The idea to adopt a llama began when I met a woman (now a friend) at a business function, where I confessed my interest in buying the farm. She was from the same town, and lived around the corner. She asked why the interest. With a Town Girl flush, I replied, “I’ve always wanted to have a horse.”
“No,” she replied. “You don’t want a horse. Too expensive. You want a llama. They cost less to keep and they’re smarter.”
“A llama, huh?” I tried to imagine exactly what a llama looked like, since I hadn’t seen one – on TV – in a while, and I don’t know that I had ever seen one in person. The best I could do was recall the Pushmi-Pullyu from Dr. Doolittle. Half of that. “There’s an alpaca farm I often pass on the way out of town, and I honestly thought that might be fun….”
“No,” she replied. “You don’t want an alpaca. You want a llama.” I think she claimed alpacas were squirrelly or feisty or something that made me think of them from that point on as the brats of the camelid family. My son bought in, too, and later said as we drove by a pasture full neatly groomed specimens, “Alpacas are feisty. Look at the smug looks on their faces. Yeah. Alpacas are definitely smug.” We developed a sort of disdain for them as a family. As though we were part of a movement to turn others against alpacas with their fine, fine wool and their bad, bad attitudes.
My desire to have a llama, of course, was news to me. I really had thought I wanted a horse, but this woman’s confidence was strangely convincing. And admittedly, having a llama did sound kind of cool. Exotic. “Come over and see my llama,” I imagined myself saying. How cool that would be!
I was sold, and I mentioned the conversation to my mother, whom I was trying to convince to move to the farm with us if we purchased it. To my surprise, she proclaimed, “Oh! I have always wanted a llama!”
What the…. My mother is a 90-year-old woman who grew up on a farm in Missouri, and as far as I was concerned, would never have encountered a llama in her life. Now I am finding out she has been harboring a secret fantasy of owning one. Well, knock me over with a feather! (That’s the kind of thing Missouri farm girls say.)
Mom went on to explain that they were so elegant and calm and dignified. Qualities I know my mother holds in high esteem. Why had I not seen this natural attraction before? Now I felt I needed to get a llama for my mother, for goodness sake. If I was able to help her check this elusive item off her bucket list, I might lock in the “Favorite Kid” spot. I began to describe to her how we would build her wing of the farmhouse to open onto the llama pasture so she and the llama could stare at each other elegantly all day long. We got ourselves so worked up that I scoured Craig’s List that day searching for the perfect llama. (Recall that we did not have a farm yet, but that seemed to be a minor technicality.)
Flash forward a couple of months, and the farm is secured. Our first (and immediate) addition to the pasture was a trio of miniature goats – all boys – whom we bottle fed and bonded with deeply. With the threat of coyotes and even a mountain lion in our area, you can imagine my thrill when I learned that llamas make excellent livestock guardians. As though I needed yet another reason to find myself a llama. Well, it was settled then.
And then God answered my prayers.
My llama friend (as I still affectionately refer to her) called me to invite me to a castration party. Yes, you read that right: a castration party. In my new community, young ladies don’t have American Girl parties…they have llama castration parties. No kidding. Fascinating, really. Imagine a half-dozen girls flocking around a patient, sage country vet as part of their 4H project, learning about veterinary surgery by assisting in the removal of man parts. Empowering, don’t you think?
It felt like a chapter from a James Herriot book. I think I enjoyed telling people I was going to a castration party almost as much as I enjoyed the party itself. I brought my own 14-year-old daughter, and to make things interesting, my 16-year-old son. There was squirming, yes. But it was fantastic. Not in a vengeful way, but in straightforward, country-decisive, “a-girl’s-gotta-do-what-a-girl’s-gotta-do” sort of way. “The balls have got to GO!” someone must have said. And it was done. I love that about farms. Git ‘er done.
The reason my friend invited me was that her llama friend, a local llama breeder, was “thinning her herd”, and had a mother and daughter pair of adult bay llamas she was willing to give to a good home. She was hauling them to the party for us to meet. A mother daughter pair. It was meant to be. Mom and I could each have our own llama. And when the kids and I went to the trailer to meet them after the castration (and the sawing off of their fighting teeth, which is another story), we fell in love immediately. They were everything llamas should be. Elegant, dignified, tall, woolly and flirtingly skittish. Like a thoroughbred dancing to the starting gates.
