BREAKING DOWN A DIFFICULT BEHAVIORAL ISSUE

By Cathy Spalding
www.gentlespiritllamas.com
www.gentlespiritalpacas.com

 
 

Understanding llama and alpaca behavior can be an interesting puzzle. Certain behaviors or a vast combination of behaviors pose a picture. Sometimes the picture is perfectly clear. At other times, it is blurry and requires further understanding of the presenting possibilities. A good understanding of camelid behavior and the ability to use that knowledge to problem solve are key in resolving difficult behavioral issues.

The llama and alpaca worlds have run fast and furious. Sales have been brisk. Many animals have been bought and sold. Sometimes, the same animal may be bought and sold several times. Females travel for outside breeding. When confirmed pregnant, they travel back. Then they may be sold. Yearlings come and go. Many, many herds have been in a state of constant flux for an extended time.

This frequent coming and going causes a continual shift in the structure of a herd. Each time a member leaves, there is a space to fill - a job opening. If the female who was just sent out for breeding happened to hold one of the guard positions, that position must be immediately filled by another member of the herd. When she returns, things again need to be re-worked. If she was a mother or best friend, stress occurs in those left behind. If she was the matriarch, a battle begins to fill that space. When she returns, a battle may begin to change it all back again. Visiting females have often been boarded within the resident herd instead of in a separate area. They will try to integrate into this new herd, establish a position and settle in. Shortly, without truly understanding that this would happen, they again return to their previous herd. Both herds will necessarily shift again - one to fill a vacancy and the other to re-establish the herd order.

The males were aware of this constant shift and seemed fairly accepting of the changes in the female groups. While often remaining territorial and protective, they did not normally attack and/or attempt to drive out new and unknown females.

Foot traffic to individual farms and ranches has waned over the past years. Sales have slowed. Many owners are no longer breeding their animals. That, in turn, has reduced the number of outside breeding services on many farms and ranches. This has caused a great reduction in the constant and ongoing shift in herd specific members. No longer are females continually leaving their herd group and then returning a few months later. It is no longer such a frequent occurrence that outside females are integrated into a group only to leave again when a breeding is confirmed as a pregnancy. Many herds have remained more constant with fewer purchases, sales and outside breedings.

In the llama world, many of these more static herds are now aging. In some cases, there have been no additions to the herd in a number of years. Interestingly, these herds are now often "closed." The social structure is well established and has been in place for some time. The males are aware of who belongs and who does not. The animals, themselves, have "closed" their long established group and are no longer as seemingly accepting of new comers. What we see as the resulting herd behavior can be confusing.

I received a call recently about just such a situation. A cute yearling female llama was purchased at a large auction. Her new owners already had a smaller herd of 9 girls and one gelded male. All 10 llamas lived together in a large paddock with a barn and further access to pasture. With the exception of "in herd" births, this group of 10 had been together for about 6 years with no new members. Though there is likely more than one guard in this group, it is known that the gelding stands guard and is protective of the herd. All get along well with one another and the owners enjoy them immensely. They have enjoyed their animals so much that they decided to purchase a beautiful little female at this auction. That decision, however, brought total chaos to their tranquil herd.

Almost as soon as she was introduced to the herd, the gelding became aggressive. He would chase the little female, sometimes knocking her down. The rest of the girls followed his lead in their own way by not allowing her near them. She could remain relatively safe if she stayed put in the furthest corner of the paddock. Even then there were times when the gelding would rush her. The owners were very upset. They feared for the safety of the little llama. What was going on? This boy had always been a gentleman. He never showed the slightest sign of any aggression. Yet, here he was screeching and attacking a young little female. What could be done? Perhaps they would need to sell him. Maybe he should be boarded with a trainer who could work with him. They felt perhaps he might mellow back out if he was placed in a group of males at another farm. That has been known to work in a number of instances but the key is to discover the possible why for the aggression. He had never behaved this way before. If placing him elsewhere for a while did calm him down, chances were very good that he would resume his aggressive behavior once he returned home. His behavior shifted at a specific time while at home and without an understanding of possible reasons and mitigating them, it was not likely that things would now be fine once he returned home. What was the key?

In order to solve this disruptive and potentially dangerous situation, it was important to understand the behaviors of this particular group of llamas. This herd had basically "closed." The social structure was stable. This little gal was not part of this group and did not belong there. For all the gelding knew, she was lost and just wandered in off the street. His aggression was to drive her out.

Understanding his behavior opened the door for possible resolution. The dangerous chaos in this herd could not be resolved unless we understood the likely cause. Realizing what he was signaling in both his behavior and in the timing of that behavior, he was first moved in to an adjacent paddock separated from all the girls by a fence. It was hoped that perhaps the girls would take her in without his direct input. That did not work. The gelding would pace and pace and pace until he finally jumped the fence, chased the little female back into the corner and then stood guard. This pattern would repeat no matter how many times he was returned to his area.

So what was it that might keep this gelding on his side of the fence? What could be done that would safely allow this little girl the opportunity to become "one of the girls?" The key was to break it down further - to specifically identify what it was he was doing. In this case, he was protecting the entire herd from an intruder. She was a llama but for him, an intruder none-the-less. He would need something to protect on his side of the fence. Five of the girls who seemed most attached to him (or him to them) were moved to his side of the paddock. The little female and the remaining four adult females stayed where they were. The thoughts behind this arrangement were:

•  He now has ability to do his job. He could guard those 5 girls.

•  He would not likely jump the fence because to do that he would necessarily need to leave his post. It did not seem reasonable that he would spend all his time jumping back and forth.

•  With the little female now out of harm's way, she had the opportunity to begin interacting with the other 4 females. It was thought that over a period of time, the other 4 females would accept her into the group.

•  That acceptance might cause them to protect her and force the gelding to accept her into the group as well.

Sure enough, while he kept a keen eye on the little female, he would not leave his post on his side of the fence. Though it took several months, the little female was accepted by the other 4 adult females. That acceptance seemed to transfer at some level to the 5 females who were in with the gelding. Slowly but surely, the gelding began to settle down. I recently spoke with the owners and asked how everything was going. They explained that each and every day they had observed the herd behavior noting any small changes. Over time, they began to notice a huge shift. At last, they decided that the herd was, indeed, back to "normal." The gelding had become calm - back to his "old self" and rarely paid any attention to the little female. Hoping for the best, they went out to the paddock area and opened the gate separating the two groups. They allowed everyone to mingle. There were some of the usual snorts and tail wagging but no aggression. The gelding is back to guarding the entire group - including the little female. The owners are excited. Their herd is peaceful once again and they are enjoying them.

Once again, this difficult and potentially dangerous herd situation could not have been solved without careful observation of the circumstances and an understanding of herd behavior.

 

 
 

Llamazing Wisdom

 

Lots of people talk to animals.... Not very many listen, though.... That's the problem.

Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

 

 

 

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