Michael, Megan & Annie

Llama project opens doors for exhibitor   7/16/12

By Jamie Barrand/Journal Review    Photos By Andy Barrand/Journal Review
For a long time, Kathy and Gil Tobias wondered if their son Michael, who was born with Down syndrome and autistic tendencies, would ever belong to groups, be involved in activities or make friends.

A chance encounter last year at the Montgomery County 4-H Fair petting zoo changed Michael’s world.

“We saw the llamas, and Michael just started becoming so attached to them,” said Michael’s mother Kathy. “Matt Fruits, who owned the llamas, asked me if I’d ever considered 4-H.”

Kathy decided to let her son, who i
s non-verbal, give the 4-H llama project a try. On Saturday, 15-year-old Michael took the show ring with Annie the llama — and beamed with pride as he earned ribbons and trophies in several classes

“It makes me very emotional,” Kathy said, tears welling in her eyes. “Michael is my only child, and his father and I want the best for him ... it’s really all about Michael. I am so thankful for the people in the llama club — especially Matt Fruits — who have been so supportive.”

All the llama exhibitors cheered Michael on Sunday. He was assisted in the show ring by fellow exhibitor Megan Fruits, 10, who was the overall points winner in the llama show.

“Megan is just such a wonderful, special girl,” Kathy said.

Matt Fruits, llama club leader and Megan’s father, agreed.                                                                                                                                                                                                                

“She always wants to help,” he said. “She is good at it.”                                                                                                                 

Megan was humble.

“I didn’t really do anything,” she said modestly. “(Michael) did it all. I just helped a little.”

The bond between Annie and Michael was obvious.

“That llama wasn’t show trained,” Matt said. “She only does what she does for Michael. Somehow, she just knows. They’re a great team.”

Matt has seen changes in Michael since he began working with his llama.

“He has made friends,” he said. “He smiles and he works hard.”

For Kathy, seeing her son in the 4-H show ring was almost overwhelming, as it was something she never thought could happen.

“He’s making eye contact, and even though he doesn’t speak he’s communicating,” she said with a smile. “These kids and the leaders have been so good to him and for him. And for me, it’s a wonderful thing to see him having fun and just being included.”

Megan Fruits also showed the Grand Champion Suri, Grand Champion Light Wool, Grand Champion Medium Wool and the Montgomery County Best of Show.

Isaac Fruits showed the Grand and Reserve Grand Champion Heavy Wool llamas and the Reserve Grand Champion Medium Wool llama.

Alora Goldsby showed the Montgomery County Reserve Best of Show llama, and the Grand Champion Non-Breeder.

Logan Slovacek showed the Reserve Grand Champion Suri.

Emily Neal showed the Reserve Grand Champion Light Wool llama.

There was a three-way tie for Overall Performance winner: Slovacek, Neal and Megan Fruits. Reserve Overall Performance was a tie between Isaac Fruits and Hunter Stevens.

Overall Showmanship went to Neal with reserve going to Isaac Fruits.

The Llama Is In

The Llama Is In (Click title for link to original article)

People who keep llamas as pets will readily offer you any number of reasons: llamas are quiet, they’re gentle and affectionate, they don’t take a lot of work to maintain and, for outdoor animals, they don’t smell bad.

But it’s more than that. Look at a llama and it’ll gaze back sympathetically with those huge, beguiling eyes, ears perked up, looking for all the world like it understands you and really cares about your problems.

Most people start with two or three, since llamas are sociable and don’t like to live alone. But as Katrina Capasso, a llama owner in Ballston Spa, N.Y., discovered, “They’re like potato chips.” It’s hard to stop at just a few. Ms. Capasso, 49, received her first llama as a wedding gift from her husband, Gary, in 1990. Now she has 55.

That irresistible quality may explain their popularity as pets. A few decades ago, they were almost unheard-of in this country. Today there are about 115,000 in the United States, according to the International Lama Registry, which keeps genealogical records.

The population of alpacas, their smaller cousins bred primarily for fleece, is about the same, according to the Department of Agriculture. But alpacas are not beasts of burden and have a very different gestalt. Do not get a llama owner started on alpacas.

“Llamas are like dogs: they are your friend,” said Pam Fink, who keeps 13 pet llamas at her home in Georgia and is expecting three babies in August. “Alpacas are more like sheep. They’re not going to play with you, not going to be your friend.” (Note: alpaca people might take issue with this.)

Llama breeders have been known to pay as much as $30,000 for a top-quality male, but a regular pet llama can be had for less than $500. And given the demand for llama fiber, which is as highly prized by knitters as alpaca, you might be able to earn some of that back.

