After a heart attack left him clinically dead for four minutes, Jim Chapman woke up and decided to buy llamas.
He wanted to repay God for letting him live by transforming his 5-acre yard into a llama Eden. Disabled children and old peple would tour the sylvan grounds, he imagined, shuttled through in a Rolls-Royce golf cart.
Three years, 10 llamas and jungles of landscaping later, the dream is nearing completion.
"God's been so good to us, we wanted to give something back to those less fortunate," said the retired Vista entrepreneur. "That's why we're in it, to share with others."
While transforming their property, Chapman and his wife, Jan, caught a sort of llama fever, joining a fast-growing population of camelid lovers nationwide.
They kiss their llamas on the lips and invite them into the living room at night to watch TV. A quasi-shrine of stuffed toy llamas and llama statuettes rests on a window sill. They subscribe to magazines like Llama Banner, Llamas, the Llama Link and Llama Life. Commanding attention on the kitchen table is a charcoal portrait of their newest llama, a champion female they bought last month for $27,000.
The Chapmans are not alone in their obsession.
On Christmas Day, 1986, as the rest of the world unwrapped video cameras and neckties, Escondido real estate agent Merle Watson presented his wife, Sharon, with a pregnant llama. It changed their lives.
"It was a total surprise and shock. I was excited. I couldn't believe it," Sharon said.
Six months later, the Watsons bought another llama. Then another. And another. There was something addictive, "like potato chips," about the beasts, Sharon said.
Finally, the couple abandoned their real estate careers altogether to concentrate on their herd of 30 llamas, which have a carpeted, air-conditioned trailer and a barn that Sharon cleans before she cleans her house.
"We quit our jobs and are 100% llama people now," said Sharon, now president of the Llama Assn. of Southern California.
Others have wandered into llama ranching from different careers.
Paul Taylor was a dentist in Sebastapol when it happened. He got a llama. Today, he and his wife Sally, who managed the dental office, have a 100-llama ranch in Montana.
"We acquired a llama as a lark and really got hooked--enchanted," Taylor said. "We bailed out of dentistry."
The recession led defense industry veteran Bill Masuen into the peaceful world of llamas. After being laid off in April by General Dynamics, the Bonita engineer decided to break with the past and raise llamas.
Llama owners near and far struggle to explain the animal's attraction, citing their gentle personalities, fluffy, oil-free wool, cat-like curiosity and soothing hum. (A Jackson, Calif., store sells special kazoos so you can hum along with your llama.)
They laud the llama's low-stink droppings and their seeming inability to get fleas or shed. They say llamas eat only a quarter of what a horse eats and cost only about $150 a year to feed.
Owners train llamas to run obstacle courses. They take them on camping trips. They enter them in llama shows, spending up to 70 hours--so the Chapmans say--shampooing, conditioning, blow-drying, trimming toenails and getting every hair in place.
Owners even claim that watching llamas lowers the blood pressure, and that a llama's presence can help revive coma victims. Chapman recommends getting a llama to heal troubled marriages and depression.
"Really, it's a mystic quality that they have," said Virginia Christensen, editor of LANA News, the voice of the Nevada-based Llama Assn. of North America. "You have to be around them to know what they're like. We think everybody should know about them."
"Not to sound too eccentric, but it seems to be their role on the planet to bring down people's blood pressure," said John Mallon of Ramona, who says he may be the only full-time llama consultant in the nation. "You can feel the relaxation come over you as you lean on the fence and watch them."
"I see these animals as a real door-opener for respect between humans," said Sandy Mubarak of Poway, San Diego County's largest llama breeder. "They facilitate communication between people."
Glowing reports aside, llamas do spit. But mostly at each other.
"I just went to a sale where there were 350 llamas, and I didn't see a single one spit," said Bob DalPorto, publisher of Llamas magazine. "I have been hit though. It's not enjoyable."
Despite their spit, llamas are hot.
Experts say the industry took off in the early '80s and is steadily growing as people discover the llama's prowess as a pack animal, companion and wool producer.
Members of the camelid family, which includes guanacos, vicunas and alpacas, llamas are also gaining popularity in 4-H groups and schools, and as therapy tools in hospitals and nursing homes.
"The llama phenomenon is fairly new," DalPorto said. "People thought it would go away, but it didn't."