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Questions Everyone Asks About Llamas!


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 pack animals 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 spays.

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.

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 packers.

Breeding quality 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 at present.

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 of neglect.

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 shorn yearly.

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 in?

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, appaloosa.

Pointing 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.

Original type 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, lush plots.

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, and stroked.

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 natural repertoire.

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 lbs).

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 packing?

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 euthanasia.

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 vehicle.

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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