VENETIA, Pa. — Douglas Danforth, chairman of the board of Westinghouse Corp., took his business sense and a big wallet to a recent auction that lured 500 of the nation's top llama breeders to Nebraska.
Danforth plunked down $70,000 for the prize of the bidding, a cocoa-colored, year-old sire named Kid Curry. He also paid $40,000 for a reserve grand champion and purchased three females to add to his herd of 50 llamas.
"That's real riverboat gambling," the 64-year-old Danforth said following this spring's llama auction in Tecumseh, Neb. "I came home broke. This thing has taken off to the extent that you wouldn't believe what people are paying for these animals. It's the 'in' pet."
The woolly, long-necked, sure-footed, humpless cousin of the camel may be a beast of burden in its natural habitat of South America. But it's an exotic, offbeat, pampered pet in the United States, where an outbreak of llamamania is spreading.
Llamas are prized by professional breeders, investors, commercial pack trip operators, wool mills and pet lovers. Llama owners include actress Kim Novak and singer Michael Jackson. A llama paternity suit has even been heard by Judge Joseph Wapner on "The People's Court."
Danforth, one of about 70 serious llama breeders in the country, may not have to wait long to get his money back. He has raised llamas for 10 years on his 120-acre farm about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh.
Each female fetches $8,000 to $10,000, and an average male sells for $500 to $1,500. The stud fee for Danforth's prized males is $1,500 or higher.
A llama's luxurious wool also sells for about $30 a pound, compared to about $1 for sheep's wool. But Danforth concentrates on llama breeding.
"It's a business," says Danforth, who accepted kisses from two of his pets while touring his pastures in black wing tips, pin-striped suit and black fedora.
The Westinghouse executive isn't the only one who sees profit in the llama trade.
"It's booming. It's absolutely booming. They're a tremendous investment opportunity," says Nancy Calhoun of Cornwall, Conn., a herd management consultant who answers an East Coast hot line for the Greater Appalachian Llama Assn.
"It's very much a seller's market," added Calhoun, who left a 9-to-5 job in the 1970s to raise llamas. "The price keeps going steadily up." A few years ago, we estimated it would take 20 years to satisfy the demand. That has increased tremendously."
Numbers Have Increased
The International Llama Assn., based in Denver, has 915 members who own 11,500 llamas. When the ILA was founded five years ago, it had 280 owners and 3,000 animals. The ILA provides information about care and feeding to its owners.
Llamas are appreciating in value because almost all growth must come from domestic stock. There are about 3.5 million llamas in South America, but imports are prohibitively expensive because of elaborate screening for hoof-and-mouth disease.
Most of the U.S. llamas are descended from a herd imported about 50 years ago by publisher William Randolph Hearst.
The largest herd in North America is owned by Dick and Kay Patterson, who have 500 llamas on their breeding ranch in Sisters, Ore. About 200 offspring are born each year.
"You become a llamaholic. You always want one more llama to add to your collection," Kay Patterson said in a telephone interview. "We've always had a waiting list for sales. Llamas are by far the easiest to care for among domestic livestock. They're really neat."
Graceful, Stoic Animal
Owners develop affection for their llamas, which have big dark eyes and long, curly eyelashes. They're described as graceful, regal, stoic, peaceful, clean and easily housebroken. They run and jump and play like children.
A troubled llama can spit six feet and may kick and bite if they are overloaded or abused. But owners say it's rare for a llama to be upset.
"They're so peaceful. Any idiot can take care of a llama," said Sue Rolfing of Columbia Falls, Mont., spokeswoman for the llama association. "They're very relaxing. Watching llamas is the equivalent of drinking a glass of wine or a martini.
"The entire Inca civilization existed without the wheel. They didn't need the wheel. They had llamas. They moved armies, goods, people, food."
In the Andes Mountains, Indians still eat llama meat, drink llama milk, use the hide for clothing and burn the dung as fuel.
Used by Hikers
Rolfing and her husband use them as beasts of burden. They operate pack trips in Glacier National Park where hikers load a 400-pound llama with 100 pounds of gear for treks up and down steep mountain trails.
"It's like being followed by a 400-pound pussycat," she said. "They get an incredible grip. They negotiate terrain other animals find difficult."
Jan Faiks of Anchorage is a state senator who campaigns door to door with her llama. Other llamas pull carts, give rides to kids or just roam around.
Alex Ewing of Millbrook, N.Y., sees his herd of 30 llamas as a cash crop to augment his Hereford cattle business.
"It's hard to make money in farming," Ewing said. "This is a new market with new customers. It's another crop. It's another product. It's like raising corn with soybeans," Ewing said.
"They're fascinating animals. They get under your skin. You get very attached to them. People ask what are they good for. Well, what's a piece of antique furniture good for? It's nice to look at. What's a piece of music good for except to listen to?"