Popular since the 1970's, the llama and the alpaca are two of the most versatile and delightful companion animals in North America. They are members of the Camelid family, genus Lama, which originated in the Mississippi River area about 10 million years ago. Four of the six camelids live in South America - Llamas, Alpacas, Guanacos and Vicunas. In this document, "lamas" refers to both llamas and alpacas.

Lamas have been domesticated and selectively bred for their gentle nature and fine fiber for about 6,000 years. The llama was developed as a pack animal from the guanaco, while the alpaca, a fiber producer, came from the vicuna. Today we must admire the selective breeding capability of the Incas. Llamas and alpacas are the largest of the South American Camelid species. Llamas weigh from 250 to 450 pounds and stand 40" to 48" at the shoulder. Alpacas weigh 125 to 200 pounds and stand about 30" to 36". Both species are very intelligent, strikingly beautiful and carry themselves with serene pride. They mature at about three years of age and live up to 25 years.

Because of a leathery pad on the bottom of each two toed foot and a pacing gait, lamas are sure footed, low impact animals on any terrain. Given the "fight or flight" enigma, they are flight oriented. Communication is a series of hums and clicks, with subtle ear, tail and body movements to express affection, dominance, submission or anger. They have an "alarm call", which sounds like a horse whinny, to alert other lamas to perceived danger.

Their nature is curious, gentle and somewhat aloof. Their intelligence, willingness and self respect make training a joy.

Lamas are used as pack, fiber, companion and straw animals, or purchased for breeding stock as well as the pleasure of ownership. They are considered domestic livestock by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The fiber from lamas, especially alpacas, is exquisite. Llamas are used to pack everything from camping gear to trash from the roadside, and gelded adult males make excellent guard animals for sheep, goats and cattle. They are used as therapy animals for the ill, elderly and handicapped. It is a real delight to take your llamas to a nursing home or school. Although they are not riding animals, llamas can be trained to pull carts and wagons, or skiers. They also make wonderful 4-H projects. Because they are so adaptable and responsive, easy to care for and intelligent, there are llamas or alpacas to fit almost every individual's needs and interests.

Llamas and alpacas can travel in many kinds of vehicles - cars, vans, pickup trucks with high caps, and trailers. They usually "kush" (lie down) once the vehicle begins to move. Tying is not recommended and can be dangerous.

Shelter and containment needs are simple. A four foot high, closely woven or electrified wire {not barbed wire!) fence is recommended. An open three-sided shelter or shed to protect from intense weather and sun is all that is needed, even in New England winters. Llamas and alpacas prefer the freedom of a run-in barn rather than a closed stall. A sand pile for rolling and play makes a happy herd. Although their normal day in the South American mountains would include roaming miles in search of food, they adapt readily to smaller acreage. One acre can hold up to three animals. They are social creatures and thrive best in the company of other llamas. It is necessary to have a minimum of two llamas. Behavior aberrations are seen in animals kept singly, or bottle-raised babies deprived of normal herd interaction

A single lama will consume about one bale of first-cut grass hay 6-10% protein per week, plus a pound a day of lama grain. Vitamin and mineral supplements are available as required. Fresh, clean water at all times is essential. In general, lamas cost less to feed and provide basic care for than does a large dog. They are browsers and will eat many types of plants, brush and branches. There are a few poisonous plants, such as wilted cherry leaves and rhododendron, which must be eradicated in their areas. (GALA produces an informative booklet on poisonous plants.) Rabies and clostridia vaccinations are given annually, and an appropriate deworming, weighing and toenail trimming schedule should be established. Most owners are assuring hot weather comfort by shearing in the spring, to prevent heat stress, and by regular, thorough brushing to harvest fiber and promote healthy skin and beautiful fleece.

Female lamas are induced ovulators (ovulation is induced by the act of breeding) and therefore can be bred to give birth at any time of year. Gestation is 11 to 12 months. Births are usually in daylight hours. Mothers (dams) often deliver standing and the 20-30 pound baby llama (cria) is running with the herd within an hour or two. Alpaca crias weigh between 11-18 pounds. Crias grow at the rate of one half to one pound per day usually doubling their birth weight I within 30 - 40 days. Weaning is best done by the dam and takes place around six to eight months of age.

It is unlikely the Inca civilization would have thrived without the fleece from their long domesticated and highly revered "Camels of the Clouds". The fiber of the endangered vicuna is only 6 to 10 microns in diameter, while the finest of sheep, Merino, is 12 to 20 microns. A micron is one millionth of a meter. Alpaca and llama fiber runs from 16 to 80 microns. Their "wool" has been in use for over 5,000 years according to archeological findings in South America. The Inca weavings were amazingly fine, occasionally having over 200 threads per inch!

Today the fiber is used primarily by artisans who desire unique and excellent material. Lama "wool" is often felted into hats, gloves, vests and boots. The spun yarn can be knitted or woven into anything from garments to wall hangings or blankets. The fiber is medulated, or partially hollow; trapped air adds significantly to its insulating qualities. Alpaca fiber has been tested for strength and is about 3.5 times stronger than human hair. Although we call the fiber wool, it is technically hair due to its' cellular composition.

Llamas are often two coated animals, having both longer, protective guard hairs and an underlying "down" coat. Many owners groom their animals to collect wool during the time they are shedding, usually annually, spring or fall. In this manner, the coarser, more prickly guard hair is not collected as it would be if sheared . Raw llama and alpaca fiber contains only 7% lanolin, about one quarter that of sheeps'' wool. This eliminates the "scouring" or detergent cleaning step needed in preparation for spinning. Natural colors of llama and alpaca fiber are white, black, red, silver, caramel, coffee, fawn, gray, and piebald or pinto.

This information was provided by the Greater Appalachian Lama Association.