People who keep llamas as pets will readily offer you any number of reasons: llamas are quiet, they're gentle and affectionate, they don't take a lot of work to maintain and, for outdoor animals, they don't smell bad.
But it's more than that. Look at a llama and it'll gaze back sympathetically with those huge, beguiling eyes, ears perked up, looking for all the world like it understands you and really cares about your problems.
Most people start with two or three, since llamas are sociable and don't like to live alone. But as Katrina Capasso, a llama owner in Ballston Spa, N.Y., discovered, "They're like potato chips." It's hard to stop at just a few. Capasso, 49, received her first llama as a wedding gift from her husband, Gary, in 1990. Now she has 55.
That irresistible quality may explain their popularity as pets. A few decades ago, they were almost unheard-of in this country. Today there are about 115,000 in the United States, according to the International Lama Registry, which keeps genealogical records.
The population of alpacas, their smaller cousins bred primarily for fleece, is about the same, according to the Department of Agriculture. But alpacas are beasts of burden and have a very different gestalt. Do not get a llama owner started on alpacas.
"Llamas are like dogs: they are your friend," said Pam Fink, who keeps 13 pet llamas at her home in Georgia and is expecting three babies in August. "Alpacas are more like sheep. They're not going to play with you, not going to be your friend." (Note: alpaca people might take issue with this.)
Llama breeders have been known to pay as much as $30,000 for a top-quality male, but a regular pet llama can be had for less than $500. And given the demand for llama fiber, which is as highly prized by knitters as alpaca, you might be able to earn some of that back.
That is, unless you live in Manhattan, or anywhere else that isn't zoned for livestock. But if you're fortunate enough to live in the right place and you have some outdoor space, as Fink's husband, Jerry, will tell you, "Llamas will steal your heart."
He and his wife like to spend summer nights sitting on their screened porch, watching the llamas graze. "I refer to them as our walking lawn ornaments," he said fondly.
Jerry Fink, 65, a businessman, and his wife, also 65, and a former mortgage broker, got their first three llamas a decade ago. And Pam Fink soon found her calling as a breeder of miniature llamas, a distinct breed about three-quarters the size of standard llamas.
In the Finks' immaculate suburban house, framed portraits of their pet llamas hang over the fireplace alongside photos of their grandchildren. Another wall is covered with ribbons won at llama shows, which are similar to dog shows.
On a recent spring morning, Pam Fink showed a visitor around the house and then gave a tour of the barns where the llamas live, offering a running commentary on their quirks and personalities.
"This is Dolly," she said, filling the brown mini-llama's bucket with minerals. "She likes to eat in front of the window." (Llamas are picky eaters and prefer hay, grass, minerals and grain; some owners say they cost about the same to feed as big dogs.)
Cheerio, she said, moving on to a miniature female with a white-and-brown coat, is timid with strangers, "but will follow me around like a puppy dog."
As she spoke, Fink touched each of the llamas, hugging their faces, lifting their feet and fluffing the fur on their haunches, her way of making sure that all of them have daily human contact. "I require my animals to be well mannered," she said. "They have to walk on a lead, they have to be nice to people, they have to behave."
Llamas are strictly outdoor animals, and males must be kept separate from females, otherwise they will mate nonstop. In other matters, however, they are very restrained. Owners must check them carefully to see if they are hurt or sick, because llamas are so stoic they seldom complain. If they don't have health problems, they can live for decades.
And those stories about spitting, most llama owners will tell you, are exaggerated: llamas will spit at other llamas to establish social hierarchies, but unless they feel threatened, they rarely spit at people.
"Llamas are intelligent, and they're very curious," Pam Fink said. "They're standoffish at first, and then they're in your face."
After feeding and greeting all her llamas, Fink likes to take one for a walk in the woods.
"They're just so calming and enjoyable to be around," she said. "You can tell them all your secrets and your problems. They know all my likes and dislikes, when I'm mad at my husband and when I'm happy with my husband. They don't tell anyone, they just listen."