That is, unless you live in Manhattan, or anywhere else that isn’t zoned for livestock. But if you’re fortunate enough to live in the right place and you have some outdoor space, as Mrs. Fink’s husband, Jerry, will tell you, “Llamas will steal your heart.”

He and his wife like to spend summer nights sitting on their screened porch, watching the llamas graze. “I refer to them as our walking lawn ornaments,” he said fondly.

Mr. Fink, 65, a businessman, and his wife, also 65, and a former mortgage broker, got their first three llamas a decade ago. And Mrs. Fink soon found her calling as a breeder of miniature llamas, a distinct breed about three-quarters the size of standard llamas.

In the Finks’ immaculate suburban house, framed portraits of their pet llamas hang over the fireplace alongside photos of their grandchildren. Another wall is covered with ribbons won at llama shows, which are similar to dog shows.

On a recent spring morning, Mrs. Fink showed a visitor around the house and then gave a tour of the barns where the llamas live, offering a running commentary on their quirks and personalities.

“This is Dolly,” she said, filling the brown mini-llama’s bucket with minerals. “She likes to eat in front of the window.” (Llamas are picky eaters and prefer hay, grass, minerals and grain; some owners say they cost about the same to feed as big dogs.)

Cheerio, she said, moving on to a miniature female with a white-and-brown coat, is timid with strangers, “but will follow me around like a puppy dog.”

As she spoke, Mrs. Fink touched each of the llamas, hugging their faces, lifting their feet and fluffing the fur on their haunches, her way of making sure that all of them have daily human contact. “I require my animals to be well mannered,” she said. “They have to walk on a lead, they have to be nice to people, they have to behave.”

Llamas are strictly outdoor animals, and males must be kept separate from females, otherwise they will mate nonstop. In other matters, however, they are very restrained. Owners must check them carefully to see if they are hurt or sick, because llamas are so stoic they seldom complain. If they don’t have health problems, they can live for decades.

And those stories about spitting, most llama owners will tell you, are exaggerated: llamas will spit at other llamas to establish social hierarchies, but unless they feel threatened, they rarely spit at people.

“Llamas are intelligent, and they’re very curious,” Mrs. Fink said. “They’re standoffish at first, and then they’re in your face.”

After feeding and greeting all her llamas, Mrs. Fink likes to take one for a walk in the woods.

“They’re just so calming and enjoyable to be around,” she said. “You can tell them all your secrets and your problems. They know all my likes and dislikes, when I’m mad at my husband and when I’m happy with my husband. They don’t tell anyone, they just listen.”

Most people associate llamas with Peru, where they haul packs up the Andes and guard flocks of sheep. In the United States, some llamas do similar kinds of work.

But those that are kept as pets are often treated like members of the family: petted, shampooed and groomed, shuttled to llama shows and trotted out to schools, hospitals and nursing homes, where they spread their special brand of Zen.

Until recently, llamas were hard to come by here. For most of the 20th century, it was illegal to import them because of foot-and-mouth disease; the largest herds were at William Randolph Hearst’s estate in San Simeon, Calif., and the Catskill Game Farm in New York.

That all changed in the 1970s, when Kay and Richard Patterson, a couple who bred Arabian horses, began a llama breeding program on their ranch in Oregon. Among the offspring of that program were notable llamas like Dr. Doolittle, whose heavy white fleece produced 17 pounds of fiber when shorn and whose descendants are prizewinning llamas today. His name is still spoken with reverence in the llama community.

As Richard Snyder, a retired corporate executive from Manhattan, said, “He left an indelible mark.”

Mr. Snyder, 73, bought a 70-acre farm in Milford, Pa., in 1985, as a country retreat. A few years later, he got three llamas. Now he has nearly 60. He not only breeds them, but also uses their manure to fertilize his vegetable gardens, which supply the restaurants at the Hotel Fauchère, a boutique hotel he owns nearby.

“I can’t envision life without llamas,” he said.

Llamas are generally quiet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make any noise. When a male is interested in a female, or mating, he makes a noise that sounds a bit like gargling. (Llama people call this an orgle.) Female llamas make clicking sounds. And all llamas hum; in particular, mothers hum to their babies, which hum back.

It’s part of the bonding process, said Susan Morgan, 54, a home-care nurse in Hastings, Minn., who breeds miniature llamas with her husband, George, 56, an engineer. “They recognize each other by the hum,” she said. Two months after one of her females gave birth, Ms. Morgan said, they were still humming at each other.

Her husband said he gets a lot of questions about it. “People come up to me and ask, ‘Why are the llamas humming?’ ” he said. “And I’ll say, ‘Because they don’t know the words.’ ”

It’s a curious behavior, but one that most people find soothing.

