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Llama day is Sept. 18

by Linda Hiller

Have you ever been kissed by a llama? Or hugged one around its neck and had it lean against you so hard you think you’ll tip over?

If you’ve never been “up close and personal” with these South American camel relatives, your chance is coming Saturday at the fourth Walk-a-Llama Open House in Gardnerville.

Dick and Carolyn Denning, owners of Rafter D Llamas, will again open up their 10-acre ranch to anyone who wants to come and see what these ancient herd animals are all about.

“We had to skip doing it last year, but we’re back this year and looking forward to helping acquaint people with llamas,” Dick, 71, said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

The Dennings discovered their “llove for llamas” in 1988 after retiring from teaching public school special education in Bishop, Calif., and taking a Canadian vacation.

Avid outdoor enthusiasts, the couple knew retirement meant they might need some means to help carry heavy gear into the wilderness, and llamas seemed to be just the thing.

“We were aging backpackers and heard llamas were great for backpacking, so on impulse we bought two males in Canada – had to buy a horse trailer up there, too – and brought them to California to a llama trainer,” Carolyn, 59, said. “The trainers trained the llamas and then they trained us.”

Four years later in 1992, the Dennings, who were by then definitely hooked on llamas, brought their herd of 40 animals to the Carson Valley.

The herd at their 10-acre ranch on Orchard Road has grown as high as 70 llamas, and today with 55 animals, these retired teachers have taken on a new career as some of the most enthusiastic, knowledgeable llama-ologists in the area.

“When we got started, there were 15,000 llamas in the United States, and now there are around 200,000,” he said. “They’ve really exploded in popularity.”

Guard llamas. Because he knows what llamas can do for a community, Dick put the word out some time back that the Rafter D llamas could be loaned out to ranchers who might like to try them as guard animals.

“Since around the early 1980s, llamas have been used experimentally as ‘sheep guards,'” he said. “We wanted to test some of our guard llamas and have someone who could help train them, so we loaned one of our llamas, Ditto, to Dave Hussman, who raises sheep, and then he got another one, Licorice.”

“We picked llamas that already liked to chase our dogs,” Carolyn said. “We selected llamas that we assumed would work well as guard llamas.”

Hussman put Ditto and Licorice in with his herd of sheep, and so far it has paid off.

“Near as I can tell we lost 47 lambs to coyotes last year without the llama, and with the llama so far this year we’ve lost four,” Hussman said. “So, I would say that’s a pretty good success story,”

Those lambs saved represent around $3,000 to the long-time Carson Valley farmer. Prior to using the llamas, Hussman used snares, traps and hired help to catch the coyotes when they came after his lambs.

“I don’t know exactly what it is that the llamas do that keeps the coyotes away,” Hussman said, “but, it seems to be working, so we’re going to stick with it.”

“They do have an alarm call that sounds like a 500-pound chicken,” Dick said. “Plus, they hum all the time, which may be a factor.”

Hussman has purchased Ditto from the Dennings, and said that Licorice needs a bit more training.

Llamas as teachers. Another area the Dennings have contributed llamas to is a new animal-assisted therapy program recently started at China Spring Youth Camp, a live-in facility for juvenile boys.

The program is the product of an effort instigated by Nancy Allesee Richmond, a special education teacher at Scarselli Elementary School. So far, there are goats, lambs, calves, and many other animals, including llamas, in the program.

“I’d written the grant for this program at China Spring, but initially I didn’t think about using llamas,” she said. “But I started going to local llama meetings and getting to know about these animals, and then the Dennings were good enough to donate three males – Higgins, Pisaq and Nimbus – to us. They have both volunteered their time to assist the program, also. It’s been wonderful.”

Allesee said the size of the llamas has given the China Spring boys an opportunity to master a large animal. This mastery can result in big self-esteem payoffs, she said.

“The boys enjoy having large animals to care for,” she said. “For every boy there right now, this is their first exposure to llamas, so it’s been interesting for them to learn about the species. Also, llamas are sensitive animals, which means the boys have to watch their actions around them or they might get spit at.”

Allesee said the spitting is probably the boys’ least favorite aspect of llama behavior, but they are learning that spitting is mainly done between male llamas, or if an animal feels threatened or is mistreated.

“Spitting at humans is really pretty rare,” Carolyn said. “It’s mostly the males spitting at each other, but they may spit when touched on their back, which many of them don’t like. Usually they don’t spit and make wonderful pets.”

Allesee said she has already seen a positive change in the boys at China Spring after working with the llamas for only a few months.

“I’m beginning to see the animals really look for ‘their kids,'” she said. “Because they are large animals, we have two boys assigned to one llama. Each team is responsible for feeding, cleaning grooming and exercising the animal the whole time they’re sentenced to be here. Then, when they are released, the boys are required to bond their llama on to a new resident. I’ve seen some kids kiss their llamas, blow in their noses (llamas like that) and hug them. I even had them tell me that when they leave they want to take their llama with them.”

Allesee said the Dennings are teaching the boys how to run their llamas through obstacle courses, and other tricks, and future plans may include using the llamas for packing on a camping trip.

In all, she said, the addition of the llamas has been very valuable to the animal-assisted therapy program.

“These are not bad kids, but good kids who have made bad choices,” Allesee said. “They are receptive and responsive to the unconditional love of animals, and the llamas are unique animals -they’re responsive, inquisitive and they respond to the boys.”

Allesee said the neophyte China Spring pet-assisted therapy program could always use some good volunteers. If you’re interested, call her at 883-0213.

Llope on over. The Walk-a-Llama Open House will be Saturday, Sept. 18, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission is free and all ages are welcome. Food will be for sale, with proceeds going toward the China Spring program.

Llama owners will have their animals on site, and some llamas will be for sale. Prices usually start around $300 for males and $800 for females.

Rafter D Llamas is located at 1600 Orchard Road in Gardnerville, between Buckeye Road and Toler Avenue. For directions or additional information, call 782-2742.

The schedule of events includes:

– Packing demonstrations at 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. There will be a camping area with llamas staked out to illustrate what backpacking with a llama is like.

– Llama shearing demonstrations at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

– Spinning and the uses of llama fiber demonstrations at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

– Ongoing events include training and obstacle courses, where visitors of all ages can take a llama through an obstacle course, videos of llama uses and walking through the herd to get close to them. There are also several baby llamas to view, and Twist and Shout, the Dennings 1995 Western States Regional Grand Champion stud llama, will be on hand for viewing.