Month: September 2010

The Immigrant Llama

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These natives of the Andes are an elegant and ecologically superior pack animal in the high Sierra, and potential companions for mature people with physical limitations who retain a love for the high mountains.

My friend Tom first introduced me to the local  llamas, immigrant camelids, or New World camels. He had been using these beautiful animals for several seasons, to carry gear, thereby converting back pack trips into luxurious excursions, something locals have heretofore only found through horse packing.

I found the baby-eyed, incredibly sweet-breathed, graceful ruminants to be sturdy, mountain-wise companions.   I found delight in the luxury of taking along all those things which make life easy above tree line, but which I could not carry by myself. At last I realized that I never did actually enjoy carrying 50 pounds on my back or being my own beast of burden.

A few years ago entrepreneurs began to import llamas from South America. Breeding animals were initially very costly, often selling for $10,000 or more.  Although alpaca or llama meat is nourishing, tasty and low in fat, llamas are apparently not great producers by comparison to other domestic animals. Neither llama nor alpaca has been commercially successful  soruce of meat or wool  North America.

Nonetheless, the immigrant llama has survived, at least in the domestic state, and is seen quite frequently, especially in the Western US.

The llama, like the potato, tomato, corn, and dozens of  other unique crops, was domesticated by pre-Columbian indigenous peoples in South America. A native to the Andes, llamas are particularly well adapted to mountain terrain, and are commonly used in the altiplano as pack animals.  Ecologically and practically, pack llamas are far superior to ungulates, or hoofed animals. They are ruminants, regurgitating and chewing like cattle. but as browsers they can generally live off the land, and do not pillage and destroy all vegetation, as do goats. Their feet are padded, and therefore much less destructive of terrain, leaving no deeply rutted and eroded trails like heavier hoofed horses or cattle. Llamas can weigh more than 350 pounds,   and carry from 60 to 100 pounds nicely, pound for pound relatively far more than a horse or mule. They are capable of defending themselves from carnivores. Endowed with extremely acute vision and smell, a male llama, raised and bonded with sheep for example, makes a very efficient and effective shepherd which will detect and react to intruders. Their strange appearance alone is frightening to many animals, and they attack aggressively.

Humanity is constrained universally, however, by preconceptions, cultural restrictions and subtle prejudice. In South America, where I visit often, I have never seen the llama used as a pack animal by other than indigenous people.  Never. The European Conquistadors were, and are, horse worshipers. The horse was historically a formidable and fearsome animal, able to carry warriors as well as considerable loads. Even the word for gentleman in Spanish is caballero, or horseman; as always, language both reflects and molds thinking and culture. No conquistador would tolerate being seen leading llama about because the conquered people’s  llamas remain stigmatized in the invader’s heart and mind.

However, the llama has been seen with new eyes in North America; eyes un-blinded by the gold driven ferocity of Cortez and Pizarro. Eyes that see mountain ranges as safe houses far from the toxic wasteland of modern living. So, seeing with new eyes, small llama herdsmen began to use llamas for pack animals in the Sierras. Light new material was adapted to make well-fitting, comfortable and practical packs, like double saddlebags. Small horse trailers, utility trailers, pickup trucks, even Volkswagen microbuses can be enlisted to move the llamas to trailheads. What has evolved is the North American Pack Llama, made even more formidable by new equipment and techniques.

The easiest way to llama pack is to contract with a professional, who will trailer the llamas to the trail head, and pack in and out, with or without full services.  Unfortunately, though   there are now thousands of llama owners and breeders, llama packers are not common for two principal reasons:  First, local llamas have been selectively  bred for  long wool, fine appearance, and docile behavior; the  comparatively unruly and plain pack llama has become scarce, so that  llama packers must often breed their own, or import genuine pack animals from the Andes.

Second, while the training and maturation of a pack llama is roughly comparable to that of a  common horse or mule, the power politics of packing puts llama packers at a significant disadvantage . There is fierce  competition for ‘turf’.  Commercial packing permits are often co-opted by  commercial horse packers who are not interested in competition from llama packers. This is particularly so in crowded states like California.

Therefore the simple and practical way to llama-pack, is to lease them and manage them as an individual with the right to use the public trails. One local llama provider charges roughly $45 daily per llama, and $1.50 per mile for trailering. My friend Tom is, to say the least, compulsive. So we  first took a four-hour course in loading, and managing llamas, then a three-day course, and finally a trial by immersion in the Eastern Sierras where we rented mature llamas that were well-trained and in good condition, accustomed to packing.  On the other hand, llamas can  often be rented with only an hour or two of training. They are reliable, mountain wise, and not aggressive.

One must  be the alpha llama, and lead with care, and thoughtfulness, so as not to erode the trust necessary for the animals to follow with confidence. They must be loaded carefully, and evenly. Llamas are very much herd animals so a  lone llama will often become agitated and squat, or will head for home. It is very hard to catch a  loose lone llama, though a llama will never leave a companion animal  behind. When  seriously distressed for any reason, they tend to simply sit down. One must figure out what the problem is.  When that is corrected they will get up and go forward.

Llamas don’t often spit, but when angry or upset can regurgitate forcefully through a locked-open mouth. They are almost never friendly, even if they look cuddly, but on the other hand neither are they treacherous or aggressive. They are usually trustworthy about browsing, though a number of plants, domestic and wild, are poisonous. A few leaves of rhododendron or oleander can be fatal. Less dangerous but common toxic plants include laurel, some ivies, bleeding heart, bracken fern, all sneeze weeds, and of course nightshade (belladonna) or foxglove (digitalis).  Part of a wise llama packer is a stomach tube and activated charcoal. However, in ten years I have never had occasion to use one.

I hope to continue to enjoy these unique alpine-wise animals and the mountain worlds they dominate so well, into an indefinite and pleasant old age.  Like all generic immigrants, llamas have uniquely enriched their new country, in ways very different from what was expected.