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Llama Mia! : Prized Pets of Breeders and Backpackers, Camel's Cousins Find Camelot in County

February 05, 1988|MIKE SPENCER | Times Staff Writer

After an absence of a million years, give or take a millennium or two, llamas are coming home--and with the welcome they are getting, particularly in Orange County, they must be wondering why they ever left in the first place.

Of course, when their ancestors disappeared from the North American scene at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, Orange Park Acres hadn't quite been developed and Dee and Roger Kirkham weren't even gleams in whatever passed for eyes among the creatures emerging from the primordial ooze.

After the last ice age, llamas pretty much settled down in the Andes of South America, only to suffer such indignities as being sacrificed to Incan gods, shorn of their wool (sometimes even skinned) and generally reduced to the level of the lowly donkey--pressed into service by the millions in the construction of railroads and the operation of tin mines.

Beasts of burden is what they became, guaranteed nothing like their standing at the Kirkhams' two-acre Vintage Llamas farm in Orange Park Acres, where they are petted and pampered, hand-fed (or even bottle-fed when necessary), combed and brushed, loved and respected and generally treated as members of the family.

"They are members of my family," said Dee Kirkham, incredulous that anyone would think otherwise. "I love them and they love us."

At Vintage, the only llama breeding farm in the county, the llamas' natural pride has been restored as they have become a sensation across the nation among ranchers, livestock breeders, backpackers and hunters. Because, with one exception, it has been illegal to import them since the great hoof-and-mouth disease epidemic of the late 1920s, they are in great demand and in very short supply (almost all of the estimated 17,000 llamas in the United States today are direct descendants of a small herd the late publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst kept on the grounds of his San Simeon castle).

And, about the only indignity they suffer these days is that their name has been mispronounced for so long by North Americans that the wrong pronunciation has become the accepted one. Just for the record, the double l in llama is like the double l in La Jolla; it has a y sound. A single l lama is a Tibetan monk, but as long as neither the monks nor the animals object, maybe it's best to let sleeping llamas/lamas lie.

Why, one might ask, have they become such a valuable and sought-after commodity? Or, to get crudely to the point, just what good are they anyway?

"They are very warm and very gentle animals," Dee Kirkham said. "They're extremely clean, easy to train, economical to raise; they make great pets, live a long time (about 25 years) and are even good alarm animals (she says their natural clucking, humming sounds take on distinctive tones when there's a strange animal or person on the premises).

"But they're also very useful as pack animals because they're extremely sure-footed and hardy and they don't damage the environment in any way; they eat only the tops of green vegetation in the wild, and their hoofs are so padded that they barely leave a mark on the ground."

Both the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service apparently agree. In several areas of the country the government agencies use llamas for packing trash out of wilderness areas and for carrying tools and material needed by work parties and trail maintenance crews.

They can carry about 100 pounds of weight on their backs nonstop for up to 30 miles in a day and, like their cousin the camel, can literally go weeks without water.

Their wool is also prized because, unlike a sheep, theirs doesn't contain lanolin or any other oil, so it stays--and smells--clean and produces considerably more spun yarn pound for pound. It's also non-allergenic.

With their moccasin-like feet, many llamas are even allowed to wander in and out of their owners' houses. At a recent meeting of the Southern California Llama Assn. (well, of course, there's an association--and even a lush, four-color magazine) at Vintage farm, a visitor sitting in the living room suddenly found two llama kids nuzzling him for attention.

Don't we worry about . . . well, you know . . . in the house? No, said Dee with a laugh. "While you can't housebreak llamas as you would a dog or cat, they are very precise about where they do that. " It seems they are gifted with what is called "manure-piling behavior," meaning that their droppings, which resemble deer pellets, are always left in the same place in a pasture. If the call comes while they are in the house or barn or wherever, they will excuse themselves and head for their particular pile. And, because it is high in nitrogen, it makes good fertilizer; it can, the experts say, be applied directly to gardens without any harm to plants.

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