So I touched my first (and second) llama, and immediately took them home. A llama owner. So much to Google, so little time.
“Tink” was the younger one. She was the daughter. “Celine” was the momma llama. They were almost identical and equally lovely. The breeder was delicate in pointing out that Tink tended to “overgraze”. This only strengthened my bond with her because I tend to do the same thing. The breeder explained that different animals have different metabolism, just like us, and that she wasn’t able to figure out how to get Tink slimmed down, but I should be careful not to overfeed her.
Tink was fat. And like most fat girls, she looked perfectly proportioned on her own. It wasn’t until you put her next to her skinny counterpart that you noticed she was fat. (I don’t have any fat friends, although I know I would look much better if I could find some.) Turns out, Tink and Celine had a chilly relationship. Tink was a teenager in llama years, so we hoped it was a passing phase. They gave each other space. We learned how to catch them, took them on walks, and told all of our friends, “Come over and see our llamas. Yeah, we have llamas. Two of ’em. Yeah.” So cool.
We’d had the llamas for a couple of months and the pasture had adjusted well. The llamas were conscientious guardians of “the boys”, sounding odd alarms (like moans and clucks) whenever they sensed danger. They were impressive, albeit aloof women-of-the-field, who effectively pointed out the direction of escaped goats by hanging their necks over the fence in the direction of the wayward boys until we got the hint and fetched them. Helpful, calm, goat governesses.
One night when John was out of town, I stopped at the grocery store on my way home from work. We had a big group of kids coming to paint our fences as a fundraiser the next morning, and I needed to stock a cooler with ice and water to prevent heat stroke in the 100+ degree weather. I’d called our kids at home to ask what they wanted for dinner, and the kids were calling me back every 5 minutes to add to their order. “Oh, could you grab some ice cream?” And “Could you get us a movie, too?” I was losing my patience with the numerous requests when I finally got to the checkout line and my cell phone rang for the 5th time.
This time it was my daughter, but her tone was distinctly panicked. “Mom! You have to come right home! It’s an emergency!” My face turned ashen and the checkout girl noticed the change immediately.
“What is it? What’s happened?”
“There is a something coming out of the llama’s butt!”
“There is SOMEthing coming OUT, Mom! I think it’s a BABY! Oh my GOD!”
“WHAT? A baby? Are you sure it’s a baby?”
“YES! There’s a leg sticking out and a long neck and there is another leg but it’s bent…What am I supposed to DO?”
“OH my GOD! I didn’t even know she was pregnant! OK, well stay calm and I will call somebody to help. Just leave her alone and don’t upset her.”
The checkout girl and the girl bagging my groceries had fallen silent and were working feverishly to get me on my way. Their eyes were wide and they were watching me carefully as I managed my daughter on the phone. I hung up and turned to swipe my card, when the checkout girl said cautiously, “We can take care of all of this stuff if you need to go.”
“Oh, no, it’s OK. I need two 40 pound bags of ice please.”
I noticed the two exchanged a puzzled look and I suddenly realized what they must be thinking.
“Oh my GOSH! It’s a llama! My llama is having a baby and we weren’t expecting it!”
The two burst into relieved smiles. “OHHHHH! We thought it was a little weird that you were still thinking about ice with a baby on the way! It’s a llama! Oh thank God!”
So with 80 pounds of ice loaded, I sped off to the farm and placed a call to my llama friend to ask her advice. She offered to call the vet and assured me she and her husband would be right over.
When I arrived home, I found a heartbreaking scene in the pasture. With her mother and her goat-charges circling nearby, Tink was sitting upright, catching her breath between efforts to move her infant out into the world. It was evident she had been working on this delivery for many hours, because her sweet baby – called a “cria” – was covered with remnants of a membrane that had fully dried and begun to crack and break away. There was no sign of life in the cria, and Tink seemed to sense the loss. She struggled at turns but stayed calm and still even at my approach, showing me she was truly exhausted and in need of help.
