RECOMMENDATIONS ON SELECTING A LLAMA FOR A GUARD ANIMAL
By Regina Malsbary
I don't yet have a llama as a guard animal, too many sheep, too little fenced pasture, and a husband that thinks that one dog is the right number of animals but I'm working on all three. I do however, work on a llama farm and have some do's and don'ts for those thinking along those lines. After all, more fiber is always a good thing! Some of this may sound obvious, I'm not trying to insult anyone's intellect- these tips are all based on real experiences.
First and foremost, go see an experienced breeder and plan on buying one. Most of us at one time or another have had a chance to get a free llama, they're not the "in" thing anymore and there are plenty of people who are just glad to get rid of the toy that isn't fun anymore. If you do this fine, but consider it a rescue not a guard animal. A year later you'll probably still have an animal you can't handle, is scared of the sheep and if it gets out you'll need all the neighbors and an afternoon to catch it again (true story).
Tell the breeder what you're looking for in a prioritized list, ex. I want a guard animal, I want nice fiber, I want one that's easy to handle, I want it to be such and such a color. Then listen to them and try to decide on one or a pair that you both think will work. Llamas are extremely smart and as such are even more prone to personalities than sheep and we all know how the personalities vary in our flocks. Not all llamas have the protective instincts of a good guardian. Do not get your heart set on one to the point you won't listen to reason. My boss had a customer that did just that it ended up almost costing the animal's life.
The customer insisted on buying a female (more on that later) and had to have the most high-strung animal in the very large flock. He took just the one (they're better in pairs just like sheep) and put her immediately into a flock of sheep with cow bells around their necks. Every time they moved, they rang and the llama bolted, she quickly began to lose weight and spent most of her time hiding in the corner of the pasture. Somewhere there was a noxious weed she ate that gave her sores all in her mouth that made eating even harder. And then he put a ram in for breeding season! Llamas are either pregnant or open, in other words in heat all the time. The ram chased her as well as the ewes. In less than a month a slightly chubby, rather haughty llama was reduced to a traumatized, skittish, sack of skin and bones. Luckily, the guy called my boss to complain that she wasn't working out. My boss went over, took one look, gave the guy his money back and got the animal out of there. A few hundred dollars worth of vet bills later, months of extra grain rations and being back home Ariel is almost as haughty as ever. She is one of only a few out of a flock of almost 50 that I didn't fall in love with, but I must say its good to see her back to her old self.
If you just want a guard animal it would be best to get geldings, they're much cheaper and you don't have to worry during heat season of the ewes. Don't ever put an intact male llama in your flock! They'll try to breed the ewes and you'll end up with dead ewes (unfortunately another true story). If you think you might want to breed the llama it would be alright to get a female but considering what happened to Ariel, I'd move her out when the ram is doing his thing.
That's about it in the buying department but here are a few more hints in the general info dept.. Llamas are very smart but not usually affectionate (Girls that are handled a lot as crias would be an exception. Boys shouldn't be handled a lot when young.). To say hello to a llama keep your hands back or down, bend forward and sniff out. That's how they check each other out. They don't eat much more than a sheep even though they're a lot bigger. We feed grain 1/2 lb. per day and a large flake of hay and Virginia (my boss) usually gets chastised at the shows for having animals that are too fat. We don't have access to much pasture so that is year round feeding. There is a mineral supplement that they need access to daily but I've never checked how it compares to sheep mineral. That and fresh water and yearly shots is about it. If you live in deer country you should be aware that they are susceptible to a worm infestation from the deer, though. It's called meningeal worm, and by the time you know they're sick, its usually too late. Either have 6 foot fences to keep the deer out of the pastures or worm monthly with an effective antihelminthic.
Last but not least, the spitting thing: Llamas spit to declare dominance or when they're mad. Properly raised llamas don't spit at people, this doesn't mean you won't get caught in the cross fire, though. Zoo llamas spit because their grain is doled out a handful at a time. Somebody in line doles out the dollar and gives them a handful and you don't you get spit at, same as our kids getting snotty at mealtime. Before they spit they usually raise their heads and noses straight up, sometimes this is enough to make the other one back off, if not, well.... All this can be used to our advantage. A hand holding a grain scoop looks a lot like a llama head if they're misbehaving tell them no, raise your hand, and if they're still bad, spit at them. You have to be the boss, and don't worry, your spit smells a whole lot better than theirs!
I hope this has been helpful. Llamas would be my hands down choice as a guard animal, I don't know if donkeys are as stubborn as their reputation but I know a dog would end up in my living room instead of my pasture. I'd love to have a couple, now if I could just work on my husband.....
Jim and Martha McGrath
HC 72 Box 14D
Franklin, WV, 26807