Sunday, April 22, 2012

Alpacas and Llamas: On Becoming Bi-spec-ial

By Marty McGee Bennett, Reprinted from The Llama Letter, Winter 2003

As much as we may try, one size really does not fit all. One kind of vehicle can't do everything. There are hundreds of breeds of dogs. And I don't think one kind of camelid can do it all either. Alpacas and llamas each have something different and unique to offer and conveniently, they are quite easy to manage together. Llamas are absolutely the best pack animals, have unique fiber, and are funny and smart. But for quantity and quality you'd be hard pressed to find a wool producer with a more engaging personality than an alpaca. Get some of each species and you have the best of both worlds - you become bi-special.
For those of you that may be considering branching out, this article is my attempt to contrast and compare the two species from a training and handling point of view. For those of you just starting out and thinking about one or the other, you may have a llama and an alpaca in your future! My intention is to compare llamas and alpacas to each other, and I will, but along the way I think it will be useful to compare camelids to other species with which many people are more familiar.
Llamas and alpacas are smaller than horses, and for that reason it is easier, safer, and more tempting to use force with them than with a horse. Owners of both species use methods on llamas and alpacas they wouldn't think of trying with a larger animal. I have watched in amazement the "football team" method of toenail trimming with llamas and have often witnessed alpacas up-ended or picked up and moved when they are resistant to initial non-forceful attempts at training. A camelid's smaller size can be deceiving. It can be quite startling to find out that when you truly mix it up with a camelid, they are pound for pound much harder to wrestle with than one would think. A camelid's anatomy, specifically its long neck, makes it difficult and dangerous (for the animal) to control using the head. The body can be waving around wildly even with the head held firmly in place. Therefore, in order to really control the body, you have to hold on to the whole thing... a very tall order. All camelids are extremely supple and athletic and in the case of suri alpacas, almost "slippery."
Alpacas, being the smaller of the two species, almost invite a handler to resort to force when faced with resistance. When compared to llamas, I have heard alpaca enthusiasts use an alpaca's smaller size as a marketing point when contrasting them with llamas. If an alpaca won't go along with the program you simply pick them up or lay them down. While this is certainly true, and maybe physically possible, it may not be the most effective way to end up with an alpaca that enjoys his or her association with people. Picking up a resistant alpaca serves to reinforce its tendency to lay down when uncertain, and this can be a difficult habit to break. It’s much better not to teach an alpaca to resort to the kushing behavior in the first place. For reasons both ethical and practical, learning animal handling skills that work for camelids is key to enjoying both species.
Camelids are often characterized as aloof, eschewing human touch and preferring to remain at arm's length. I disagree. I do find both species to be more like a cat than a dog, but when approached properly they are every bit as interested in a relationship with humans as their feline soul mates. There are cats that will allow almost any indignity, but for the most part one must learn how to approach these animal aristocrats with respect. Imagine the behavior of a cat that was chased into a corner and grabbed, then held on its owner's lap against its will. I would wager a cat living under these conditions would learn to run from the room as the human entered, take refuge under the furniture and perhaps resort to scratching and biting to make an escape. Under these circumstances would it be fair to comment "Oh that is just the way cats are..." when in fact that is not the way cats are? We create much of the undesirable behavior we see in camelids by our actions and then, with an arrogance uniquely human, we characterize their reaction to us as natural camelid behavior. I couldn't agree more. Camelids are naturally shy, but they can learn to trust and enjoy humans that behave in a trustworthy manner.
It is critical to organize your barn and pastures so that you can herd animals anywhere you desire efficiently. On the other hand, offering grain to encourage your camelids to come when called and to enter the catch pen willingly is smart management. Once in the catch pen, catching your camelid with a wand and a rope rather than cornering and holding them around the neck will result in alpacas and llamas that will be more comfortable in your presence. Using the corner-grab-hold method teaches the animal, be it a llama or alpaca, to maintain an “arm's length" attitude.
I use a wand with a clip on the end, along with a rope to catch alpacas and llamas that are resistant to being caught (almost all of them). There is no way to evade the wand and rope method; the handler can stay safely away from the hindquarters and the animal feels much safer. I do my best to stay behind the animal's eye as I bring the rope over the head. I bring the rope over the head both from rear-to-front and front-to-rear, although I usually opt for the rear to front method for really nervous animals. Large llamas that have learned they can escape from a human by throwing the full weight of the body into the arm will be amazed at the new power of their handler and begin to look at humans with more respect.
Lightening fast alpacas are flummoxed by the wand-rope method and quickly learn to settle down and allow human approach. This method allows a handler to easily work with more than one animal in the catch pen at a time.
One of the basic differences between llamas and alpacas is their reaction to being isolated. I find that alpacas are much more dependent on the presence of the herd. An isolated alpaca will have a very hard time thinking and will concentrate solely on escape. It is very difficult to teach an animal when it is unable to think. Working alpacas in groups will help keep the whole group calm, especially the more nervous ones. This generalization about isolation is just that — a generalization. When faced with a nervous llama that is consumed with escape, my first choice is always to provide another llama for company before continuing with my training and handling efforts.
