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My New Packing Buddy

by Jim Krowka

(this article originally appeared in the August 1994 issue of
The Backcountry Llama Newsletter.)

Llama packing is not much fun without a good pack llama. Until a few years ago, most of the llamas I had been working with seemed adequate for the job, but it was work at times: coaxing them up hills, making sure they wouldn't lie down on the trail simply because they wanted to, and getting them to walk at a brisk pace to "cover territory" when the situation required. None of them had a very enthusiastic attitude for doing what they were doing. These guys are quite well trained and above average compared with some "pack llamas," but in contrast with my wife's llama, Ranger Dusty, who enjoys packing almost as much as sex (well, maybe not that much), my guys were definitely second-string material.

Suddenly, however, my enjoyment of packing with llamas found new horizons when I found a really great packing buddy, friend, and partner with all the qualifications of a top-quality pack llama. But I almost continued to drag llamas over mountain trails and let this great llama waste its life away, bored to tears in a pasture, simply because my new packer is . . . female. For those readers inclined to oooh and gasp over packing with females (or using them, period), this article is an attempt to dispel the myths perpetuated by the llama industry. I must confess that I, too, was initially held captive by some of these myths, and I might still be, were it not for the clear and logical reasoning of my wife and partner, Gwen Ingram. She is also a top quality packer, and one female whose talents it would certainly be unconscionable to waste were her only job to pump out babies year after year.

Sahalie was our first female llama. We bought her as a weanling, and our eye for assessing and predicting top performance conformation proved good as she grew. She is a very intelligent llama with a moderately large frame, good conformation, and a superior disposition toward working.

Gwen made sure that, as a youngster, Sahalie got the usual training any pack prospect would get from us, and I was frequently reminded to stop coddling her. She was taken along as "one of the guys" on many day hikes and had the usual exposure to all the scary things lurking in the woods like streams, bridges, large dark stumps and the dreaded "uphill climbs." (Oh yes . . . we also exposed her to "lush green meadows" which, as many llamas will tell you, is one of the primary reasons they consent to work with humans at all.)

Contrary to popular myth, llamas aren't born packers. They need to be both physically and mentally conditioned so that their stress can be minimized, thereby making packing a potentially enjoyable experience for them as well as for us. Sahalie proved to have talent for performance, even as a youngster, and so her training included being taken to shows to compete in halter and obstacle classes. Sahalie was bred in November of 1992 at 39 months of age, and started her packing the following summer. (We wait until any llama is at least 42 months old before packing him or her, and wait until females are at least 36 months old before breeding them to ensure that health and soundness are not compromised. We also breed in the fall to keep our summers free of rearranged schedules and impending babies. which also allows our females a summer of packing without "junior" tagging along.) Sahalie accompanied me on three pack trips during the 1993 season. She carried a reduced, first-season load of 45-50 pounds, and she clearly demonstrated her enjoyment of (and skill for) being a "quality pack llama." That December, Sahalie delivered a healthy cria with absolutely no difficulty. The only effect we saw from her packing experiences was that she approached the time to have her baby in top physical condition.

One common consideration that packing with a female poses is the risk factor to one's investment. That focus shows less concern about the llama and more about one's pocketbook. Because the price of females is nearing a more realistic level, this is a less arguable concern. (And if marketing is the main concern, consider this; I've seen "quality" pack males and geldings sell for more than females at recent auctions. "Quality" pack trained females would be a value-added product indeed.) If there were so much danger in packing, and if our concern was truly for our llamas, then we wouldn't subject any llama -- male, female or gelding -- to this activity. In actuality, there is very little risk. Very few llamas have died from packing mishaps, and most recorded instances of death, sickness or injury while packing could have been avoided. Llamas pay for inexperience and lack of forethought, preparation, or training, as well as for higher risks created or specifically chosen by the llamas' human partners.

Although it's impossible to eliminate all risk, there are no inherent dangers of packing into the backcountry that we can't minimize by training and conditioning both ourselves and our llamas, by becoming aware of backcountry hazards and how to avoid them, and by planning trips that match the skill and conditioning level of both ourselves and our llamas. From a standpoint of health, safety and soundness, there is much more risk in breeding a female before her physical maturity (between three and four years of age), yet this is common practice because the immediate potential economic return outweighs the risk factor. Most owners of top pack studs do not hesitate to pack with them, even though their worth exceeds that of many females. In the horse world, both stallions and mares -- some worth two to ten times the most expensive llama -- are trained and worked harder than any llama ever has been, with inherent risks to the animals' soundness far greater than in average llama packing.

