Saturday, March 21, 2015

Marc Page: Explaining Camelid Behavior to the Uninformed

Marc Page is a renown llama and alpaca trainer. These notes derive from his keynote presentation at the PLAA Annual Meeting, March 21, 2015 at the Ramada Inn at State College PA.

Part 1: Llamas and Alpacas in The Wild

Llamas have a strong defense system to defend themselves; they only defend the territory that needs defending. Herd size is determined from available food; excess animals are driven away by the dominant male. Young animals are driven from the herd, along with the female. Less than 15 months of age in the wild; immature males driven out; solo males without a group; mixed group who agree to join for the winter. Harsh conditions make behavior more acceptable. Females can move among groups but adult males cannot.

Herd defense is to see and react to danger and flee. An anti-predatory defense. Llamas like high places and mountains. They will play a king of the mountain game but it's all about defense. Females can make good guard animals. Males will dispel juveniles by biting, spitting. A young llama will scream as they are chased, with the tale up over the back, and neck stretched is a sign of submission but violence can occur.

Llamas have developed fighting teeth and they need to be removed properly because a bite on the leg can bring a llama down. In the wild, the teeth are used to geld young llamas. Young male's fighting teeth need to be taken seriously.

On your farm, ears us is inquisitive or pointed toward you. But if the llama rushes to the fence line and screams, that's aggressive behavior. Humans need to be careful when a young male llama approaches you cautiously and submissive does not mean alpha adult male behavior but is approaching you as if you are another llama. Spitting and pushing is testing behavior.

Reason for the long gestation period of a llama or alpaca (11--11.5 months). Reason is because the llamas are "fully cooked" when they hit the ground. Mothers are not too fussy nor give them a lot of care. Aunts and uncles come over but that's it. As owners, we go out to make sure nose is clear...but in wild, in 15 minutes is all a cria has to acclimate to a migratory herd. The baby has to be ready to move on with the herd in one-half hour, dried out. Mother won't fuss much because that would compromise two animals.

Once they "get their legs" they are impossible to catch and everyone else is running defense for the baby. Wild behavior is the same on a farm. Llamas and native Americans did not lose their spirit or their identity. They are trying to re-awaken the spirit from before the reservation period. A guanaco presents some real challenges, harder than llamas.

Llamas have their own self-contained groupings on a farm. We create the groupings (somewhat artificial) and make decisions that in reality are not what they would choose for themselves. We disrupt the herd's social order by adding/removing animals, for example, by selling animals. You disrupt the herd and the herd must fill that position and re-arrange their dominance.

When you introduce a rescue llama to a herd, it is not a socialized animal as it is re-homed. Because these animals are not socialized and have no interaction with other animals, these animals do not fit the mix and the farm herd does not know what to do with them. Each llama has an invisible number and the herd knows what that number is. Higher ranks, 1-5, approach the hay first and expect the food to be there. Numbers 6-10 jockey for position, trying to find a place to eat. Body position is the first thing that happens. Turn and face the other animal. There could be a false rush. But in a well-maintained herd, they find their place relatively peacefully. In all seriousness, it is an aberrant behavior for one llama to spit at another llama within the herd.

Walking in a line with a herd with an animal in front and behind -- should be comfortable for the llamas. You stand back and let them figure it out. They will back down, even in deep snow, to get out of the way. Crias can get away with murder until that special day arrives. They are allowed a lot of discretion without a lot of consequences, but on that one day, when they are considered no longer a "baby," the social norms change and llamas will put the cria in its place.

Flefmen or flaymun, phonetically, is a behavior of llamas smelling manure. They do this to determine who is in the herd. They need to make sense of the new smell, so they lift their head, flay their nostrils, and go visit the herd. Originally, Marc used the transfer station/dump and it has become a social meeting place. That's what the manure pile is for llamas, especially males. Llamas become territorial with their manure and mark their territory. In the wild, the piles are like anthills and really well defined.

For females, everything changes. Manure became spread out because the "girls" were talking and marking the places easiest for them to have a conversation.

