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National Llama Day: Celebrating the ‘Camel of the Clouds’

Elina Sazonova

What is that humming in the distance? It could be a llama expressing any number of emotions: anxiety or curiosity, discomfort, or excitement. Or perhaps it is a mother communicating with her baby, otherwise known as a cria. This National Llama Day, on Dec. 9, we are humming with excitement to reflect on this member of the Camelidae family, which also includes camels and alpacas. 

Llamas were domesticated for the first time in the Andes of Peru thousands of years ago. The Incas used them for their meat, travel capabilities, and wool, as well as being central to sacrificial ceremonies. In fact, people living in the Ayacucho region believed they belonged to wamani, spirits living in the surrounding landscapes.

Photo Courtesy Alex Azabache 

They were first brought to the U.S. in the late 1800s by zoos and collectors, such as William Randolph Hearst, the media mogul and politician who kept exotic animals on a 250,000-acre ranch in California.

This trend was followed by a brief break due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. However, their popularity was back in full force when the government lifted an import ban in the mid-1980s. 

As of February, there were 165,190 llamas and 30,966 owners in the U.S., according to the International Lama Registry. It is easy to understand why.

Photo Courtesy Stephanie Cantu 

A llama would be a good addition to any farm or garden. They eat and trim the grass without pulling it up from the roots, and their two-toed, hoofless feet do not crush the grass as hooves would. Their feces — known as “llama beans” — also serves as a useful fertilizer, according to Debi Garvin, who is on the board of directors of the International Lama Registry. “It won’t burn the plants and can be used directly in flower beds,” Garvin said

Llamas also serve as good guard animals for those who own other livestock. They are approximately 5.5 to 6 feet tall and range from 280 to 350 pounds

“They’re a big animal, they stand right out, and they don’t give ground. That cowers predators,” says Michael Sheridan, who owns Hemstreet Farm in Elma, NY. “They have this idea of belonging to a group or a herd, and they protect everything that’s in their herd. They’re excellent — better than dogs.” 

A study by Iowa State University found that people who adopted these social herd animals onto their property saw the rate of sheep lost to predators drop from 11 to 1%. 

Photo Courtesy Brett Sayles

As pack animals, llamas can carry 25 to 30% of their weight and travel 20 miles per day at a walking pace. Wilderness Ridge Trail Llamas notes that a 10.25-mile hike with 2,283 feet of elevation gain in Montana took them 5.5 hours. Their pack trains have proved extremely useful in moving goods across the Andes. They can help transport equipment for campers, hunters, anglers, scientists, and those involved in land management or trail maintenance. 

The furry creatures have two coats of thick, stiff guard hair over soft down that is sheared once a year. The outer layer of guard hair is good for rope and rugs, while the underlayer of down is suitable for finer clothes and blankets. The fact that their fiber is hypoallergenic is a bonus. 

Photo Courtesy Bryan Smith 

Llamas also make great pets and gentle, affectionate companions, with an average lifespan of 20 years, ensuring a long and close connection. “Llamas are good around children … They’re so gentle, they’re used a lot in therapy in hospitals,” according to Bill Franklin, a mammalian wildlife ecologist. 

For example, six furry llamas from Washington-based Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas visit schools, special needs groups, and senior living facilities. The program was inspired by Rojo, who dedicated 17 years to therapy visits in Oregon and Washington. 

Photo Courtesy Farhan Alkhaled 

Beyond therapy, llamas are helping the medical community study diseases since they produce nanobodies smaller than human antibodies.

Yi Shi, a professor of cell biology at the University of Pittsburgh, immunized a black one named Wally against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. “These nanobodies may or may not provide a treatment for COVID-19, but the technology used to isolate them will be important in the future,” Shi explained

Clearly, llamas have much to offer us. This Dec. 9, show some appreciation for the popular pack animals by wearing a t-shirt or visiting a petting zoo. Your “Llama tell you something” or “Not my prob-llama” sweatshirt is aching to make an appearance.

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