Saturday, September 15, 2012


A llama at the KC Zoo
Llamas are like the South American version of a camel, except they don't have humps.  Also, they are shorter than camels, and you can't ride them unless you are a little kid.  A full-grown llama is between 5.5 and 6 feet tall, if you measure from the top of its head, and it weighs from 280 to 450 pounds.

People who live in the Andes have used llamas for centuries as pack animals.  A llama can carry about 50 or 75 pounds for up to 20 miles.  Usually llamas are nice, gentle animals that do what they are asked to do, but sometimes a llama will decide it has too much weight to carry.  In this case, it will just lie down and not go anyplace.  And if the llama is really annoyed, it might spit, hiss, and kick at its owner until it gets a lighter load to carry.

Another good use for llamas is to make clothes out of their wool.  This wool is very soft, and it doesn't feel oily because it doesn't have any lanolin in it.  The poop of llamas can be dried and burned as fuel, their hides can be used to make leather objects, and llamas can also be eaten.

The scientific name for llamas is Lama glama.  Another animal, the guanaco, is also in the Lama genus.  The alpaca and vicuña are in a different genus.  Llamas and alpacas are totally domesticated, but guanacos and vicuñas are wild.

Llamas actually started out in North America, and then they moved to South America about 2.5 million years ago.  We know this because llama fossils have been found in the Rocky Mountains and also in Central America.  These fossils are from the Pleistocene era, and some of them are bigger than modern llamas.  If you were hanging out in the U.S. about 25,000 years ago, you would have seen llamas in places like California, Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Missouri, and Florida.  But by the end of the Ice Age, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, there weren't any camel-type animals left in North America.

A 1920 postcard from Peru
The people who lived in the Andean highlands of Peru about 5,000 to 6,000 years ago domesticated guanacos and turned them into a separate species called the llama.  This makes llamas some of the oldest domestic animals in the whole world.  Today in South America there are about 7 million llamas and alpacas.  Meanwhile, in the U.S. and Canada, there are something like 65,000 llamas, 7,000 alpacas, and 200 guanacos.  Llamas are also popular in countries like New Zealand because people like their wool.

One use of llamas in the U.S. is as pack animals for hikers.  Besides that, they are used for their wool, for cart pulling, as therapy animals, for exhibition in shows and parades, and as companions.  Llamas can even be used to guard flocks of sheep.  The best kind of sheep-guarding llama is a male who has been neutered.  This llama will bond with the sheep, and then he will scare off the coyotes and anything else that wants to hurt his flock.

Female llamas don't have a heat cycle.  Instead, they breed with a male first, and then produce an egg.  So they often get pregnant on the very first try.  After that, it takes 11.5 months before the baby, which is called a cría, is born.  The mother gives birth standing up, and it only takes about half an hour to do it.  Other female llamas from the herd stand around to guard the new baby from male llamas and predators.  Crías get on their feet and start nursing within an hour after being born.  A mama llama can't lick her baby because her tongue is attached inside her mouth and only comes out about 1/2".  But she can still nuzzle the cría and hum to it.  I could not find out what tunes the mother llamas hum, but I imagine they are lullabies.

If llamas are trained and socialized at an early age, they are generally friendly and gentle to be around.  They are curious, so they usually go up to new people without being afraid.  Crías who have to be bottle-fed and who get over-socialized sometimes are hard to deal with as adults.  These animals treat humans the way they might treat other llamas, by spitting, kicking, and neck wrestling.

KC Zoo
One time Mom got spat on by a llama, and here's how it happened.  Mom went to this place called Exotic Animal Park, which is close to Springfield, Missouri.  And at this park, you drive through and look at the animals, but you don't get out of your car, just in case the animals get aggressive.  Anyway, you can buy this food stuff to feed the animals, and it is these green sticks made of maybe grass or hay or something all molded together.  So Mom fed this one llama that came up to the car window, which she wasn't supposed to roll down very far, except that she pretty much rolled it down all the way.

And the first llama ate a piece of the green stick, and then Mom tried to give another piece of the stick to the next llama who was in line behind the first llama.  But the first llama didn't like that, and he started spitting at Mom and at the other llama, and what he spat was all this green stuff from the green stick he'd been eating.  So then Mom had green llama spit on her clothes and on her car seat.  And that's when she decided maybe she should roll up her window.

Anyway, Mom thought it was pretty funny that she got spat on by a llama, because how many people can say that ever happened to them?  Frankly, it seems kind of silly to me, but Mom really likes this story, so that's why she made me tell it to you.

Okay, so when llamas aren't eating green stick things at Exotic Animal Park, what do they eat?  The answer is that they just graze on grass and hay and stuff like that, the same as cows or sheep.  Llamas have a stomach with 3 compartments, and after they eat their food the first time, they can belch it back up and chew it some more so they can digest it better.

I asked Mom if we could get a llama of our very own.  She said she would like to have one, but it would be better if we lived in a place where there is more space to graze.  So maybe someday we can move to the country and get a llama, which would be lots of fun -- if it ever really happened.

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