Another concern is that the physical and emotional stresses of packing could be harmful for pregnant llamas. Sahalie herself is the most conclusive evidence that, for llamas, this is false. She is properly prepared for her activities, and any stress is minimal. For the past two summers, Sahalie has gone on many pack trips as well as day hikes. She has travelled with us to numerous shows. During 1993, she learned to drive in harness to a cart and has spent many enjoyable hours driving in county parks and competing in driving classes -- all while she was pregnant. Packing season ends for us toward the end of September when Sahalie's pregnancy is about ten months along, and she continues cart work into her eleventh month. She hardly looks pregnant until about four weeks from her due date. At this point, her hormones begin altering her behavior, and Sahalie tells us that she needs some "time off" from work -- a request we graciously comply with. To date, Sahalie has delivered five strong and healthy crias.

People who say that any emotional stress during pregnancy is damaging usually point out that heavily pregnant sheep may abort after being chased to near exhaustion. However, packing llamas should never be nearly that stressful, and if it is, the human is doing something very wrong. Female llamas can easily handle what people have a right to ask from males. Some studies of horses indicate that moderate stress itself does not normally affect the course of a pregnancy. One study involved buzzing tied mares with a helicopter; the other (done at Colorado State University) involved trailering mares at hormonally vulnerable times of their pregnancy. In neither case did stress alter the normal course of pregnancy.

There are many physical similarities in the reproductive systems of horses and llamas. Research shows that the growth of the fetus is so slight in horses and llamas during the first few months of pregnancy that its physical presence is inconsequential. Most of the growth has been recorded to occur in the last two months of gestation. In the equine world, mares are frequently worked right up until their foaling time with no ill effects. In many other species, physical activity is more often beneficial than it is harmful to both the normal mother and her developing fetus.

There may still be much to learn in this area, but we feel that proper training and conditioning makes physical activity an enjoyable, routine experience. If a particular female's pregnancy can't handle either the minor stress or the exertion demanded by at least moderate work loads, then that female shouldn't be used as pack or performance breeding stock in the first place.

Another myth assumes that males can do the job better, and because there are so many males and geldings available, we shouldn't have to use our females for anything other than making more babies. Have you ever looked around for quality, classic, pack and performance llamas, male OR female? They are few and far between. Many llamas advertised as "pack quality" are merely short-wooled accidents in a woolly breeding program. Few breeders are consciously trying to develop llamas with good pack and performance conformation. Most llamas advertised as packers are minimally trained, and many are both emotionally and physically marginal or unsuitable as working packers. We find that many llama breeders refuse to castrate males unless they have blatant conformation or temperament flaws. Those reasons for gelding are often good reasons why the llama would not be a top pack prospect. There are, of course, many "quality" pack animals around, but few of those ever come up for sale. With so few trained, high-quality pack llamas available, it is not difficult for female llamas to at least equal the mediocre performance ability of their male counterparts.

And what evidence is there, other than our own cultural conditioning, that proves females cannot ultimately be at least as good or better performers than males and geldings? Historically, mares, stallions and geldings have competed equally against each other for centuries with the mare actually being the preferred mount of choice for a number of disciplines. Studies in horses, which have a similar level of sexual dimorphism (differences due only to gender), have shown that a larger bone size coupled with larger muscles yields greater average weights in males. But that greater weight lends males no performance advantage over females, nor do females incur greater risk of bone fracture, even in racing. Gender plays little or no part in determining excellence related to endurance, coordination, intelligence or success. Sexual dimorphism in body structure lends minor advantages to either males or to females in only a few highly specific events. Recreational packing is not one of them.

Other than when affected by late pregnancy, there are no other physiological differences suggesting that females cannot equal males in llama performance activities, including packing. Females are affected by hormones. However, stallions, mares, and male llamas are all quite often slaves to their hormones. These hormones can cause tension and anxiety, resulting in stiffer carriage and a potentially more confrontational attitude, which in turn makes any physical activity more difficult and more dangerous. Unlike mares, however, female llamas have no estrus period, and my experience is that their attitude is considerably more consistent. Certainly the pregnant female llama experiences significant hormone changes for several weeks prior to the baby's birth, but that is not when she is likely to be doing hard work. However, much more observation of personality and hormone interaction needs to be done. Individual horses exhibit a wide range of behavioral changes due to hormones. Like mares, female llamas' particular blend of hormones may make them more desirable companions for some people.

Choosing a stallion or gelding in favor of a mare most often has little to do with inherent potential for performance ability, but rather with cultural conditioning (riding a stallion is considered more "macho" by some) or by financial considerations (if you've got a winning performance mare, you can only get one baby per year from her, but a really top-notch stallion may bring considerably more in service fees). The same holds true for llamas. However, a working stallion or stud llama may not always be available for outside breedings. For your business, it would be financially unacceptable to tell a potential customer, "Sorry, your female will have to make an appointment after packing season." For the small breeder who may also wish to avoid the aggravation and expense of keeping one or more stud llamas, female llamas can be the perfect breeder-worker combination.