Most people associate llamas with Peru, where they haul packs up the Andes and guard flocks of sheep. In the United States, some llamas do similar kinds of work.
But those that are kept as pets are often treated like members of the family: petted, shampooed and groomed, shuttled to llama shows and trotted out to schools, hospitals and nursing homes, where they spread their special brand of Zen. Until recently, llamas were hard to come by here. For most of the 20th century, it was illegal to import them because of foot-and-mouth disease; the largest herds were at William Randolph Hearst's estate in San Simeon, Calif., and the Catskill Game Farm in New York.
That all changed in the 1970s, when Kay and Richard Patterson, a couple who bred Arabian horses, began a llama breeding program on their ranch in Oregon. Among the offspring of that program were notable llamas like Dr. Doolittle, whose heavy white fleece produced 17 pounds of fiber when shorn and whose descendants are prizewinning llamas today. His name is still spoken with reverence in the llama community.
As Richard Snyder, a retired corporate executive from Manhattan, said, "He left an indelible mark."
Snyder, 73, bought a 70-acre farm in Milford, Pa., in 1985, as a country retreat. A few years later, he got three llamas. Now he has nearly 60. He not only breeds them, but also uses their manure to fertilize his vegetable gardens, which supply the restaurants at the Hotel Fauchère, a boutique hotel he owns nearby.
"I can't envision life without llamas," he said.
Llamas are generally quiet, but that doesn't mean they don't make any noise. When a male is interested in a female, or mating, he makes a noise that sounds a bit like gargling. (Llama people call this an orgle.) Female llamas make clicking sounds. And all llamas hum; in particular, mothers hum to their babies, which hum back.
It's part of the bonding process, said Susan Morgan, 54, a home-care nurse in Hastings, Minn., who breeds miniature llamas with her husband, George, 56, an engineer. "They recognize each other by the hum," she said. Two months after one of her females gave birth, Morgan said, they were still humming at each other.
Her husband said he gets a lot of questions about it. "People come up to me and ask, 'Why are the llamas humming?'" he said. "And I'll say, 'Because they don't know the words.'"
It's a curious behavior, but one that most people find soothing.
Pam Fink has a cat and two Great Pyrenees dogs, but it is her llamas, she said, that offer her the most comfort. "When I can't take people anymore, I go out to the barn," she said. "I can just feel my heart rate go down. They have all of the good things about dogs, but none of the hyperness."
So it should come as no surprise that some llamas dispense that comfort professionally. Ambassador llamas visit schools, churches and libraries; therapy llamas spend time with the sick, elderly and disabled. And at some llama shows, there is a category called public relations, in which a llama's ability to offer solace is evaluated through tasks like lowering its head to greet someone in a wheelchair.
That capacity, some believe, stems from an innate intuition. Robin H. Turell, 55, a former special education teacher who breeds llamas in Cypress, Texas, said: "Llamas have an amazing sixth sense. They are very good with people with special needs."
Capasso, the llama owner in Ballston Spa, N.Y., has had similar experiences. She occasionally makes public appearances with the friendliest of her 55 llamas. (Only 35 are her pets, she is quick to note; the others she boards for local families.)
Recently, she brought three to the Saratoga Springs library, where they were greeted by about 100 children and parents. Hope, Cinnamon and Ben, three of her best behaved llamas, stood calmly, without getting spooked, as the crowd milled around them.
Hope "is really, really calm and good with kids, or just anyone," Capasso said, while Cinnamon is "very regal" and "will actually take a carrot out of a person's mouth even if he doesn't know them."
And Ben? "Ben is one of the best behaved llamas I've ever met," Capasso said. He is also big on humming.
"He hummed a lot at the library," she said.
The children must have thought he was happy. Llamas often give that impression. But as Capasso said, "That probably meant he was tired and wanted to go home."