This is an article I wrote for the Rocky Mountain Llama & Alpaca Association Journal, published in the Winter 2011-2012 issue.
Marty demonstrating why halter fit is so very important
Marty demonstrating haltering and halter fit with Tom
In January of 2011, I took in four llamas from the Montana Large Animal Sanctuary (MLAS). It’s not that I didn’t have enough to do already, working full time and wrangling a farmyard full of animals (alpacas, llamas, horses, dogs, and barn cats). One can’t rescue every unfortunate case, but this situation spoke to me. And besides, some of the rescues might be good packers, which I wanted to try. I had told my boyfriend some time ago that I would only go backpacking again with a llama!
Aside from losing funding for feed with the impending severe Montana winter coming, the conditions at the MLAS were deplorable. The place was advertised as a haven where animals could live out their natural lives. However, they neglected the “domesticated” part of the equation, and provided no care for animals bred in domestication for thousands of years which depended upon human intervention. One of the llamas we unloaded in Colorado was dragging a train of fleece that was ripping from his skin in places. My guess is that he had not been shorn for 10-15 years. We trimmed the worst of it on the spot.
We named our four new critters Max, Jesse, Joe, & Musty. Once home, we fattened them a bit, and within a couple months my boyfriend and I started taking them for walks, then walks with a pack. But they weren’t getting any gentler, and haltering was a traumatic experience for them and me. I started wearing a riding helmet to protect myself from getting bonked! I had long been interested in learning more of Marty McGee Bennett’s methods, but I didn’t fully grasp the techniques from her book. When she generously offered a clinic discount to rescuers, I decided it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
So, in October, I loaded Max, Joe, and Jesse into my trailer and headed out on the long drive from Fort Collins, CO to Albuquerque, NM. Musty, the fourth rescue and the oldest, is already fairly easy to handle and four llamas would make the trailer too crowded anyway.
Meet the Rescues
Max is very tall, with a suspicious eye. We estimate he is 8-10 years old. He has put up a wall of defense from his past experiences with humans, and my handling wasn’t helping. He does know grain, however, and feeding helps put him at ease.
Jesse, perhaps 6 years old, had clearly NEVER worn a halter or been on a lead before coming to Colorado. He has a pleasant curiosity about him and seems to like his new home.
Joe, maybe 8 years old, is the most stoic. He has a tooth root abscess, yet he has gained so much weight since his Montana days that he’s on the stout side now. I believe he had been handled some, at least enough to learn dodging techniques.
The clinic was hosted by Lynda Liptak and family of Llamas Del Sol in Albuquerque, NM.
Lynda welcomed us warmly after an exhausting drive and late arrival. She had a place ready for the beasties to stretch their legs and graze, and for me to sleep! Thanks Lynda!
The Liptak’s were most gracious, opening their home, keeping us all fed, and supplying Marty, our instructor, with all she needed to run the clinic successfully. Hosting a clinic is no small commitment, but Lynda saw the importance of showing more folk ways to make a partner of their camelids through gentle handling instead of force. We even had a gal travel from Germany to attend!
Lynda’s journey into the world of llamas began in February of 2009, when she heard of an abandoned farm in Colorado with two neglected, mistreated llamas. Despite being camelid novices; a neighbor, her husband, and she loaded them up in a make-shift trailer and brought them home to the North Valley of Albuquerque. In searching for the best way to build a relationship with her new rescues, she found and got started with Bobra Goldsmith’s video on line and since then she was a llama-lady in love with llamas! Then, searching for more material about what goes on inside of a llama – their thoughts, feelings, and attitudes, she stumbled onto Linda Tellington-Jones’ TTouch method, and then Marty McGee Bennett, a devoted and gentle llama trainer who trained with Tellington-Jones on TTouch especially for llamas.
Fast forward to June of 2011 and Lynda finally attended the Camelidynamics Basic Clinic plus Shearing Day given by Marty where she was given hands-on instruction. She wanted to develop these techniques! This, along with noting several llama and alpaca owners having trouble with managing their animals and her wishing to have Marty give her specific insights on her own llama rescues, prompted her to apply to host a Clinic at her ranch.
Clinic take home lessons
What I learned at this clinic not only changed the way I handle my animals, but also how I can choose to handle myself in general. I have a better idea how to respond to a llama’s apprehension and make interacting with me less of a trauma. I am no expert now by any means, but I’ve seen a better way and aim to get there!
One of the first things Marty addressed was a standard by which to choose our actions and behavior. We discussed how we wanted to be perceived by others when handling our animals, and selected defining words: kind, efficient, respectful, confident, etc. By clearly defining what we intend, we filter out lesser behaviors, be it with our animal or human relationships. This is the “Sieve Test.” Our animals read us better than we read ourselves; they know when our attention is elsewhere or our motives impure.
Although intent is important, it won’t go far without the skill to implement it. After all, a llama will always be a llama! We learned methods to catch an animal without trapping, to halter without force, and to lead without dragging.
This reminds me of a quote from my high school days, “You can judge a person’s character by what they will do if they believe they will not be caught” (Sawney Webb). How many times have I been rough with my animals, trying to get nails trimmed or some such thing, when I might never do that if a reporter was watching? That behavior certainly fails the sieve test! And it does not define who I want to be.
Marty taught us some of the TTouch methods she learned from Linda Tellington-Jones. I am truly amazed how this simple, circular touch can calm an animal and make human presence tolerable for them. It even helps my flighty alpacas. The TTouch is not easy to do without practice – it takes a calmness and conscious intent to effect the llama’s relaxation.
Marty working with Max
Carolyn working Jesse's mouth with TTouch. Note loose lead.
Marty showed us a video from the clinic Lynda attended of an alpaca being sheared under no tight restraint, and with electric shears, no less! This particular alpaca, Drasina, was given to Marty as a problem case, and was always the last to be shorn because she made such a fuss. Given a new approach of respectful treatment and conditions that she must have appreciated, she stood quietly in a three-sided panel enclosure with Marty and Lynda at her head feeding her periodically. This was the first shearing day that Marty had tried shearing alpacas standing up without bracelets and it was a huge success. You just never know until you try.
Often the errors that we made arose out of rushing, trapping, forcing, or just not seeing/reading the llama’s body language quite right. Sensitivity to the llama’s perspective is so very useful and to engage them on their terms starts to build their trust. Once we started to understand the freedom of movement they needed and were able to give them freedom of movement and breathing space, cooperation started to emerge. Body language, calmness, and respect for space were key in obtaining cooperation.
The MLAS rescues, as with all my animals, are benefitting from Marty’s training. Thank goodness they are tolerant and forgiving as I muddle though! They see my intent, and are letting me practice to gain the skill I need to develop a partnership with them.
Results with Max, Joe, and Jesse are pending. Life realities being what they are, I don’t work with them as much as I’d like. But they never forget, and they never mind just being llamas between sessions. From a training standpoint, I am fortunate that the MLAS llamas suffered primarily from neglect rather than mishandling. So, for the most part, I’m not dealing with severe, deep-seated fears of human interaction.
See Marty working with Max at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pjrTj7cj6U Sarah Hancock had the foresight to capture this for us.
Special thanks to Lynda Liptak, my sister Gussie, and her husband George for helping me put this article together!