My friend and her husband arrived, and joined me to survey the scene. “Thank goodness you’re here! You’ve had llamas for 10 years, and I am only on month two. This is way over my head…”
“Well, I hate to tell you, Kristi, but in 10 years of keeping llamas, I have never had a female. I’ve never seen this before.”
“My husband has delivered calves, though!”
That’s something. A four-legged-baby is a four-legged-baby, right?
So we pulled and repositioned and pulled, and rearranged limbs, and finally, the beautiful, fully developed female bay cria – a spittin’ image of her mom and grandma – arrived on the grassy ground. Still and quiet. Giant llama eyes that would never open. Beautiful long llama lashes made her face so very feminine. So, so sad.
And there was more work to do. The vet on the phone with us now was describing the process of delivering the afterbirth and assessing the condition of it. It was about 7pm, and the vet assured us the afterbirth would probably come in the next six hours. OK. I am prepared to camp out in the pasture in the dark. I can do that. But what shall we do with the sweet cria? She was 30 pounds of neck and legs and this would not be easy.
“If you bury ‘er, it’ll need to be a deep hole.” my friend’s husband offered. “Coyotes’ll get ‘er if she’s not three feet under and that’s a deep hole.”
My tractor skills were undeveloped and John wasn’t home.
“I don’t think I can manage a hole that size. What do farmers do?”
“Truth is, you best put ‘er in the field tonight and let the coyotes take ‘er. You wanna get her away from the house so the critters don’t start coming around.”
OK. That’s an answer. I can do that. That’s what farmers do. I am a farmer now.
We were relieved to see the arrival of the intact, warm sack that had nourished that sweet baby for the year-long gestation period. Gingerly balancing it to avoid breaking the delicate membrane, I fumbled around in the now-dark pasture to put some distance between Tink and all the evidence of this tragedy.
Wow. I was still in my work pants, pumps and jacket. Just 2 hours ago I was sitting an office interviewing a candidate for a Finance Analyst job. Now here I am dragging a 30 pound animal carcass into a dark field with the wobbly afterbirth balanced in my arm. Exotic. And heartbreaking.
Poor Tink. She rose and walked a bit. We led her to the trough to encourage her to drink. She didn’t seem in the mood and eventually chose a spot to lie down and rest. The goats tucked themselves nearby. Grandma Celine stood watch. There was a distinct sadness among the whole crew. Maybe it was the darkness and the natural peace they enjoy at night, but I believe it was more. I believe we all felt the loss. We missed the anticipation of the arrival of that beautiful cria, but we caught up quickly.
Tink improved the next day. She drank and grazed. She moved about the pasture with the other animals and we hoped she would recover quickly. I visited Tink in the morning and at night to assess her progress. She seemed to be recovering well. A week to the day after that fateful night, I visited Tink in the pasture before I left for work, and she didn’t stand to greet me as she had every other morning. As I got closer, I noticed she was trembling. I ran back to the house to get my cell phone and told John, “Something’s wrong with Tink. I’m calling the vet.”
I ran back out to the pasture and sat on the ground next to Tink and dialed the vet. Tink’s ears laid back and she was holding her head at an odd angle. Not the dignified, erect posture of a healthy llama, but a strained, worried angle. My heart beat faster I described what was happening to the worried nurse I had on the line. Five minutes passed as the nurse worked on reaching the vet, keeping me on the line as I described the new, moaning sounds Tink began to make. She laid her head in my lap and I stroked her and talked to her to try to comfort her. I began to feel overwhelmed as I began to realize the moment was approaching. Long, slow breaths and giant eyes closing.
“We lost her.” I moaned to the nurse who was crying on the line. Tink was gone.
“Oh, I am so sorry.” It was as though the nurse was crouched in the pasture next to me.
Oh, did I cry. My sweet Tink. Truth be told, she wasn’t exactly “sweet”. But she was ours. And she was doing the best she could. And she was going to be a mother and no one knew it. She had to listen to comments about “overgrazing”, all the while blooming into a full pregnancy. She managed to nurture a full term cria in spite of the breeder’s efforts to get her weight under control. If we had known, we’d have had a 24-hour watch on Tink. Hell, we probably would have thrown her a shower because we would have been crazy excited about the arrival. We would have taken pictures of Mom and me and Liza next to our three generations of “llama women”. But we didn’t know.