for the normal llama's efficient digestive system to be a staple
food -- llamas can easily glean 40% more nutrients than horses
from poor foodstuffs. Finally, both vitamin-mineral supplementation
to correct local deficiencies and a source of salt are also necessary.
Llamas enjoy corn husks and silks, grapefruit
and orange rinds, and more conventional treats such as carrots,
apples, and other fruits.
How much space do they need?
One acre of good pasture is usually able to
nutritionally support four nonbreeding llamas. However, llamas
prefer to have more room to roam. Llamas are creatures of open
spaces, and thus larger, poorer pastures are preferable to small,
Breeding females need somewhat more space
to accomodate increased nutritional needs and their crias, and
males need much more space or individual pens in deference to
their strong instinct to acquire and defend territory, which
is manifested in unpleasant fighting and screaming.
Ideally, pasture should be rotated to allow
regrowth and to minimize parasites, even though llamas' habit
of using only a few communal dung piles cuts parasite spread
dramatically when compared with other domestic herbivores. However,
in practice, rotating pastures (unless the llamas are dry-lotted
part of the day) allows llamas access to far too much forage
and they become obese.
How big do they get?
Mature llamas average 42"-46" at
the withers and should range between 250 and 350 lbs. There are
shorter individuals (often with some alpaca ancestry) and some
taller individuals (with predictably higher risk of physical
breakdown, as in all other species). Llamas readily retain large
quantities of fat, and so many tip the scales at 60-120 lbs over
their ideal weight.
What are they like?
Llamas' personalities, though individual,
are much like those of domestic cats: curious and independent.
Llamas are easily trained (or mistrained),
and most are naturally very calm. Although basic tasks may be
taught relatively quickly, willing obedience and trust must be
earned, and true affection is rare -- and even then reserved
for only one person.
Llamas normally avoid physical contact, although
most learn to tolerate being touched. Those who were properly
raised by knowledgable breeders usually enjoy being petted, scratched,
Llamas are very stoic and will endure pain
with only subtle signs that something is amiss.
Llamas are highly herd-oriented and should
be pastured with at least one other llama to avoid development
of neuroses ranging from despondency to dangerous behavior.
How long is their gestation?
How long do they nurse?
When are they mature?
Llamas have a gestation period of about 11.5
months. Single births early in the day are the rule. Twins (if
not aborted) often require medical attention, and even healthy
ones do not seem to attain full size. Average birth weight for
a healthy baby, or cria, ranges from 20 to 36 lbs. Although guanacos
in their natural state nurse for around fourteen months, sharing
milk with the next-born, most llamas are usually weaned between
four and eight months for management reasons.
Females enter puberty around twelve months
and are then constantly "in heat" (their cycles are
not outwardly discernable, although they are only capable of
conceiving 4 days out of every 11-day cycle) and will accept
a male's advances until a breeding results in ovulation. Some
may conceive as early as 5 months, and some young males are capable
of successfully impregnating females as early as 6 months, and
so the sexes are separated at or before weaning age.
Although llamas are not mature until over
four years of age, most North Americans have habitually bred
young females as soon as they are capable of holding a pregnancy
(12-24 months), resulting in a host of physical problems becoming
noticeable in early to mid-adulthood. There are good indications
that 36 months may be the earliest a female can become pregnant
without compromising her own physiology.
Males and males gelded after puberty can make
poor pets, especially if they have actually mated or have regularly
engaged in mating behavior. Learned behavior of intact males
and late geldings may lead to inadvertent or deliberate injury
or death of younger llamas. Young males not showing exceptional
qualities are best gelded between 13 and 18 months (depending
on the individual's behavior) to preserve optimum disposition
and maintain herd safety.
How are they as pack animals?
Most people agree that pack
llamas are outstanding working trail partners, and that generic
llamas usually aren't even adequate for actual packing. To put
that another way, many llamas are not acceptable pack animals
despite the fact that there are some llamas, bred for the purpose,
that excel at packing. This should not come as a surprise: not
all horses are capable of racing competitively even though running
comes naturally to horses; not all dogs make good watchdogs or
tracking dogs even though these skills are part of a canine's
Old literature often incorrectly states that
llamas will carry 100 lbs for twenty miles a day, but about 20-25%
(or less) of a fit pack llama's body weight (50-80 lbs) is more
realistic for a day of non-stop hiking (10-15 miles); only an
exceptional individual can carry this weight for 20-25 miles
day after day. For shorter jaunts, well-conditioned pack llamas
can safely handle about a third of their body weight (90-120
Pack llamas are sure-footed and can negotiate
pretty complex obstacles with training and experience. Their
soft padded feet do not damage the environment as do hooves and
hiking boots. Their browsing nature and efficient gut lower impact
-- they consume less forage and generally do not decimate any
one plant species. Pack llamas are a viable alternative for older
persons, folks with back problems, or those who just prefer that
someone who weighs twice as much carry the load -- or the children!
