NEVADA FOCUS: A South American quadruped becomes more popular with many Nevadans

YERINGTON, Nev. - Ten-year-old Danielle Cook timidly clasps the halter of a brown llama that's about twice her size.

''I'm scared,'' Danielle says as she tries to coax the fluffy animal through an obstacle course that includes walking in a wading pool full of plastic balls.

The llama won't budge for the Smith Valley girl. Grown-up Geri Bowers walks up and gives the halter a hard yank. The llama quickly negotiates the pool. The watching crowd of parents and grandparents offer applause.

Llamas are the rage among a segment of Nevada's agricultural set. Horses, cattle and sheep were not enough. They wanted something different.

Five years ago, the Nevada Agricultural Statistics Service counted 21 farms in the state with ''other types'' of animals, generally meaning llamas and alpaca. Today there are 38.

But Marty Owens of the Agricultural Statistics Service counts only farm animals. Countless other residents who do not have farms or ranches keep a pair of llamas on a spare acre or two.

No one knows for sure how many llamas reside in Nevada, but on this sunny day, more than 200 prance around the fields at Carol Harris' Cottonwood Ranch in Mason Valley, about 10 miles south of Yerington.

Every year, Harris holds a llama fun day, a convention of sorts for llama lovers. About 100 llama aficionados from Nevada and California showed up for this year's festivities.

When Harris' husband retired from the aerospace industry in California 10 years ago, they bought a Mason Valley ranch and looked for something unusual to raise. They tried buffalo and yak and eventually found llamas were their favorite.

''Why do we need llamas?'' Minden resident Daphne McMahon asked as she took Roosevelt on a hike. ''To slow down our lives. Besides, they carry your lunch when you go camping.''

Llamas walk just a bit slower than a fit hiker. They are natives of the Andes and are common in Peru and Chile.

In their native lands, llamas carry packs weighing as much as 70 pounds into the mountains. Their wool makes warm hats and sweaters. When they are too old for pack work, the llamas are slaughtered for food.

Carol Dini, another Yerington llama breeder, maintains llamas generally have pleasant temperaments, although they can be stubborn. She gives small children rides and takes the llamas on tours of convalescent hospitals, where they cheer up patients.

''They are easy to keep and very healthy animals,'' Harris said. ''They are generally nonaggressive. They are safe around children, even little bitty ones.''

Such are the reasons that adults give for raising llamas. The kids have their own.

''I just think they are cute,'' 16-year-old Crystal Williss said as she took a spare llama on a mile-long poker run in Harris' fields. ''And they are smart, too.''

''They are nice and soft,'' 10-year-old Lauren Smith added.

Doug Busselman, executive director of the Nevada Farm Bureau, cannot account for the increased popularity of a South American animal whose name couldn't be pronounced by many U.S. residents a decade ago.

''They are more of a hobby farm animal than a commercial animal,'' he said. ''People have gotten into the glamorous animals today, llamas and emus and ostriches. It's a novelty.''

A fully grown llama stands more than 6 feet tall and weighs about 300 pounds. They can be bought for as little as $600.

They are part of the same family as the camel. Llamas' extended family includes South American cousins such as the alpaca and vicuna. Historically, llamas were North American natives. Bones of llamas from 40,000 years ago have been found in a cave near Elko.

Truckee, Calif., schoolteacher Richard Waller is a llama purist. Each summer, he and his wife guide tourists on five-day trips to Table Mountain and Arc Dome and other central Nevada wilderness areas. Llamas carry the food and shelter.

Packing is what they have done in the Andes for 6,000 years, and it is all that Waller expects from his beasts of burden. He won't cut their wool and he definitely won't have them for dinner.

''Llamas do it for you,'' Waller said ''They are pretty agile and have a lot of personality. You can't force them, but you can reason with them. They are thinkers.''

When agitated, the animals make a humming sound that the Spanish call a ''cria.'' It's a plaintive sound like that of a crying baby. They also have been known to spit, albeit generally at other llamas.

Their spitting turns a lot of people off - and it's the sorest subject you can broach with llama lovers.

''I got spit at this morning because I was in the way,'' Harris said. ''Rarely do they spit at anything other than another llama. I can spit, too, but I'm not going to.''


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment