What do you think of when you picture range animals in a Western setting? Buffalo? Deer and antelope? Horses, sheep and cattle? Probably all of these. But llamas?? They probably didn’t come to mind. But if you take a drive through Western ranch and farm country, you’ll can’t help but notice these strangely elegant creatures in the fields.
Llamas (not to be confused with lamas, a name for Buddhist priests) are a recent import from South America—specifically mountainous countries like Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Their name can be pronounced “lama” or the Spanish way, which sounds like “yama”. New World relatives of the camel, they come in two domestic varieties. Both stand between five and six feet tall, have long, straight necks, thick wool, and snooty expressions. Llamas, sturdy and strong with coarser wool are raised as pack and guard animals as well as for their wool and hides and sometimes their meat.
Their close cousins, the alpacas, are raised for their luxurious wool (if you’ve ever shopped for an alpaca sweater or coat, you know just how luxurious it is). The animals are shorn every two years. Alpaca wool is superior to llama wool, but llamas are more useful in other ways.
Here in the United States and in Canada, llamas have enjoyed a surge in popularity for several reasons. Llamas are adaptable, intelligent and easily trained. For outdoor hikers and trekkers, they make good pack animals. They can’t be ridden, but they can carry 25 to 30 percent of their weight for 5 to 8 miles. Overload them or push them too far, however, and they can become temperamental, refusing to move and spitting to show their displeasure.
Some people keep llamas just because they make delightful pets.
Llamas can live 20-30 years with good care. They are social animals, happiest in herds. Their young, called crias, weigh between 20 and 30 pounds at birth.
Fossil records indicate that llamas originated on the plains of North America about 40 million years ago. By the end of the last ice age they were found only in South America. But now they’re back, big time and here to stay. These days the population of llamas and alpacas in the U.S. and Canada is somewhere close to 300,000.
Do you know anyone who raises these animals? Have you had any experience with them? Would you like to have one for a pet?
(Pack llama photo by Richard Masoner)