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Lama Behavior

This article was contributed by Lars Garrison, West Mountain Farm, Inc.

About 6,000 years ago the Indians of the Andean cordillera domesticated the alpaca from the vicuna and the llama from the guanaco. All are cousins of the Dromedary and Bactrian camel. They engineered (dare we say that?) the two domesticated sub-species to more nearly meet their needs. Since the vicuna has one of the finest fibers in the world, the Indians preserved that characteristic in the alpaca we enjoy today.The guanaco, a larger animal, was bred for its size and load-carrying capability, making a llama. The one “l” lama is the genus, while the double “ll” is the species.

Animal behavior is interesting. It is also one of the more humbling endeavors around - just when you figure them out they change about 180 degrees! We strive to utilize knowledge of their behavior to better care for them.

In previous articles I have pointed out that lamas prefer not to be touched. There are exceptions, but this is generally true. We use this information when we are teaching them. In an enclosed pen, 10’ x 10’ or so, we can ask them to step forward or back, to stand or to move away – all with our body language and hands. Shades of Marty Robbins! We use our knowledge of lama behavior to help them accept the necessity of checking their feet, and act which they dislike. By working slowly, and being sure that they maintain their balance, you can soon train a lama to accept that you are going to pick up a foot and trim the toenail. The same philosophy pertains to worming, haltering, saddling, etc.

Can we use the study of their behavior to improve their health? A resounding YES! Today I was watching two of our young females jousting for herd position. The one that became dominant initially held the other one away from the hay mangers and water. This went on for several hours. Predictably, when the dominant one wanted to eat or drink, the other one was able to come in to eat and drink also. Not a serious fight, but the basis for their learning about dominant behavior. Later they reversed positions. This behavior is used to keep strange animals away from the herd.

Simple lessons lead to more complex behavior studies. How much manger space does each animal need? 24” to 36”. If they are in a cold spot in the winter, will they move toward a warm one? Often not. How do they react to too much heat and sunlight? They don’t, so heat stress can be a serious problem. Does maturity make a difference in these matters? No. How do they react to living in overstocked conditions? They get irritable, some do not compete for food, may starve to death. Will they live comfortably alone? Unlikely! These questions, and many more, have been pretty well studied and answered.

In general, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel – but we probably will. Those interested in having lamas in their lives will do well to deal with an experienced breeder. All too often we find inexperienced people buying either from an auction or from a distress seller who won’t be there to help when there is a problem. This is a recipe for disaster. When it happens, it usually isn’t more than six months until we see the same animals for sale again. What somebody thought was a rescue became a bigger disaster than it was – and it is the animals that suffer for it.

If you would like more information, call us at 802-694-1417 or e-mail at llamawmf@sover.net. Lars Garrison, West Mountain Farm, Inc. Stamford, Vermont