A llama is a giraffe mixed with a camel, wrapped up in a teddy bear cloud. And not one part of it gives a fuck about you.
“Nothing about this animal makes sense...” Anna's brother Sterling says. We're stalking it across our neighbours field for the 3rd time in 24 hours. The llama's sort of trotting now, but also sweeping its head low and side to side like a brontosaurus as it runs.
“I don't care anymore,” I tell him. “Listen...if I get close enough, I'm tackling it by the neck. You hear me? I'll need you guys to pile on.”
“Sure,” says Leaf, widening his approach. Trying to redirect it toward our pasture. “That's kind of how they shear them anyway.”
So that's the scene.
Me, my wife's brother, and my good friend of 20 years. The three of us crouch-sprinting toward a puffball Chilean horse in a field of fresh clover.
Fuck! I'm so mad at this thing.
But let's go back a day.
I got home from work, jumped out of the car and threw my fists in the air.
“Llamas!” I shouted at the kids.
“Llamas!” they shouted back.
Then I burst into the house.
“Llamas!” I shouted at Anna.
“Llamas!” she called back.
We'd been counting down for about a week. Six days til llamas! Four! Two more sleeps, then llamas! Llamas tomorrow! Then finally...llamas today! Whoo hoo!
Whoo hoo indeed.
But on the day of, I was late getting home. Plus Anna's family was visiting and Leaf just arrived, so we had dinner then I walked out to the pasture to take a look.
I quickly realized something was wrong. This is because I have the ability to count to two.
Two llamas. We have two llamas. So how come I see just one?
“Umm,” I said, returning to the house. “...I'm pretty sure we're missing a llama. The big one. The mama.”
“What?!!” said everyone at once.
Next thing you know we're out in the pasture, fanned at arms length, combing the grass like it's a body search.
“No way she's still here,” I said.
Anna texted the previous owner.
“She says to look everywhere, see if she's lying down.”
“She's not lying down. There's only a couple pockets of bush and we've been through them like four times now. Unless she's ninja'ing herself between them while we're looking, she's gone.”
“Impossible. No way she jumped the fence!”
“I can't find any breaks,” Sterling said, finishing another walk of the perimeter.
“Well, something must have spooked her.”
“The pigs?” I asked.
“She's used to pigs. They had pigs.”
“It must have been the pigs. But why'd she leave her baby?”
“I don't know,” Anna said. “It doesn't make any sense!”
More searching, more texting. Another walk of the fence. But nothing seems out of place.
No carcass, no blood, no breaks in the wire. Nothing weird at all. Just one baby llama casually grazing, three content pigs pushing each other around in the mud, and a handful of concerned humans shuffling across four acres of prairie grass like each sweep of the foot was going to magically uncover a 6'4”, 200 pound, snow white camelid.
At the end of another search Anna and I met in the middle of the pasture.
“What...the...fuck!!!” we said in unison.
Then we called it. Everyone back to the house. Time to put the kids to bed.
But I slipped out as they were falling asleep and walked to back of the pasture. Climbing up onto at set of corner posts I scanned the property just as the sun was setting.
This is crazy, I thought. All of it.
Our land...140 acres of weird marsh, creek, poplar forest, cat tails, swamp, and tall prairie grass. Look over there - I haven't even set foot on that part of it yet, and we've been here a year. And now there's an adult llama out there somewhere. How the hell am I supposed to find it?
This was supposed to be our 'livestock guardian.' A Western South American pack animal that's not at all afraid of central North American predators (coyotes and bears), who loves hanging out with small Scottish ruminants.
Also, it's capable of surviving a wide spectrum of climates, can eat pretty much any vegetation and barely needs any water. So theoretically this thing could just wander forever.
Then I started to wonder...what if we don't find it? Are we just going to catch glimpses of it over the next decade or so? Is it going become our own personal Princess Mononoke forest god?
