Llamas

(This column was first published in the March 13, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    Until now my experience with llamas was limited to two brief episodes.

    When I was in kindergarten, our teacher took us on a field trip to a Rochester park where they had a few grazing animals enclosed behind a high fence. The animals were quite tame and came up to us hoping for treats. One of my classmates -- for once I wasn't the bad kid -- reached through the fence to thump a llama on its side. The animal calmly turned its head and spit, covering my friend's face with thick drool.

    Then a few years ago, I was hiking the Finger Lakes Trail in Cattaraugus County when, stumbling down a steep hill, I came upon an open area where a half dozen llamas grazed quietly. For a moment I thought I had been transported to the Andes.

    But recently, for several months I have driven past a yard on Stahl Road where a number of llamas are penned. Finally last week I stopped to visit -- a fortunate decision because the family is moving to a farm in Eden within a few days.

    John and Patricia Sciolino are the proud owners of these handsome animals. One of them, a beautifully marked tan and white llama named Henry S. after Pat's grandfather, is a state and national grand champion.

    I learned a great deal about llamas from John and I learned too about caring owners. It was his wife who got them started. Patricia fell in love with these animals when she first saw them and began a campaign of study and inquiry that led finally to their buying two from a Lockport farm. More purchases and breeding led to the current herd.

    My first inquiry, as you might expect, was about spitting. "Don't worry," I was told, "They are very tame and rarely spit. Only occasionally males do in confrontations with each other." At the same time John was allaying my fears, several of the inquisitive animals came to the fence next to us. They weren't much interested in being petted but instead leaned out to touch their noses against mine. It was the gentlest of soft brushes: I could hardly feel it. Satisfied that I was just another visitor, the animals went back quietly to chewing their cud with that rotary jaw motion common to grazing animals.

    Watching them, I realized that the llama's head is shaped much like that of the giraffe; a big difference, however, is the lack of the giraffe's big lolling tongue. The llama has only lower front teeth -- severely bucked like those of moose for bark peeling. Big molars grind their food -- just hay and a little grain.

    I already knew that llamas are wonderful pack animals that not only carry good loads but also feed themselves at stops by grazing. (Dogs, on the other hand, cannot backpack the weight of their own meals.) I learned now that a llama can also carry a small child but that they are better equipped physically to support side packs. The Sciolino family regularly takes their llamas on hikes and the eager animals vie for places whenever John brings up the trailer.

    And what wool. The animals are regularly sheared, the wool carded to remove rough guard hairs and spun into yarn mostly by amateurs on those old-time spinning wheels. The wool is light as a cloud with none of that greasy sheep lanolin. Clearly it serves well as insulation because John informed me that neither the coldest nights nor the hottest days bother the animals.

    No wonder llamas are becoming such popular pets.-- Gerry Rising