So, now there are a bunch of once “wild” camelids living at the Alpacas of Montana farm, including our dear Lucy Lou. Once James and Sarah knew for sure that the new herd members were healthy they tried to figure out if any of the llamas could be quality breeders, guard or packing animals. None of them were of high enough quality to breed, so they tried to figure out how they could be a part of the family in other ways. They quickly realized that Lucy could be a good packing llama, so she was weaned from her mom and put with the baby alpacas. Weaning the young ones from their parents, gives the animals confidence to exist on their own, which is what they need to be happy--especially while packing, so this is always the first step in training.
James and Sarah have a philosophy that learning to speak the camelid language is the best way to communicate with them. When they halter-break the animals, they have an understanding that they are learning to speak the alpaca / llama language and, vice versa, the animals are learning to speak ours. This communication adds an additional layer of trust to the harmony between animal and human. Sometimes the exchange of languages turns into a new language in and of itself, where everyone knows the rules and there’s a symbiotic trust. This trust allows for us to show the animals how to wear a halter, how to be touched and tied up without thinking they’re in danger. There’s a lot of value in desensitizing the animals to touch so that they can be handled easily in case of an emergency--whether that’s something like a quick evacuation because of a fire or the need for medical attention, it’s crucial to be able to handle the animals without spooking them. Llamas often get a bad reputation, but they are wicked intelligent and so long as you respect them, they will respect you. James has never been spit at by any of his llamas, because of the mutual respect and the commitment to learning their language rather than coercing them into learning ours.
Lucy did great during all of the physical touch aspects of training, so James and Sarah figured she would be so easy to teach how to pack. She made friends with the young alpacas and it was easy to tell she had a lot less anxiety than when she first showed up to the farm. Alpacas can only carry about 20 pounds on their backs, whereas llamas can carry up to ⅓ of their body weight; however, Lucy doesn’t have the proper confirmation to carry a lot of weight--her legs are too short--so she was committed to being a light pack llama.
Our main pack llama is named Homeboy. James and Sarah kept Homeboy near and dear to Lucy’s training so she could see another llama going through the process and could see that there was no harm or danger in any of it. One day, Homeboy had a pack on his back and was tied to a fence. Lucy was tied up next to him and James and Sarah put a light pack on her back and gently cinched it down. Lucy was calm during all of it and Sarah and James exchanged acknowledgement of having done the whole process right.
Sarah grabbed Homeboy to lead the way as they walked through the pasture for a bit. Lucy turned to follow Homeboy, but as she did her pack rubbed against the fence, creating a horrific din that scared the heck out of her. She started bucking and throwing her head around and James realized that they had missed one crucial step in the training process--desensitizing loud noises. Contrary to his golden rule, James didn’t let go of Lucy as she ran down the pasture thrashing and screaming. The rope burned his hands and eventually he had to let her go and just let her outlast the mock mountain lion attack that she was convinced would kill her.
As she was thrusting about, the backpack started to slide off. James had only cinched it down lightly, since they were expecting a slow walk and he didn’t want to alarm her right off the bat. There’s nothing that can be done to help them while they’re in complete survival mode, so they just waited for her to eventually stop. When she calmed down, James and Sarah walked over to her and tied her to the closest fence. Instead of removing the pack, they placed it on her back where it was supposed to be and cinched it down. They didn’t take off the pack immediately because they wanted Lucy to realize it really wasn’t dangerous and wasn’t going to kill her. She and Homeboy stayed tied up to the fence with their packs on until Lucy appeared calmer. Once she seemed at peace again, they led her for about 50 yards in the pasture with the pack on, then tied her up again and removed the pack. They placed the pack next to Lucy on the ground, so she could sniff it and see that it wasn’t in fact a llama killer. After she seemed content with its existence, they let her back into the pasture and put the pack on the side of the fence that she would be near the most, so she could continue to see it as a pack and not a mountain lion.
James and Sarah spent 6 out of 7 days a week getting her used to the pack and walking with it. Eventually, when they felt like she had gained her confidence, they took her and Homeboy for a walk in the woods. Lucy loved it and led for the majority of the time. After spending most of her young life roaming the woods, she was back to her roots and comfortable being in a forest. James and Sarah take their packing llamas on hikes at least once a week. They love spending time with their herd and everyone enjoys being out there.
One time, James and Lucy were out for a hike. She was attached via a bungee rope to his waist and followed in suit behind him as he walked through the woods and meandered along the trail system. James was in his own world, enjoying the serenity of being in the mountains. James walked around a corner to a clearing that overlooks layers of Montana mountains, lakes and winding ravines. He was saturated in the remarkable feeling of solitude. Standing in a spot that he’d stood in hundreds of times before, celebrating a moment of solace. Out of nowhere a head appeared next to and even with his own. A chill went down his spine and he jumped nearly two feet to the side. Lucy Lou had walked up behind him, stood as close as possible and put her head over James’ shoulder so she could take in exactly what he was. Lucy is so quiet and respectful that for the last few miles of their hike James hadn’t even noticed her following along behind him and he had gotten so absorbed in the serenity of Montana that he forgot she was there. When that respect is earned among camelid herds, the animals walk in a straight line, respectfully and quietly behind the leader. If you walk, they walk. If you stop, they stop. When you look at something, they look as well and sometimes the thing you’re both looking at is an unparalleled landscape.
Alpacas of Montana prides itself of having such a strong connection to the natural world and it’s evidenced in the unity of man and llama as they share in unembellished Montana moments. That hike solidified the hard work that James and Sarah put in to ensure mutual respect between themselves and Lucy.
Lucy is now nearing 4 years old and is an integral part of the herd. She and Homeboy remain best buds and they always go together on overnight camping trips. Usually lady llamas only hang out with other ladies, but Lucy loves to be with everyone--the herd wouldn’t be the same without her.