Are there cautions and special considerations for using females? Yes. If your female will be packing with male llamas, some social complications might arise. Oversexed and undertrained males might become distracted from their jobs if the female is open. Again, this is not a fault of the female. It is a lack of discipline and training of the male, coupled with the trend in the llama industry to select for abnormal sexual aggression in males. Packing with a bred female causes considerably less anxiety for males than if she were open. And of course, one would never tether males within reach of unbred females or allow the two to graze off lead together in a meadow.

We personally have had no gender-related social problems arise while on the trail. I normally lead Sahalie, and if a second llama is required, Sydney (a gelding), is strung behind. We feel that it would be wise to avoid temptation, however, and put females behind intact males if they must be strung together. Sahalie has worked in a string, both leading Sydney and strung behind Dusty, but she much prefers to be the lead llama. Dusty and Sahalie packed together for two seasons without incident. Most of the time Dusty's mind is solely on the job at hand, as well as on enjoying the scenery we hike through. In camp is where troubles may occur. Dusty is abnormally possessive of Sahalie in particular, and at times can become completely unglued should Sahalie leave his presence or (heaven forbid) get out of sight. It is my responsibility to make sure I don't suddenly take off alone with Sahalie without warning if Dusty is free-grazing, or if a potentially hazardous situation could arise, but the remaining responsibility for correct behavior lies with the stud -- the instigator -- and his handler. This is an accepted, proven practice with all other working and companion species. Females and most geldings get along beautifully together, and if studs continue to pose a problem, they are the ones who should be left at home. You'll have a more enjoyable time taking peaceable females and geldings only.

There are some other considerations that must be observed for female performance llamas. For packers, some care should be taken to place the rear cinch correctly. This needs to be tight and up off of the belly. The rear cinch can ride right up next to the udder, but it should not be able to slide back onto the mammary tissues or the teats. No, you won't hurt the baby by tightening it too hard if your pack llama is pregnant. A correctly placed rear cinch rides above, not across, where the fetus lies. The fetus is relatively small until the last months of pregnancy, when most of the growth occurs, and is cushioned throughout the entire time by an equal or greater volume of fluid. Think of the growing fetus as requiring thought but not anxiety -- just as for internal organs -- and you'll have fewer problems dealing with its presence.

Some discussion of breeding and packing ages might be in order. A growing body of evidence suggests that breeding immature female llamas is harmful in the long run, and this is likely to be especially true in working animals. Immature reproduction conclusively produces weaknesses, from subtle to obvious, in other adult animals. Constant pregnancy (typical of current llama management) may not allow the developing female an adequate opportunity to "catch up." Structural integrity of the bones may be compromised if the llama herself is still developing, but her calcium must also go toward meeting the demands of late pregnancy or lactation. Stress to the spine from the weight of the fetus during late pregnancy may predispose an immaturely-bred animal to lumbosacral breakdown (the most common cause of "sway-back"), and this could be further aggravated by early packing. Breeding extremely young may cause "stunting" of the mother, but stunted animals will not always simply be "a little smaller." Stunting may affect only height, or muscular development, or skeletal strength, or leg length, or body length. And an out-of-proportion llama is unlikely to prove a fine work animal.

Guanacos were almost certainly the foundation stock of the classic llama, which was bred to pack. Guanacos tend to mature later than vicuñas (and alpacas), and are more likely to experience negative effects from early breeding and packing. Their greater ultimate size than vicuñas and alpacas also increases the risk for developmental damage if pushed for fast growth, either by feeding practices or the genetic introduction of that alpaca trait. We choose not to risk compromising our llamas, and we advise others not to breed any female, ESPECIALLY working females, before three years of age. Additionally, we would not work (or even purchase) any female that has been bred younger than three. It's better safe than sorry, and our females have only one life. We want to be sure that they live it in good health, and also to its fullest by partaking in the activities that, up until now, only male llamas have been allowed to find so enjoyable.

Sahalie eagerly begins taking short driving outings and day hikes within one month after giving birth. And every January, she rejoins her packing buddies, who volunteer once a month to haul gravel to mucky sites on trails for the Forest Service. She leads at least one other llama, stands responsibly while she and her string are loaded and unloaded, carries 80-100 pounds on each trip, handles difficult terrain with enthusiasm, and clearly enjoys being out in the woods and away from "the brat." On one of these excursions, we met a llama-packing friend in our gravel-hauling crew, heading down the trail with his string and their first load of the day. He recognized most of our llamas, but then looked Sahalie over and exclaimed, "So, who's the new guy?" How quickly his expression changed to one of complete surprise upon being introduced to a packing female! "So what's the big deal?" I thought. Sahalie has been working hard all day, and in my mind -- as well as in hers, I am sure -- she really is "just one of the guys."

"My New Packing Buddy" originally appeared in the August 1994 issue of The Backcountry Llama Newsletter.

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