By now the sun had set and my “wildly glancing in all directions while my imagination gets the best of me” strategy hadn't produced any results. So I gave up and walked back to the house.
I passed the pigs. They were plunked down in a new spot for the night, tucked under some shrubbery and snoring. I'll admit I'd become emotionally attached to them. Somewhat. They are peaceful creatures (when kept well fed). They just want to eat and snuffle their noses through the dirt and look for more stuff to eat. They're fast and happy and seem nearly invulnerable for the amount of tumbling abuse they inflict on themselves daily.
It was dark enough now to see the first couple stars, and I cheesily wondered what it's like for them to be out here alone on a night like this. They kind of looked like they were camping out. Did they care that it was a beautiful, clear night? Does that matter so much when you'd be just as happy sleeping through a thunderstorm in a pit of your own piss? (That you dug with your nose?)
I don't know. I think we project our own feelings on these animals too much. Either way, I'm glad we gave them full run of the pasture up til now. Even if they did freak the shit out of the llamas. Commercial pigs get like 10 square feet to live in. We gave them 4 acres. Each day they wander about like wild boars, then pick a new spot to flop down for the night. That's got to count for something.
Back at the house Anna and I stayed up a while and talked. Strategized. Tried to figure out what went wrong. But all we came up with was more weird scenarios. None of which even remotely made sense.
1. Coyotes killed it in the hours between 4 and 6pm. Left the baby. Ate a full grown llama leaving nothing behind. Then jumped the fence. All without disturbing the pigs.
2. Neighbor boys shot it. (...with .22s? Is that even possible?). Dragged it across the field, then covered their tracks and tossed it clear over the wire, not damaging or disturbing a single blade of grass or leaving a drop of blood behind. Pretty impressive for 12 year olds.
3. A bear jumps into pasture at 4:30pm. Eats llama whole. Naps. Sneaks away just as I approach at 6.
4. Pigs spooked Mama Llama. A brief fight ensues. During the melee she kicks off the back of a pig and tumbles over the fence, then runs for her life leaving her baby behind.
OK. When shit like this starts to seem possible, it's time to get to bed.
But around four in the morning I found myself staring at the ceiling loud enough for it to wake up my wife.
“What's up?” Anna asked.
“We're shitty farmers.” I said.
“We're not shitty farmers.”
“We are. We are shitty farmers. We're not even farmers. What are we? I don't know. We say we're going to do something, then we race to get it done. Lets get llamas! We had llamas for like 6 hours before managing to fuck that up.”
“It's not our fault.”
“Who's fault is it?”
“...I don't know. We'll figure it out tomorrow. Always do. What can we do now?”
“So then just go to bed.”
I thought for a moment, then reset my alarm.
“I'll get up early and fix the gate. At least that way if the mama comes back you and Sterling can get her back in without too much fuss.”
“See? That's something.”
“Sure. That's something.”
I laid back down.
“I still think we're shitty farmers.”
So my alarm goes off and I'm out there at dawn. Dew on everything. Me plodding along again in rubber boots, cordless drill in hand. The grass decorated with a thousand glimmering funnel shaped spiderwebs.
The pigs were still asleep. I could see their grey sides heaving in the same spot I left them last night. The baby llama was out in the middle of the pasture, chewing grass. I got the gate done then walked out to talk to him.
“Hey bud,” I said, me and him standing about normal human conversational distance apart.
“What gives?” I asked. “Where's your mama? You see where she went? What direction she head in?...Everything alright?”
I don't know if you've ever had the chance to question a baby llama, but it feels about as productive as interrogating a sock puppet.
“OK then,” I tell him. “Yeah. Hope it all works out for you. I've got to get to work. Enjoy the grass.”
Back at the house, I notice Anna's got this typed out on my computer:
“Where you going to put that up?” I asked.
“At the corner store.”
“We're going to look like idiots.”
A minor marital ensues, but long story short – who cares if we look like idiots, we've lost a large animal so let's just eat our pride and do what we can to get it back.