Controlling an animal's movement is part of what makes it possible for them to live in our world. Typically we use the head for control, as it provides the greatest leverage and power over the animal's movement. This is another aspect of camelid handling and training that has, in my opinion, suffered from an inattention to a camelid's unique anatomy. A camelid skull is very different, both in size and configuration, than that of a horse, mule, or donkey. Both llamas and alpacas are semi-obligate nasal breathers and cannot sustain themselves by breathing out of their mouth alone. Far too many halters are manufactured with nosebands that are too small and do not allow the handler to properly place the noseband of the halter well up on the nose bone. Often, those halters that do have a noseband that is large enough do not have a properly proportioned crown piece that will keep the noseband in place when the halter is used for leading. Nosebands that can slip down and off a camelid's very short nose bone restrict airflow and will almost routinely create panic. Once panicked, the animal is even more at risk from the ill-fitting halter. An alpaca's smaller size makes him even more vulnerable to a poorly fitting halter. Delicately built and young alpacas are even more at risk. Not all skulls are the same and it is crucial to palpate the nose to see exactly how much bone is available to support the noseband prior to attaching a lead rope to the halter. Because halter fit is so tricky with alpacas in particular, I find it best to do herd management chores without even putting one on. Organize your property so that animals can be herded to handling areas. Work the animals in small spaces in groups using balancing techniques rather than restraint, and a halter shouldn't be necessary.
When a halter is needed, I fit it correctly using a three-step procedure. I adjust the noseband so that it is much larger than I think I need (because alpacas perform better and stay calmer when wearing a halter that fits). An alpaca that is asked to wear a halter that is uncomfortable will often begin to exhibit problem behaviors that may not seem to be related to halter fit, such as spitting, laying down, or resistance to catching. Much of the misbehavior evident in the show ring is directly related to improper halter fit, and can be greatly improved by paying close attention to this issue.
When it comes to teaching a camelid to lead, I find alpacas and llamas differ pretty significantly. Llamas are more independent and are quicker to venture away from the herd and so, are more likely to follow the handler. Alpacas, on the other hand, are more emotionally tied to their herd and so are more easily moved around on a lead if they can follow another alpaca. Unfortunately, there are times and circumstances when the alpaca must follow a human handler alone. Halter fit, how signals are given on the lead, along with lead rope placement, directly contributes to the tendency of many alpacas to lay down when learning to follow a human on a lead rope. Since alpacas are smaller in stature than llamas, there is a higher probability and tendency for the handler to inadvertently include an upward component to the signal to move forward. When the handler pulls forward and up on the lead, the alpaca will normally raise the head and also drop the back. This body stance will tend to lock the pelvis and inhibit forward movement. You can get a feel for what this is like by trying this exercise. Bend at the waist and raise your head and hollow your back (the two tend to go together). Now raise your knee. You will probably notice that your balance is affected negatively and you cannot raise your knee very high. Conversely, if you lower your head, round your back, and raise your knee, you will notice that you have better balance as well as more freedom of movement in your pelvis. While this is certainly not directly applicable to what happens when you lead an animal, I have seen greatly improved performance in both llamas and alpacas when handlers have taken leading pressure off of the head, allowing the animal to incline the head slightly forward as he walks. You will have a higher degree of success, particularly with rookies, if you hook your lead rope to the side ring on the noseband of a halter, instead of underneath. This technique tends to inhibit the natural tendency of an untrained alpaca to resist forward signals on the lead, with hindquarters seemingly growing roots at the same time. It will also give you more ability to steer and more control.
Heightened awareness of the type and quality of the signal you give your alpaca will also make a difference to his comfort, as well as his performance. Striving for slight contact (connection) with the lead rope and using a squeezing signal as if you were squeezing a sponge will work much better than either an abrupt tug and release signal, or steady pressure.
Given the smaller size of alpacas, and the sensitivity of both llamas and alpacas, more subtle signals are probably appreciated, as well as more effective. Another easy thing to do that will make leading much easier for both of you is simply lighten up on the rope, get as far away as your lead rope will allow, and give your camelid more space!
While alpacas and llamas differ in many ways both physically and behaviorally, using logical handling methods rather than force, and encouraging an animal to think rather than react instinctively, will work for both. I haven't personally raised alpacas, and for the past little over a year, our family of two and four-leggeds (a pooch and two cats) has lived in a motor home. After touring the United States and searching for a new place to settle, we decided on Bend, Oregon, arguably the “camelid capitol" of the United States. Our house is in town and we haven't brought any camelids into our lives as yet, but you can be sure that when we do we will be bi-spec-i-al!

For more information about the Camelidynamics Guild, Camelidynamics and Marty McGee Bennett, visit

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