Informing the new lama buyer

What advertisers may not tell you
about purchasing lamas and alpacas

by Jo Ann McGrath
Llama Life II Issue No. 61, Copyright 2002

Llama Life II magazine publishes some down-to-earth articles,
and Jo Ann McGrath doesn’t pull any punches.

We think that the following article is very important to anyone
who might be thinking of purchasing llamas or alpacas.

It is reprinted here with their kind permission.

Over the past few months, about100 individual alpaca owners who have contributed $5,000 each to the cost of a fairly concentrated television blitz over Dish TV satellite channels, have benefited from four appealing, and comparatively reasonably priced, commercials purchased by . . . American Breeders Co-op (?).

The effects of the commercials have had mixed reviews: One owner said they are “practically sold out” of stock (but thinks part of the interest had come from a local agriculture show where their alpacas were featured).

Another large breeder said the ads sent them mostly “tire kickers.”

The amorphous “Co-op” is reported to have been spearheaded by Libby Forstner, Magical Farms Alpacas, Ohio, who also sits on the Alpaca Registry, Inc. (ARI) board, and who, earlier last year, was a force behind the failed attempt to dissolve ARI and AOBA (Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association) in order to unite them into a breed association. This effort, which would have given breeders access to ARI registration funds for use in marketing projects that many breeders believe would have primarily benefited large farms, was nixed by the electorate.

The web site, www.ilovealpacas, has pages of personally unattributable copy promoting the investment aspects of alpacas, claims that, under some conditions, could irritate the Securities and Exchange Commission.

No names or responsible organizations are given for those hosting the site — only the names and addresses of those farms and ranches who have forked over 5Gs.

Promotion is Good . . . Except . . .

There can’t be any downside to promoting the joys of ownership and pointing out the healthy and rewarding lifestyle such ownership brings. However, when the promotion tells viewers they will benefit financially if they ignore the “bear market and the bull market” and consider, instead, the “hot livestock market,” we can say only one thing — caveat emptor!

Llama Life II received calls from a very few of the “about 20,000 leads” the promotion is said to have developed — these few exercising at least some due diligence before taking the plunge and who seemed to be approaching the possibility of ownership of costly livestock with a healthy degree of skepticism. This is not always the case since advertising, by intent, is designed to work on emotion.

Since these callers subscribed to Llama Life II on the spot, we thought it might be useful to provide them, and maybe some others who didn’t call us, with some information about camelid ownership beyond The 18 Things a New Owner Should Know published on our web site. (A list that does not seek to give investment advice, only advice on health and husbandry.) Visit www.llamalife.com or call 434-286-2288 and request a copy.

For those who are contemplating ownership and who have no livestock experience, and are of only moderate means, here are a few tips. The first one being: run . . . run like the wind . . . from anyone who tells you you are guaranteed, or even likely, to make a lot of money breeding and selling alpacas or llamas.

For Starters

If you were considering a dog for a pet, it’s likely you would take in a stray, adopt one from a friend, visit the SPCA, or find and inexpensive one in the classified ads of a newspaper.

However, if you decided you wanted to make an investment in some aspect of that dog’s potential, surely you wouldn’t be so casual. You would want to research the temperament and personality of canines, learn what varieties exist, determine how easy they are to breed and care for, know what needs they have for shelter and food, determine if there is a market for the kind you ultimately choose, learn what is involved in their grooming and training, and then make a concerted effort to find a reputable and knowledgeable breeder from whom to buy your animal.

Just so with lamas!

Note: Lama with one “L” — from the collective “lamoid” — is used to connote both llamas (lama glama) and alpacas (lama paco). Alpacas are included (but separate) in the Lama Registry. While llama fiber can be fine and in much demand by hand spinners, a fiber harvest has not been the most coveted use of llamas. Alpacas, however, are bred solely for fiber and do not normally pack, pull carts, guard, nor are they generally used as companion animals. Nor are there enough alpacas in this country — reasonably priced or otherwise — to even begin to consider a commercial fiber market. Since the Alpaca Registry has been closed to importations, only what can be produced by the limited number of animals already in the country, and in the Registry, are available for breeding.

Good for the producers who already have substantial herds.

Even though lamas, part of the larger camelidae family, sound more exotic than dogs and cats and cows and horses, you need to follow the same procedures of acquisition as would any serious farmer or fancier who wants to raise or show or breed fine livestock. Learn everything there is to know — about the animals and about those who seek to sell you one.

There’s a Lama For Everyone

If you are not interested in breeding but would like them for pets or companions, there are two important things to know.

  1. Lamas absolutely need other lamas. Buy at least two. Lamas in pairs, or in greater numbers, are more fun to watch as they interact. If they have other lamas, if they are fed, watered, sheltered, and given some room for running and leaping, they’ll be happy, and their happiness will increase your happiness. Most breeders will give you a very good price for two geldings.