Annnndd it turns out my wife was right.
Before she could even pin the notice to the cork board the girl at the store said, “Oh! so-and-so were just here. They saw a llama at their place this morning as they were leaving. They left a note. Was it white?”
Now, this part of the story unfolds without me being around. So cue up yakety sax and I'll recap in fast forward:
Anna and her brother chase the baby llama around the pasture. They try to get it into the shelter but fail several times. Then they look up and see the mama llama just staring at them from the other side of the fence. She's back! So they hop the fence and try to herd her toward the gate. But then she see the pigs, makes a 'click-click-click' noise and bolts across the road. Anna sprints after her but looses her in the bush. Then our super awesome neighbour friend shows up with her van and they all pile in and the chase is on. They drive to the farm it was seen at that morning, pile out, and discover the llama sitting alone in a meadow like some beatific deity. But of course when they get close enough to grab it, it bolts again and they have to pick themselves out of the turf and run after it. However this time they manage to herd it toward our property. But as they get it to the gate our three happy pigs come tumbling out of the brush and click-click-click, she's gone again.
“So it is the pigs,” I texted from work.
“I'll move them when I get home.”
We kept their old enclosure, so after work Sterling and I banged together a temporary (and final, as they were due to get butchered in couple days) pig pit. After transferring the pigs we got in the truck and headed to that farm the llama kept returning to.
And man, I could see why. Puts our place to shame. Just a beautiful spot tucked into the woods. Nice folks, too. And they've got a real menagerie. Goats, ducks, cattle, and yep – another llama.
Our llama was at the far side of their fencing, just sitting there, calm as can be.
This was the first time I'd seen her and I was totally stunned. It was like I had no compartment in my brain to file this experience. Had I even seen a full grown llama before? I must have, but I couldn't say when. In a petting zoo? Now here's one sitting on the edge of the bush. And it's ours.
Impossible. We own a llama?
“Whoa, she's huge!” I said.
Getting up she was a little funny looking. Disarming, really. And so top heavy. Like 75% neck and fluff. Her legs seemed comically undersized. Stick-like and jointed weird, like her knees were a little too low or something. She looked 6'2” sitting down and 6'4” standing up.
Even still...so weird and calm. Alien and beautiful. And that's our llama. How is that possible? How can anyone can just own a creature like this? She looked like the physical embodiment of compassion.
So there we were. Ushering it toward a barn. Humans using teamwork. Walking it past a pair of cows, a flock of ducks, and a gaggle of flabby goats.
I wonder what these creatures think of us, I really do. What are we to them? We must seem like fumbling, relentless, omnipotent beings which pour out a never ending supply of food. What would the equivalent be for us? Imagine if one day on your way to work you came across a glowing rift in space that just gushed snacks and shelter and pillows and television. 85% of our population would probably just park themselves in front of it and call it a day. The other 15% would have to be tracked down.
I was lost in thought. It was a good thing Sterling was there. He's a magician. (An actual magician). Once we got the llama into the barn he utilized some pretty amazing slight of hand to slip a harness onto her, and we were back in business. The llama business. We should be pretty clear by now, we were excelling at.
We apologized to our neighbours for all the trouble, but they were too kind. Happens to everybody, they said. They just couldn't believe she cleared the fence.
Same with the previous owner.
“No way she jumped the fence,” she texted. “Not possible! Your fence was better than ours!”
As we left their property our neighbours said something that really stuck with me.
“All she's ever known is her previous farm. Then she was stuffed into an animal trailer and shot down the highway. Now she's let out here and everything's different. She's got to be freaking out, that's only normal. For her this is like landing on Mars.”
We got back to our place and walked her and her baby to the shelter, then locked them in for the night.
And what did it feel like for us? Success? Victory?
Nope. More like a wrong turn corrected by several other chaotic jerks of the wheel. We talked about selling them.