Stotting, Bill Franklin's word, is also called ponging, spronging and jump athletically. In summer, it's running for the joy of running, but in the wild, it's behavior to get the attention of the male llama.

Part 2: Training

To get a desired result, you train with respect between people and their animals. Llamas are easier to train than alpacas because the llamas lived in the village and were used as herd animals. Llamas and people developed a more cooperative spirit. Alpacas can be trained but it takes longer, because they were only rounded up once a year for shearing. You use the same approach for alpacas as llamas, but it just takes more time.

You must work with respect with your llamas and you must work without fear. You cannot be afraid of your animals. You need to handle your cria to desensitize it but you should not overdo it. Cria training is reinforcement throughout its early life. They do not absorb early training without reinforcement. John Mellon made an experiment with desensitizing 3 of 4 legs to see if it made a difference. He learned the 4 leg could never be handled.

Whatever a cria needs to learn happens in the first 24 hours. IF you are on vacation when they are born, you have a lot a catch up work to do. Marc has done extensive work with disabled populations. The largest form of bad behavior in llamas and alpacas is hand feeding your animals. Animals need to understand the difference and hand feeding is not the way to train. It teaches bad behavior because they think we can take the food away, and then they try other intrusive behaviors to establish herd position. No rough play with crias, no dog tug of war. When you do this, you encourage chest butting, pushing, shoving. Don't push a llama away because they learn they can push back.

Llamas must always always always move away when you enter their space. No clucking because it is a challenge. You do not walk around. Try going to the barn or pasture when llamas are resting and walk through them. They cannot eat while you are putting grain down and they may not eat hay while you are transporting it. They cannot have food until you present it for them. Llamas must get out of the way. Holding a bowl is the same as hand feeding. Put the bowl down; do not encourage spitting or bad behavior.

When llamas are impatiently waiting for their food, if you have 6 llamas give them 8 bowls because llamas will push around for position. Put less in each bowl.

Young and juvenile llamas need to be desensitized and each training session should have designated areas. They are opportunities for the llamas and you. Incidental touching means nothing to them. An actual lesson is better. It should occur in tall pens. When designing a space, give them a big playground but a smaller area near the barn so they can be closed, like the inside of a paddock with a closed gate. Entice them with food, let them calm down. Do not chase them. Training area can be structurally built or can be done with green panels. Five panels are better; llamas will lock themselves in a corner or cush down or go over or under a fence. You need to reduce flight training; llamas can jump 5 feet in the air from a standstill. So, they CAN jump into a van or trailer.

Regular training should occur at weaning. Halter it after it is standing. Do desensitizing on feet, legs, face, teeth; put a small pack on it. Because we ask a llama to put something on its back, it thinks it's a puma so we have to be careful with training. Do not spend a half hour or an hour till something is downpat. Lessons should be very short: minutes. Think what do I do to encourage what I want and how do I end it. Round pen avoids corners where llamas hide. Teach how to approach the llama. Reward by removing the pressure. Maintain distance and let the animal get the butterflies out of its system. When it slows down and stops, reward the stop by taking the pressure off and move back. Same is true for anything else you do: halter, mini-van loading, walking. Reduce flight zone and reward every single training approach.

There are so many second chances with llamas. Stop reinforcing what the llama does not want and reward him by eliminating the pressure. Back off. Have the proper layout for catching llamas. If you do not, take a 25 foot rope, two people, and make a portable fence. At the Big E, everyone knows the need to keep the llama contained. The call, "loose llama" goes out and exits are closed with a minimum of people. This all leads to one of the hardest ways to catch a llama: a helicopter. Never lasso a llama. The "llama drama" should have been averted if people would have stopped chasing them.

Marc and Carol Reigh both took proper means to respond to llama drama; Mark Hanner did not on MSNBC.


  1. I love reading through your blog, I wanted to leave a little comment to support you and wish you a good continuation. Wish you best of luck for all your best efforts.
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  2. Hello, Do you know how I can find Marc Page's email address? Thank you! Shelby