    If you are convinced you want only one to keep your goat or pony from being lonely, or to act as a sentinel to warn against coyotes for your sheep, make sure it is one that may be less likely to actively mourn the loss of its kind. Some are more territorial and aggressive than others — perhaps making them better candidates as “guards.” Find a breeder who will allow you a trial with one or more llamas to make sure you have one whose temperament will allow it to adjust to this kind of situation. Do not be surprised, however, if many breeders will not permit one of their animals to live without another. When they insist on two, it usually has nothing to do with “greed.”

  2. It is preferable that you not buy a bottle-fed lama, particularly one that has been overly handled. It’s charming to have a four-month-old putting its nose in your face for attention. It is not so charming when that animal weighs 150 to 450 pounds and doesn’t respect your space.

Owners have learned that too much fondling at an early age makes for an adorable baby but, depending on that lama’s personality, a spoiled, and sometimes dangerously familiar adult. Dangerous because lamas who get cross, or playful, or are making an overture to mating, will chest-butt one another. If you have convinced one who has not been properly socialized with its own kind that you are another lama, he will have no compunctions about treating you similarly.

Most breeders, however, have recognized the potential for identity problems and if they must bottle-feed a baby, they do so in a businesslike fashion without constant hugs and kisses. A pet should have a nice disposition, but not be pushy. Be aware that a lama’s natural tendency is to be aloof. It is a part of their appeal.

Most Llamas, and Some Alpacas, Love Adventure

If you want llamas to hike and pack with, you need to find ones that have been trained and desensitized. They have a natural aversion to having their legs and feet handled, but proper training accustoms them to touch and once introduced to packs, they readily accept them.

Good conformation for packing animals is very important. If they don’t have straight and strong backs, or if they are calf-kneed, cow-hocked, sickle-hocked, down in the pasterns or knock-kneed, they cannot hold up physically. Packing animals should have a calm and accepting disposition. A high-strung animal won’t be fun on the trails.

If you want an animal that you can take into the show ring, you must be as careful in your selection as you would be if you were buying breeding stock. There are growing standards for conformation, and judges always look for that ineffable quality of “presence.”

Showing camelids — in both halter and performance classes — has gained a large following. In time, it could rival horse shows as an event enjoyed by young and not-so-young. And, as the purses and the number of shows increase, this activity is becoming not only fun, but profitable.

Do Your Homework

While prices for llamas have become more realistic, this is not the case with alpacas. In this country, alpacas are not as numerous as llamas — a fact that may help to keep alpaca prices high in the short term.

To acquire information on both llamas and alpacas, visit at least half a dozen farms, preferably more. This shouldn’t be an imposition to you considering the amount of cash you will be spending. Check the Internet and find a number of farms and ranches to visit. Examine them carefully and see how they are run; look at the animals closely (not just their color); and ask questions about the breeding goals and the management techniques of the breeder. It would also be helpful to have some names and telephone numbers of those to whom that breeder has previously sold animals. Read everything you can find on the subject.

For $20 to $25 you can join a regional camelid association and receive a newsletter which will put you in touch with people who share your interests.

While the industry is young, it does have a bloodstock record that is at least 25 years old. If you are serious about breeding, learn who the antecedents of today’s lamas were and are, and what legacy they have given the generations of today.

What “Look” Are You Looking For?

When you visit farms, you will see two distinct types of llamas. Some with very little “wool” (a widely used misnomer, perpetuated here; lamoids have “hair or fiber” — not wool) and some with a great deal; some small and fine-boned, and some very large and heavy-boned. While it is natural for some llamas to have a lot of body wool that does not shed out, the ear, face and leg wool on adult llamas, now quite prevalent, is comparatively new and much of it is the result of recent importations from South America where it is suspected they have been crossed with alpacas. The animals in these importations were chosen by the importers largely because of the fiber.

Irrespective of where the heavily-fibered llama came from, it is here. And, since it is unquestionably appealing, it’s likely to stay. Purists and packers deplore this trend. The former because it adulterates the llama gene pool and could, without care, obliterate the “true” lama glama which has existed for tens of thousands of years essentially as a work animal. A packer’s main complaint — beyond the excess fiber which can be sheared — is that along with the wool has come diminishing size and capacity for carrying weight, and the unsheared hair makes it difficult to keep a pack on an animal’s back.

The hairier animals are currently more expensive. New buyers should be aware that it is easy to put fiber on the progeny of a female that is not heavily wooled, but very difficult to put good bone and size on the offspring of a small, hairy, poorly constructed one.

If you like wool, make sure the animal you choose is well-conformed with solid and symmetrical bone. Adult llamas should weigh between 250 and 375 pounds. (some 500 pounds and more). Choosing a small, fine-boned female means that you cannot breed her to a very large male without expecting the possibility of a dystocia (a difficult birth).