Commercial pack outfitters and some Forest Service districts
use pack llamas, hunters use them to pack game, and fishing enthusiasts
use them to pack inflatable boats to remote lakes.
The most difficult part of llama packing (after
locating good pack llamas) is finding a well-fitting pack. Many
designs are marketed that are adequate for people, but cause
discomfort and pain for llamas. Llamas are naturally very stoic
and show only subtle signs of discomfort until they deems it
necessary to be blunt -- by refusing to move, being hard to catch,
or becoming "disobedient."
Although llamas need llama companionship at
home, pack llamas quickly adapt to packing alone -- and may even
prefer it -- if their handlers are responsive to them.
When can they start packing?
Although some people advocate packing llamas
at two, and others as young as six months, even the hard-working
South American llamas are not packed before three-and-a-half.
There is ample evidence that bones are still growing and maturing
after three years, and so it is best to begin with very light
loads (20-35 lbs) after three years and increase the load to
around 20% of body weight only after the llama's fourth birthday.
What sex is best for packing?
In North America, both males and geldings
are commonly used, though in South America geldings are used
almost exclusively -- only poor families who are forced by necessity
pack their breeding stock.
Males show no performance advantages over
equivalent geldings. They usually pack well in groups, but transporting
males with other llamas can be problematic, and even dangerous.
Geldings are generally much easier to handle
as well as being more enjoyable, agreeable companions.
Well-built, pack-bred females are very capable,
although their relative expense in the past deterred people from
using them until recently. Unless poorly conformed or damaged
by immature breeding, females perform as well as their intact
and castrated male counterparts.
Spays, like geldings, tend to be more "on-task"
and more enjoyable partners at home and on the trail. They also
tend to stay at their optimum body weight with less effort.
Why won't any llama do for
Certainly the average sound, well-trained
llama can learn to wear a pack and can carry light-weight loads
(25-40 lbs) for short distances over easy trails, but a successful
pack llama must also keep pace with his or her handler, carry
heavier loads, cover greater distances, negotiate difficult terrain,
and do so in all kinds of weather -- and remain sound
doing all this throughout his or her lifetime. Not every llama
can meet these requirements; in fact, most cannot.
To perform well and remain sound, pack llamas
must possess very specific physical, structural, and disposition
characteristics. There are many instances of unsuitable llamas
sold as packers with disasterous consequences.
A common misconception is that larger llamas
will be better packers. Not only has this been proven false,
but properly-built, moderately-sized llamas generally remain
sounder longer and so are in fact the better choice.
Another fallacy is that any short-wooled or
shorn llama will be a good pack llama. Wool type (particularly
density) is far more important in heat-retention than length,
but in any case, the llama underneath the coat must still be
physically and mentally suitable. Llamas bred specifically for
packing by knowledgable breeders have the classic
(heavily double-coated, relatively sparse) coat.
Trained packers are well worth seeking out.
Be sure you "test drive" them first -- some won't respond
to strangers; others were never adequately trained. Immature,
"trained" pack (and driving) animals are a very poor
choice. The physical stress of carrying weight or pulling a cart
prior to physical maturity contributes to physical problems resulting
in, at best, early retirement; at worst, expensive surgery and/or
You need a horse trailer
to get them places, don't you?
Although a horse or stock trailer is needed
to move many llamas at once, however, most people prefer a van
or a pickup with a tall canopy or a covered stock rack to transport
one to three llamas. A few people use a station wagon or a pickup
with a short canopy to transport a single, well-trained llama.
Experienced llamas prefer to travel lying
down, which makes driving easier and safer. Llamas are also easily
taught to take advantage of rest stops instead of soiling the
What's it like, having llamas?
You will be asked ad nauseam, "Dotheybitedotheyspitdotheykickwheredidyougetthemwhatareyougoing
todowiththem?" Be prepared to answer an endless stream of
questions! Some find llamas a great way to meet people, though
others feel disturbed by the occasional loss of privacy.
The best part of having llamas, no matter
what their purpose, is enjoying their companionship and exceptionally
gentle and captivating manner at home and during whatever activities
both llama and handler enjoy.
COPYRIGHT c 1988,
1989, 1995 ,1997, 1999, 2000 by Gwen Ingram
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