Then we went inside and played board games while I googled “how high can a llama jump” on my phone. I watched footage of a llama in the UK setting a world record by clearing a 3'8” bar. That can't be right. Our fence is 4'. What gives?
The next evening we decided to let them out again. With the pigs removed and the commonwealth record for llama jumping firmly established, we figured she'd be fine. So I unscrewed the 2x4's from the shelter entrance. (The shelter was 90% finished, so “unlocking” them required us removing a zombie-proof criss crossing of plywood and mud soaked lumber.
“OK, she's doing alright...” Anna whispered.
We were in full David Attenborough mode now: “The mother llama scans the pasture for potential threats to her child. Finding none, she returns to grazing. And thus begins a new chapter in their lives...”
“She seems calm,” I said.
“I fucking hope so,” Anna sighed. And we went to have a bonfire.
About an hour later my Spidey-Senses were tingling, so I went back to check.
Both were grazing. Nothing weird at all.
But then something made the mama raise her head and tense up. Oh shit, I thought. Then she did her 'click-click-click' noise and bolted for the corner.
No no no no! She's going to jump! She's going to jump! There's no way she can...
She jumped it.
Popped right over the fence like a deer off a springboard. Right while I was watching. Cleared it like it was nothing. Unbelievable.
“Llama's out!” I shouted, running by the fire. “Llama's out!”
“WHAT!?!” Anna shouted. “No fucking way!”
“Put the kids in the house!” I yelled behind me. “Where's Sterling and Leaf?!”
“Get them! Grab the drill! Open the fence! We'll push her back! Fuck!”
So that brings us to the clover field and the sweeping, bronto-necked, world record smashing mama llama.
Eventually we did push her back. Got her to the gate, led her in, then spent another 20 minutes corralling her and her baby back into the shelter.
“Well, here we are again.” Anna shrugged.
“Now I swear,” I said. “The next time I open this shelter it's so we can load her into an animal trailer. I am so done with this thing!” (I said that, but with f-bombs every second or third word).
Here's what really killed me:
Most farmers are shitty carpenters. Sorry! Take a look around. I see a lot of crappy fences out there. Drive anywhere rural and tell me I'm wrong. Crappy fences are the norm. (But I get that now too – there's a lot to do.)
Now here I am with my own farm. I have a decent carpentry background and I build a nice sturdy fence. For everything we've done here, I've researched what the animal needs and then completely overbuild it. Like with the pigs. They don't care about the fancy house they've got. They have a puddle and shrub. Done. You think the chickens care that I built them a guest cabin?
Well, actually yeah. The chickens really like their house.
But the point is I built a good fence. And what does this thing do? Doesn't read the playbook and pulls off an impossible leap (twice!), instantly nullifying all my hard work.
That burns. That's my serving of humility right there. I'll never criticize another fence.
So what else could I do? I sat by the fire and drank heavily.
It's either sell the llamas or raise the fence, I thought. And who raises a fence? I don't think I've ever seen a single farm fence that was over 4', no matter what the animal. I can't add a couple feet to our fence. I can't. Who does that?
Mid downward spiral, Sterling lit off the fireworks he brought from Alberta. And I don't mean he sparked a couple of roman candles. This was a trunk load of pyrotechnics.
He was darting around, lighting box after box as all hell broke loose above him. Meanwhile, the chicken tractor was just a short distance away and all our plump, sumo roosters were probably falling over each other having heart attacks.
The pigs were going mental. They panicked hard, ran a few tight laps inside their pen as each rainbow starburst shrieked and exploded above them. Then they plunked down in the mud and took in the show. Probably fell back asleep.
This is crazy, I thought. All of it.
Crazy is going from a 700 square foot apartment in East Vancouver to 140 acres in rural Manitoba. Crazy is thinking we can raise pigs just because our neighbours say it's easy. Crazy is buying llamas off of Facebook. But crazy is what we do.
So you know what? This llama and her baby are here now. They're part of our farm. We're in this together.
Tomorrow we're building a bigger fence.