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COLUMN ONE

Llamas Try an Image Make-Over

Once in vogue, the animals no longer are such hot commodities. Owners hope to overcome the stigma created by the creatures' spitting image and build up a market based on their wool.

September 28, 1997|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Llama folks are just a teeny bit paranoid about spit.

It's not, you understand, that they fear they'll get spat on. No, their worry is this: that when Americans think llama, they will also think spit.

This is not an irrational fear. Because the fact is, llamas do spit. To be fair, though, they usually aim at other llamas. It's a dominance thing. A way to call first dibs on the hay. And only if provoked will they propel their phlegm at people.

Yet such details tend to be lost on the masses.

That is why llama folks are extraordinarily sensitive about the subject--especially now, when they are struggling to forge a market for clothing made from llama wool. It seems some high-fashion designers just aren't interested in scarfs and shawls and sweaters made from an animal that spits.

"There's a stigma about llamas," said Virginia Vogel, a Vermont rancher and garment designer who is peddling $100 llama fleece vests. "They spit, they're beasts of burden--that's what people say. We have to break the stigma."

In fact, llamas have come a long way from the popular image of gallumphing pack animals with scratchy coats.

In their native South America, llamas carry salt, grain and crops through the Andes; they are valued for strength and durability. And, yes, their coats are rough. In North America, however, llamas are prized as aristocratic show animals--and bred to have soft, flowing wool.

Though llamas have been raised in the United States for years--starting, legend has it, at William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon estate--they vaulted to super-chic status only in the mid-1980s.

Celebrities such as singer Michael Jackson and actress Kim Novak began collecting them as pets. A Nebraska livestock breeder spread the craze with a much-publicized auction of imported Bolivian llamas. The Wall Street Journal followed up in 1984 with a trend-in-the-making article that teased: "Some Call Llamas the Cat's Pajamas, But Will They Sell?"

The answer, most emphatically, was yes.

In the last 13 years, the llama stock in the United States and Canada has exploded from 7,000 to more than 118,000, with the heaviest concentrations in California and Oregon. For a time, there were even waiting lists to buy llamas.

"They just kept getting more glamorous and more glamorous," said Jo Ann McGrath, editor of Llama Life magazine. "A lot of wealthy people bought them."

They bought them not as pets, but as investments--like artwork, only better, because they multiplied.

Every year, a mama llama could be counted on to give birth. The baby, or cria, could fetch $6,000 or more before it was even weaned. Mature females with a breeding history sold for $40,000 to $60,000 or more, said Sandy Chapman, general manager of the Denver-based International Llama Assn.

Champion males with thick woolly coats, sterling pedigrees and first-place show ribbons cost even more. As the llama frenzy intensified, some males went for fabulous sums--$190,000 or more. Owners could make back their investment by charging stud fees of up to $5,000.

To push up prices even more, llama ranchers mated the most poofy animals together to produce ever-more-cuddly offspring--the kind most honored at shows. Thanks to this selective breeding, many of today's llamas have silky coats almost as fine as cashmere.

"You put a llama scarf around your neck and it's just as soft as feathers," Granada Hills llama breeder Rebecca Lowe boasts.

Even with these advances, American llama ranchers did little to promote their animals' wool until recently. They had no need. The market for llamas was so hot they could make money just by breeding and selling the babies.

"The price of llamas was so astoundingly high for a while that a lot of people didn't care about developing an end use for them. They were investing in them only to crank out more llamas," said Sandy Mubarak, who raises 80 llamas on her Poway ranch.

Then, inevitably, the bubble burst.

In the early 1990s "we had, as the stock market would say, a correction," Chapman said.

The cause was clear: All that frenzied breeding had produced so many llamas that supply outstripped demand. Prices flopped. Llamas that had once sold for six-figure sums were lucky to fetch $40,000. And ranchers with llamas on their hands began looking for other ways to make money.

As Maryan Baker, president of the Llama Assn. of Southern California, put it: "They're cute and I love 'em, but it's nice to have something profitable off them."

Some enterprising souls collected llama dung--which is remarkably compact and stench-free--and marketed it for fertilizer as "llamanure." Others moved into "llamabilia," selling llama knickknacks like furry stuffed toys. A few set up llama-themed bed and breakfasts and began offering llama treks, in which families could load their gear on llamas and guide the animals on hikes.

But the most promising industry seemed to be fiber.

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