The Growing Attraction of Pet Llamas

By Martha Michael

Though they’re soft, quiet and look at you with doe-eyed innocence, llamas will fight their enemies tooth and nail – literally. Because of this tendency, ranchers are using them in increasing numbers to act as sentries for their flocks.

They are commonly thought of as the charming pack animals from the Andes Mountains in Peru, also used for their meat and wool, but they have found their place in North America too, and in many different capacities.

There are estimates that approximately 150,000 llamas live in the United States, and they are sometimes found on trails carrying supplies for hiking aficionados. Like Beau Baty says on Gohunt.com, llamas are natural packers with 4,500-6,000 years of experience under their belts. They are accustomed to 9,000-14,000 foot elevation, therefore rugged and stalwart, and some can walk up to 15 or more miles a day.

A company called Jackson Hole Llama Trekking says hiking with one of these creatures is “like hiking with a gentleman.” The travel company offers full service llama camping in areas that include the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, and have more than a dozen of the pack animals in their employ.

“Llamas are the perfect trail companions,” says the Jackson Hole Llama Trekking website. “A well-trained, conditioned llama can carry up to one-third its body weight. … Llamas are the perfect low-impact, high altitude pack animal. Their soft padded, two-toed feet and natural agility make them sure footed and easy on the terrain. They have no more impact on the trail than a fully loaded backpacker. They will eat a variety of vegetation enjoying a sampling of leaves, grasses and plants. Their efficient digestive system yields droppings that look similar to elk scat.”

Llama owners will tell you that one of the reasons they are low-maintenance is they leave their droppings in one spot. They are, thus, easier to clean up after, and their scat is useful as compost. That tendency for cleanliness is one reason some families are happy to own them as pets, nothing more.

Pet Assure, an animal health care insurance company, describes llamas as having predictable, low-key temperaments with mild manners and friendly dispositions. They eat just about anything; in fact, if they get in your flower garden you may not have many blooms left.

Llamas should always be owned in pairs or more. They are herd animals and are both curious and social. Yes, they have a reputation for spitting, but they do not aim at humans, they spit at each other. Experts will tell you their spitting is to establish social hierarchies. Sometimes a llama will spit to underscore his role as the alpha male or to discipline the lower-ranking llamas. They also like to engage in neck wrestling or kicking. They hum to communicate, and they always take care of each other, as a family. But when scared or threatened in some way, they let out a bray or siren, which is why they are employed as guards.

“Llamas react to canids threatening herds in a variety of ways, starting with a posture to alert others in the herd, then sounding a special alarm cry, and often running towards the threat, kicking and placing themselves between it and the herd,” says Cameron Walker in an article for National Geographic News.

Llamas and donkeys are both employed as sentries. According to Marsha Johnston, in an article in Modern Farmer, they both have an instinctive hatred for dogs and do not fear them at all. Llamas are physically aggressive toward them – dogs and coyotes have been injured, and even killed, by llamas.

“After spotting an intruder, most llamas call an alarm, then walk or run toward the animal, chasing it, kicking and pawing, and at times killing it,” Johnston says. “Both of these animals can be effective against dogs and coyotes up to a point, although wolves might easily overwhelm them. Some farms mitigate that danger by using them with dogs.”

Llamas are a great alternative to lethal methods of protecting livestock. William Franklin, professor emeritus at Iowa State University, heard about ranchers using llamas to protect their livestock and began his research, where he found that more than half of llama owners reported 100 percent reduction in their predator losses after employing the animal as a guard. Some farmers pastured llamas with their sheep and lost fewer sheep to coyotes. Observation soon revealed the llamas’ defensive behavior in the face of predators.

Llamas are from the camelids family, which includes alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos, according to Walker. They are related to the camels and dromedaries of Africa and Asia. First domesticated more than 5,000 years ago in the Peruvian highlands, early South American cultures bred llamas for size and endurance. The llama’s cousin, the alpaca, has fine fibers, which are woven into textiles.

It was the arrival of alternate forms of livestock by the Spanish that sent the llama into relative obscurity, says Walker. They moved to the highest mountains, while people hunted wild vicuña and guanaco nearly to extinction.

Franklin began studying vicuñas and guanacos of South America 20 years ago and noticed that wild vicuñas could be very aggressive toward dogs.

“They would follow them, they would chase them, they would even kick at them sometimes,” Franklin says.

It’s possible that in ancient times, the dog family acted as predator to members of the camelid family. That would mean the llama’s fierce response to them may have become instinctive, Walker surmises.

Today, llamas are being used to guard domestic animals from cattle to poultry.

“What’s intriguing to me about what people are doing with llamas is that people use them for so many things,” Franklin said.

It may be the softer side of these graceful, charming pets that woos you, or perhaps you need the power of a partner on the trail. These multi-faceted pets can serve you in many capacities, acting as protector, beast of burden … and also just friend.