If you buy an extremely small male, this size characteristic could permeate your entire herd if you also have small females, unless he is small because he is malnourished. If he is malnourished and capable of siring normal-sized llamas, this could create a life-threatening problem for any exceptionally small females you breed him to. Even if the births are successful, this pattern likely will result in drastic downsizing of the individuals of the llama species and ultimately lead to the miniaturization of an animal that was originally bred to work.

If you are attracted to small, woolly llamas because you (mistakenly) believe larger ones are difficult to handle, maybe you should consider owning alpacas.

Alpacas are divided into two groups — huacaya and suri. The suri has long drapey fiber, while the huacaya is the more traditional “wool ball.”

Quality and color of fiber are stressed by alpaca breeders. The physical structure of the animal is important, as well, but differs dramatically from a llama in that the straight top line and high tail set important for llamas is replaced by rounded rumps and low tail sets in the alpaca.

Where llama breeders try to winnow out alpaca characteristics from their animals, alpaca breeders are as equally concerned that llama characteristics don’t show up in their herds.

What a Breeder Owes You

When you buy an animal at auction, it is understood that what you buy is what you get and that you have no recourse if it turns out to be a non-breeder, a poor milker or otherwise defective. However, some breeders will offer their standard farm guarantees to an auction purchaser. If you find a sale animal that interests you, talk to the owners before the sale and determine what they are prepared to guarantee the successful bidder. Some breeders, however, use a less prestigious auction venue to eliminate their responsibility to make guarantees. Even top breeders will use this expedient if it’s an animal not up to their farm standards.

The most common guarantee is a rebreeding if a “pregnant” female turns out to be open. This is fine unless you live in Maine and the farm you must return her to is in California. Should it be necessary, a return trip with the female is not an insurmountable problem, but it certainly is a complication. Starting off closer to home is a safer alternative if you consider a scenario where the female is not pregnant: You traverse the country, rebreed the animal, return home, and then find that the stress of the trip or some reproductive problem with the female caused another resorption or abortion of the fetus. Are you prepared to repeat the exercise?

Having found a breeder located comparatively near to you, which, hopefully, is one who can show you the dam, sire, siblings and cousins, maybe even three to five generations, of the lama you wish to purchase, what should you expect?

Complete candor is a good start. This should reveal itself in a written health record that indicates the animal’s birth information, weight history, vaccination and worming schedule, any birthing or milking difficulties, numbers of live offspring, any injuries or illnesses suffered, accurate breeding dates and the age of the female when it was bred. (Early on, the rule of thumb was to breed a female when she weighed 200 pounds, even if she achieved that weight at one year of age. Breeders now have learned that the most consistently successful pregnancies are those not begun before 18 months to two years.)

Even with good records in hand, a buyer is entitled to request — at his expense — an examination by a veterinarian to determine pregnancy and also testing for TB, brucellosis, blue tongue and anaplasmosis — tests generally considered meaningless in lamas, but which are, nevertheless, frequently required for interstate transportation. If any of these come up “positive,” have them run again. These tests were not designed for lamas and there are often false positives.

The Devil’s in the “De-tails”

Intact males, even at a young age, should evidence two prominent testicles of equal size. When you have looked under the tail of a number of different herd sires, you will learn what constitutes poor to excellent development. This is important not only from the standpoint of the fertility of the male himself, but for the fertility of both genders of his offspring.

Breeding animals should come with a guarantee of fertility and your contract should specify what restitution you can expect if fertility is absent.

The lama’s age and genealogy is on the registration certificate which should be signed and delivered to you with the animal — and which, until you understand the perceived hazards or benefits of in- or line-breeding llamas, should contain no evidence of matings to close relatives. If you buy a female and her cria, make sure both have certificates. In the case of the cria, it may be “pending” but the paper work should be filed.

If you’ve bought a pet or a packer or a show quality performer, make sure the animal is and does what it is claimed to be and do — unless you have contracted to undertake its training yourself.

Having specifics in writing simplifies any disputes that might arise following the purchase.

There Should be Give and Take

New buyers should expect continuing support from the breeder in the way of advice, information, sources for medical assistance and supplies. The animal should come to you halter broken and with its own halter and lead and a small supply of its accustomed feed, minerals, and hay.

What you owe the breeder is to conscientiously provide for all the needs of the animal, and to bring to him, the breeder, (before you announce it to the lama community at large) any dissatisfaction you may have with the animal you have purchased. If you have selected a breeder wisely, any problems over which he can properly be said to have any control, should be settled amicably.

If you search out real lama lovers, you will not find a group of people more willing to help and share both the problems and joy of owning these magnificent creatures.