A Little Biology...
Llamas and alpacas are modified ruminants (having three stomachs instead of four) and evolved in North America during the Pleistocene period. They are in the order Artiodactyla, meaning even-toed ungulate (an ungulate is a mammal with hooves), and the sub-order Tylopoda, meaning padded foot. More taxonomy than you'd like? Okay, let's start again.
Llamas and alpacas are humpless cousins to the camel. The bottoms of their feet are padded, like a dog's, and the two toes of each foot are protected by hard toenails. Their unique foot design gives them impressive agility and balance, especially in mountainous or rocky terrain. It also does little to no damage to the terrain, making llamas one of the most environmentally responsible pack animals out on trails today.
Llamas and alpacas have keen eyesight and hearing, and will oftentimes spot wildlife before their human companions. A solitary llama or alpaca is an able and effective guard animal; sheep are its most common charge, but a nature park in England is currently using a llama to protect wading birds from hungry foxes, so their potential as guard animals is only just being explored. They are highly intelligent, with a personality similar to a cat: curious but not overly affectionate.
Before you ask: yes, llamas and alpacas do spit. Being herd animals, they have various techniques to determine pecking order and status, the most common of which is spitting. Small disputes might be settled with whatever the more dominant animal happens to be chewing at the time; to settle more serious disagreements, partially-digested food from the first stomach is brought up and spit on the offender. It is as unpleasant as you might expect. To avoid that green bullet, keep an eye out for its warning signs: first, the ears will go back. Then the ears will lie flat and tight against the head and the nose will go up in the air. The final warning is a plume of spit up into the air. If the offending behavior hasn't been corrected, just try to stay out of range.
The reasons a llama or alpaca might spit on a human are as follows:
- You are collateral damage. Don't take it personally.
- The llama or alpaca was abused or mistreated, or was raised in a zoo or petting zoo and thinks of people as his herd.
- You deserved it.
A Little History...
Llamas and alpacas were domesticated by the Incas before the Spanish Conquest and have been used for their fiber, meat and as beasts of burden for the last five to seven thousand years. The first llamas were imported from Bolivia and Peru to the U.S. as zoo exhibits and for private exotic collections. William Randolph Hearst's collection of twelve animals in the early 1900s was the largest herd in the United States at the time.
In 1930, a foot-and-mouth-disease embargo on all South American hoofed stock prevented any further legal imports, and the U.S. herd grew slowly. In 1975, the International Species Inventory System of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums counted six hundred llamas and only sixty alpacas in North America, with another five hundred llamas comprising the private herds.
Demand for llamas exploded in the late 1970s: prices rose and many breeders had long waiting lists for their crias. The embargo was re-evaluated and lifted, over three thousand llamas were imported, and the animals were bred intensively for the next two decades.
Supply eventually exceeded demand and prices dropped. While this has resulted in a large number of unwanted animals (rescuers across the country are working to place these animals in good homes), it also means that animals that had once been too valuable to use outside the show ring are beginning to be used in other ways. Llamas can give you access some of the most pristine wilderness in the country in an environmentally sound way, and commercial llama treks can provide a level of backcountry luxury you may not expect. They also make wonderful therapy animals and are great around kids. Llamas have been used by the forest service and compaines like cell phone providers to get sensitive equipment into wilderness that is otherwise inaccessible; they are used as caddies on golf courses and as carting animals; their fiber is used in a variety of different ways; and they are still in demand in the show and performance rings.
The listings in our Rent-A-Llama database cover a whole range of uses, from a hosted llama lunch hike to commercial outfitters offering the perfect trip for that unforgettable family vacation to the llama owner who will lend you the perfectly well-mannered guest for that special event you've been planning. If you are interested in joining the ranks of ownership, this is the perfect place to find an expert who can teach you the ropes--training clinics and seminars allow you to 'try before you buy' and give you the confidence you need to get the most out of your animals.
So take a look through this site and visit a few websites to find someone who can introduce you to the wonderful world of llamas and alpacas.