Whole lotta’ llama lovin’

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    By Amy Choate

    At an idyllic setting in Spanish Fork lies a farm with peacocks, parrots and potbelly pigs. They tramp over the grounds amidst waterfalls, green grass and a pond of exotic fish. But people don”t come from as far away as New Jersey to play with the pigs. They come for the llamas.

    “My wife and I were moving to Utah, and we had heard about the wonderful backcountry,” said Chris Warden, owner and caretaker at Utah Valley Llamas. “We wanted to enjoy it without staggering around under hundred-pound backpacks on our backs. We heard llamas are excellent companions, so we bought our first two llamas in 1985 and started a herd.”

    The Wardens now have a herd of about 45 llamas. They run a llama service for those who want to take the animals on the trail as pack carriers. The llamas can be leased in pairs for $30 a day or for $150 a week. For additional money, a trail guide can accompany travelers on the trail.

    Llamas begin training at a young age on the farm, maneuvering around an obstacle course and jumping in and out of transportation vehicles.

    “They start getting trained at 1 month old,” Warden said. “Even a baby llama, at 3 months old, knows how to negotiate the obstacle course. They”ll walk along a narrow ramp, or duck under a tunnel – all kinds of stuff. It doesn”t take long to train the llamas.”

    Llamas originate in South America, predominately in the mountains of Peru. Llamas have long been used for their wool and their dependability; they can carry up to 80 pounds on their backs. Unlike other relatives in the camel family, llamas are also known to be patient and reliable.

    “They”re very calm,” Warden said. “They don”t excite easily. They draw your attention to a lot of wildlife that you would otherwise miss on your own.”

    When travelers come to lease the llamas, they also get a 30-minute training session that teaches them how to manage the llamas. Instructions are given, and if they aren”t followed, the results can be llama-lethal.

    “We had an incident about 10 years ago where a gentleman ignored all of my instructions and we had a llama that ended up with two broken legs,” Warden said.

    According to Warden, the reigns of the llama were not secured properly while the group stopped to take a rest on the trail. The pack was not removed, and no one blocked the way of the llama back to the trail.

    “If any one of those three things were done, the llama would be alive today,” Warden said. “But other than that one bad experience, we”ve had hundreds and hundreds of wonderful experiences.”

    Llamas are used for more than carrying packs. Over the past few years the Warden”s have sold several hundred llamas. People buy the llamas for trail help, for their wool, as sheep guards, or as a lure for the grandkids.

    “We”ve sold a lot of llamas to grandparents,” Warden said. “They like to see their grandchildren, and having llamas on hand is an inducement to the grandchildren to come over.”

    Kathy Caldwell purchased two llamas 10 years ago for the use of their wool.

    “I thought it would be cool to have llamas and spin their fiber,” Caldwell said. “They”re beautiful animals to look at, and I use the wool for spinning, and my husband backpacks, so it”s perfect.”

    The Caldwell”s place in Payson has become a bit of a farm in its own right. Rabbits, ducks, chickens, dogs, cats and 4 llamas all reside together on the property.

    “The llamas are fairly easy,” Caldwell said. “The hardest part was when I realized I had to trim their toenails, and I thought, ”What? You”ve got to be kidding me!” But it hasn”t been a problem. As long as you keep your face out of the way, you”re fine.”

    Caldwell regularly participates in the annual Llama Fest, where she displays her spinning abilities. At the Llama Fest, one can sample ethnic food, pet the llamas and watch performances by South American groups. This year”s Llama Fest will be on July 19 at the llama farm, located in Spanish Fork. More information can be found at www.utahvalleyllamas.com.

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