Mrs. Fink has a cat and two Great Pyrenees dogs, but it is her llamas, she said, that offer her the most comfort. “When I can’t take people anymore, I go out to the barn,” she said. “I can just feel my heart rate go down. They have all of the good things about dogs, but none of the hyperness.”

So it should come as no surprise that some llamas dispense that comfort professionally. Ambassador llamas visit schools, churches and libraries; therapy llamas spend time with the sick, elderly and disabled. And at some llama shows, there is a category called public relations, in which a llama’s ability to offer solace is evaluated through tasks like lowering its head to greet someone in a wheelchair.

That capacity, some believe, stems from an innate intuition. Robin H. Turell, 55, a former special education teacher who breeds llamas in Cypress, Tex., said: “Llamas have an amazing sixth sense. They are very good with people with special needs.”

Dr. Jane Rudd, a physician in Duluth, Minn., tells the story of a particularly sensitive llama, named Amigo, that she used to take to visit schools. After one long morning she and Amigo spent with some schoolchildren, a teacher asked if she could bring in one last group, the special-needs students. “There were probably 8 or 10 noisy, awkwardly moving little kids, and one was in a wheelchair,” Dr. Rudd recalled. “He had really high special needs.”

Amigo perked up and led her straight to the boy in the wheelchair. “He laid his head in this little guy’s lap,” she said. “He just knew, ‘This is someone who needs me.’ ”

Ms. Capasso, the llama owner in Ballston Spa, N.Y., has had similar experiences. She occasionally makes public appearances with the friendliest of her 55 llamas. (Only 35 are her pets, she is quick to note; the others she boards for local families.)

Recently, she brought three to the Saratoga Springs library, where they were greeted by about 100 children and parents. Hope, Cinnamon and Ben, three of her best behaved llamas, stood calmly, without getting spooked, as the crowd milled around them.

Hope “is really, really calm and good with kids, or just anyone,” Ms. Capasso said, while Cinnamon is “very regal” and “will actually take a carrot out of a person’s mouth even if he doesn’t know them.”

And Ben? “Ben is one of the best behaved llamas I’ve ever met,” Ms. Capasso said. He is also big on humming.

“He hummed a lot at the library,” she said.

The children must have thought he was happy. Llamas often give that impression. But as Ms. Capasso said, “That probably meant he was tired and wanted to go home.”


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 11, 2013


Because of an editing error, an article last Thursday about keeping llamas as pets referred incorrectly to alpacas. They are bred for their wool; they are not beasts of burden, as are llamas.


The Ten Commandments of Llama

The Ten Commandments of Llama (click title to go to the original story)

The Ten Commandments of Llama

Llearn them. Llive them. – Llama

1. Thou shalt not touch me. I know all you want to do is feel all of the fuzzy fleecy fluffiness that is me. Just. One. Time. That is why it’s not going to happen. And thou shall not attempt a furtive fingertip “glance” as I walk by either.

2. Thou shalt let me smell the treat you are offering me exactly three times while I decide if I indeed want it or not. It may have miraculously changed into something I do want after the second sniff. If I do not want the treat I will let you know by throwing back my head, rolling my eyes and giving a small snort to show my displeasure at your worthless effort to appease me.

3. I shall want the treat only when you offer it to some other animal. I will still need to sniff it three times before I begrudgingly accept it however.

4. Thou shalt let me position my face directly in your face, however thou shalt not do the same to me. I shall need to smell you for precisely half a second before I casually stroll just out of arms reach, where I will stand and ignore you.

5. Thou shalt not ignore me when I am done ignoring you.

6. Thou shalt clean up the poop I leave in the barn stall because I am too lazy to go outside at night, or when it rains, or when the humidity level reaches exactly 45 percent, or when it’s snowing, or when it’s too cloudy.

7. Thou shalt not make any ridiculous noises at me including but not limited to kissy noises, clapping, lip pursing or smacking, whistling, or any other noise that I deem to be annoying, including calling me by my name which I will ignore even though I know it.

8. Thou shalt let me sniff your pants, shirt, neck, face, hair and whatever else I want to smell within your personal space without making even the slightest move to touch me. (See commandment number one.)

9. Thou shalt watch me prance about the field during my personal Llama Ballet show. The show will be put on for no particular reason and without warning on any given day I feel up to it. Thou shalt stop whatever insignificant thing you’re doing to watch me. However once you have rushed inside to get your camera by the time you return I will have immediately ended the show.

10. Thou shalt not bring visitors to see me. When you do I will be in the farthest field possible, and will only get close enough for them to see my fuzzy fleecy fluffiness before I turn and casually stroll away.