By Viv Fulton
Reprinted from The GALA
Newsletter, February 2010
"Falling for Camelids" was the theme of the November 2009 GALA Conference. Held in Ithaca, New York, it was the annual conference fulfilling the Greater Appalachian Llama & Alpaca Association bylaw's directive to educate members of the public. Charlie Hackbarth of Mt. Sopris Llamas (now Sopris Unlimited) in La Vela, CO was the keynote speaker sharing his views on where the llama industry has been and where he felt it was heading. This being Charlie's first ever keynote address, we were all just as excited as he was to hear what he had to say. We were not disappointed. Sure, it wasn't the smoothest talk or the most organized we'd ever heard (in spite of his wife Sandy's best efforts), but you couldn't deny the intensity and sheer joy that Charlie has when talking about llamas, llama packing, and for that matter, the whole entire camelid industry. Charlie's focus was really a wake-up call to everyone, and not just llama packers in the Northeast. In essence, the Nike® commercials shout it too -- Just get out and do it!
The whole point of having llamas and alpacas is to enjoy them. It doesn't matter if you're going packing, or going to shows, or going for a picnic with the neighborhood brownie troop. We got them to be with them, to just sit in a chair with our coffee by the campfire listening to them peacefully chew their cud and watch the sun go down. So many people get their first two llamas and do all this, add multiple babies, and suddenly wake up to realize they better hurry up and turn this into a business, as it's costing them money, they haven't sold anything, and they have no time to enjoy them as they had when they got their first. Life takes its toll and the next thing you hear is that there's another bunch going through the local cattle auction, the rescue organizations are getting calls about the animals that owners didn't have time for, and those beautiful bedroom eyes are no longer soft and stress-free.
GALA is made up of not just llama owners, but alpaca owners as well. Charlie's even made scaled-to-size pack systems that are perfect for lunch hikes for these smaller llama cousins. His keynote address, and his and other’s workshop sessions, were purposely targeted to both critters. And so too is the message: we ALL must get out and DO something with our camelids. To not means we will lose wonderful opportunities to connect to something that can only benefit our mental and spiritual outlook on life. As we wind down the calendar year, take the winter months to rejuvenate, and prepare for the next packing season / spring renewal / decade, we should take Charlie's advice and include llamas and alpacas in our plans. Those plans (and subsequently "we") can only be better with their involvement. And this involvement, this connection and joy of ownership, is what Charlie was saying will keep the llama industry strong. It's not the big breeders catering to individuals that expands the industry. It's all of us talking to others in the grocery line, at a parade, at the barbershop or beauty salon, showing by example, our joy in living with those animals that will expand and grow the llama industry. We need to Just get out and do it!
The GALA conference this year was relatively small -- over 125 but less than the 200+ we've seen in other years. However, it WAS one of the smoothest run, more intimate, certainly friendlier, and generally more relaxing than many others I've attended and that's not just my opinion, but a whole lot of other folks' who were there. I was pleased to give a couple talks at this conference, as well, and had the opportunity to speak with many of the attendees. And I was pleasantly surprised to see not only long-time llama owners in the audience, but to see and speak with many who had never swerved from their stay-at-home "business plan" of breeding llamas to sell or from their show schedule, to now hear they were interested in trying llama packing or some other activity with their llamas. Could Charlie's message have really gotten to them? Only time will tell of course. Sadly here in the Northeast, the llama-packing season tends to go dormant as the snow, bitter cold, and adverse weather conditions tend to discourage participation. Will these folks remember their renewed sense of anticipation when the spring weather returns? I certainly hope so.
As the country continues to market real estate in the rural areas to those in the cities, there are fewer and fewer areas open to llama packing, or for that matter, open to hiking with any large animal. Unless the llama hiker has purchased enough property himself to set up interesting trails, or adjoins a like-minded neighbor, those who want to hike with their animals are forced to either travel long distances or to give up the idea entirely. Many llama owners who purchased the animals initially as hiking companions, changed their direction to the show circuit and substituted the performance classes for the natural world. Now, the economy, the subsequent drop in the number of llama shows and other events, and the realization that camelids are not really a get-rich-quick road to financial security, has made many people reassess their reason for having the critters in the first place. Will Charlie's message of Just get out and do it! find a resonance with these people? Will those that bought the animals as hiking companions want to resume that intent? Are they even capable? Some of us still have our first llamas, but they, like us, are getting older too. The last few GALA conferences have had questions about arthritis; the first conferences did not. Is hiking with llamas (and alpacas) still an adequate or viable reason to have them? Can the walk around a farmette's five acres (as the realtors call them) provide enough justifiable joy?
This short commentary is intended for both the GALA and PLTA (National Pack Llama Trial Association, Inc.) newsletters, so my audience automatically includes both the "choir members" and the 'congregation." To those of you who don't know about PLTA, let me tell you a little of how that organization can help you Just get out and do it! with your camelid friends. The PLTA started out as an organization whose primary intent was to set up and document participation in events called pack trials that were tests of a member's llama's packing abilities. Starting in the West, the organizers looked at the typical llama packers out there to see what attributes needed measuring. The trials utilized pre-determined elevation gain, distance, weight to be carried, and a series of obstacles that could be standardized, theoretically at least, across the country. This was all fine for a number of years; if you didn't have the elevation gain in your part of the country and still wanted to evaluate your llama, you traveled the extra distance to where there was a trial with the requirements.
But times have changed, and so, too, has the PLTA. The organization is no longer made up of just "serious" llama packers, but others who want to hike with their llamas. PLTA has recognized that its membership needs to be made up of everyone who hikes with a llama, whether or not they do it over a mountain range or on the flat area around a lake or along the seashore. The organization is national in scope; so too must their membership be, and subsequently, the services provided to that membership. We need to address the feasibility of running pack trials in areas with minimal or severe elevation gain, with no water obstacles available, or other conditions not typically found across the country, but that are "typical" of a given region. Some adjustments have been made in the regulations; others need individual study.
And what about those that just want to hike with their llamas without the testing regulations of the formal pack trials? Well, PLTA has addressed that with their new Mileage Club. This new service was spurred on by the Southern States Llama Association who, in turn, were interested in setting up a camelid hiking club similar to the American Volkssport Association® walking clubs. Basically the Mileage Club recognizes the mileage that a member hikes with their llama, irrespective of elevation gain, weight carried, or obstacles negotiated. Here's a justifiable excuse to Just get out and do it! It's a great opportunity for those handlers and llamas who may not be the most physically fit, whether due to age or health conditions, and for those on the other end of the spectrum -- the younger and beginners. PLTA provides pins, certificates, and recognizes the successful completion of Pack Trial accomplishments. They do so also for Mileage Club achievements. Go to the website www.packllama.org for more information. And Charlie's message? Let it be your new mantra for the new year. It's not just a charge to the GALA community in the Northeast. But bring back the enjoyment and just plain fun reason for having your llamas, regardless of where you live. And if hiking with them is at least some part of that, then all the better. As Charlie would say -- Just gel out and do it!