By Michelle Mantor, Editor Houston PetTalk

After a few years of planning, the time has come for me to move to acreage where I can finally live with my rescue horse Freedom and have the option to add some other animals to the menagerie. I’ve been thinking this over for a while and the animal I’m most fascinated by and think I would want to add to the “pack” is a Llama. I’ve watched tons of videos and spent time talking with a few breeders and in my research, I stumbled upon a 3-day Camelid (llama and alpaca) training course taught by the industry’s most renowned expert, Marty McGee Bennett of Camelidynamics. I signed up nearly 6 months ago and the day finally arrived to get started on my adventure!
The seminar is in Banner Elk, NC – a super-charming, mountainous area in Western NC nestled at the base of a small ski resort (which means good restaurants!). We arrived last night and had a fabulous dinner at Stone Walls (I had a hoisin marinated salmon with sweet potato mash and salted caramel brownie ala mode for dessert…I don’t normally do dessert but it’s a special occasion..I’m going to see and touch llamas LOL!). We got up early and made the 15 minute trip to Apple Hill Farms where the seminar is hosted. The roads are not for the faint of heart here!! But..the farm is everything you would imagine – charming, quintessential hobby farm with beautiful mountain views, apple orchards, pastures with animals all over the place including pigs, miniature zebu cows, angora goats, livestock guard dogs, llamas, alpacas, donkeys (to protect the camelids) chickens, a few horses and two pigs named Laverne and Shirley. They are a fiber farm so they also have a cute little shop where they sell fiber and items related to their animals. The views from atop this mountain are gorgeous and so peaceful – the farm is very much OFF the beatin’ path!
Sixteen of us gathered with Mary inside one of the barns to get started with the classroom portion of our training. We spent the morning learning about the science of animal behavior/learning and how we can apply that to camelids, which are naturally very skittish of human/touch. Unfortunately for these interesting critters, the standard way they have been handled over the years essentially amounts to an assault – grab them by the neck and manhandle them to get a halter on them and then restrain them for the necessary animal husbandry. Marty was here to tell us there is a better way! And thankfully for the animals, she is right and willing to teach her way – a way that is respectful, calm, and ethical.
After a few hours of instruction, we were ready to try our skills with the rope and stick used to work with the animal in a 9×9 catch pen and let them see that we’re safe and they need not be scared. This takes some patience and a lot of skill…it wasn’t as easy as Marty made it look! We first practiced on “blow up llamas” – inflated llama heads that were held by one person who got to be the camelid and then the other person worked on his/her skills. I liked this approach because it’s fair to the animals that we not all “practice” on them and fumble around not knowing what we are doing.
Finally, the moment came that we had either all been waiting for or dreading: it was our turn to go in the catch pen with the animals. There were either two or three alpaca/llamas in each pen. It was more intimidating than I thought and llamas are no small animals. Having multiple animals in a pen is calming for them, as they are herd animals, so it’s an intended tactic.. I won’t say I crushed it but I also didn’t get kicked or spit on, so I considered the day a success!
We learned a great deal on day 1. As Mary puts it, we learned to get “out of the driveway” because if you don’t know where to go from the driveway, nothing else from there will matter. So learning the science behind their behavior and how we can work WITH the animal for the intended result rather than FORCING our will is truly a beautiful thing.
Tomorrow, we halter!