Llama Business Llooks Llike a Llabor of Llove : But Rich Profits Await Breeders Who Gather for Million-Dollar Auction

Times Staff Writer

Mark Brant came to Los Angeles with one thing on his mind--to buy The Professor and take him home to Michigan. That he did, for $85,000. But this professor doesn't teach classes. This Professor is a llama.

The two posed for pictures in the sale ring: Brant with his arm around The Professor, an 8-year-old male so woolly that he looked like a four-footed Rastafarian in dreadlocks.

"He's the only reason I came here," said Brant, who raises llamas at his farm in Monroe, Mich. "I would have spent more for him if I had to."

Although The Professor was the bona fide star of Los Angeles' first llama auction last weekend--$85,000 is a world record--it was clear from the prices brought by the unusual animals that the llama business is booming.

For Pets and Profit

Celebrities and politicians own them. Just plain folks do, too.

Some owners keep their llamas as pets, training them to ride in a van or allowing them to come in and out of the house as they wish. Llamas can carry about 80 pounds, so children can ride them. Adults can hitch the animals to small carts or use them for backpacking trips.

But most people raise these South American cousins of the camel for profit. And you can see why.

The 75 animals in the sale, at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank, brought $941,000, with prices ranging from that paid for The Professor to $750 for a 7-month-old male.

The monetary success of the Los Angeles sale is no fluke. In the past few years, llama prices have leaped.

Consider The Professor. In 1979, when race car driver Parke Duff of Aurora, Ore., bought him as a 5-month-old, he cost $500.

Llamas (that's lah-ma in this country; yah-ma in South America) are docile, doe-eyed creatures with long, graceful necks; the animals come in many colors, with short or long wool. They have tall, tapering ears that are supposed to come to points like bananas. They are curious, alert animals and appear to have the temperment of an oversized cat. They seem fairly aloof, paying attention to humans if they wish to.

Llamas are easy to care for, owners say, and live longer than most domesticated dogs and cats, with an average life span of 15 to 20 years. Some have lived to be almost 30.

"Most are sold for breeding, but they make super pets," said Bonita Manion, the Aubrey, Tex., llama and quarter horse breeder who put together the Los Angeles show and sale. "A lot of people buy them for use as pack animals. Some people sell the wool. And they're really good investments, considering the prices they're bringing."

Llama shows and auctions are relatively new, but Manion was pleased with the crowds for both in Los Angeles, and she hopes to make the Spring Llama Classic an annual affair.

"We had 300 people pre-register for the champagne brunch Sunday before the auction," she said.

The llama show, held Saturday in the covered Equidome arena, was similar to a horse show, with the llamas competing in several classes: for males and females, short and long wool. There was also a driving class in which the animals were hitched to a pony cart and driven around the ring by their owners. In the trail classes, the llamas are led around a course with a series of obstacles they must go around or jump over.

Lynn Hyder, who converted his cattle and horse farm in Oregon exclusively to a llama ranch 12 years ago, won two classes with his spotted llama, Apple Jack, and then took the $1,050 first prize in Pack for a Purse competition over a timed course with eight obstacles.

Although llamas are too big to sit in your lap--an adult can be more than 6 feet tall (from toe to top of the head) and weigh 250 to 450 pounds--they can easily be trained to drive a pony cart. Hyder trained Apple Jack to drive in a parade in only 10 days.

Elephant-Like Memory

"Once they are trained to do something, they never forget," he said.

Steve Rolfing of Columbia Falls, Mont., president of the International Llama Assn., estimates there are 12,000 to 15,000 llamas in the United States, some in every state.

"There's a big concentration of breeders up and down the West Coast, he said. "But lately the East Coast growth has been phenomenal."

Rolfing believes the llama industry is becoming more sophisticated, with breeders trying to breed for special characteristics, soundness and temperament.

"We also don't have the name duplication since we started the International Llama Registry about a year ago by merging some small ones together.

"We used to have at least six Tony Llamas, maybe 10 Dalai Llamas and a few Fernando Llamas," said Rolfing, a former forest ranger who raises llamas and runs an outfitting business using llamas as pack animals.

"I would say there are 25 commercial packers in the U.S. using llamas now," Rolfing said.

"Once in a while, up in the Glacier National Park area where we are, we'll have bears come into camp. We always put the llamas near the food supplies as watch llamas, because the bears won't come near them. They make a racket if the bears come in. It sounds like a car engine cranking over at 40 below zero."

Most of the time, Rolfing explained, llamas are quiet animals, making a low humming sound. If they are frightened, the decibel level of their voices increases dramatically and is described as sounding like "a woman screaming a blood-curdling scream," or "like the shriek of a peacock."

Llama wool is becoming popular with the country's spinners and weavers, according to Rolfing. It's considered more exotic than sheep wool.

"We sell wool to the spinners and weavers for $15 to $30 a pound," he said.

Llamas are not sheared like sheep, but combed for their wool. They have coarser top wool, called guard hairs, that is not as desirable as the downy underneath hair that can be combed out.

The Professor, for instance, is valued for his magnificent wool coat and his reputation for siring champion offspring. One of his daughters sold at the Sunday sale for $20,000.

After the sale, Brant, 30, who got into llama breeding four years ago, pulled a handful of business cards out of his pocket. Each read: Twin Lakes Llama Ranch, Home of "The Professor."

"I was determined to buy him," Brant said, grinning. "I had 1,000 of these cards printed up beforehand. But I also had 1,000 printed up that didn't mention him, just in case I didn't get him."

Llamas don't bite, their owners say. Like goats, they do not have upper front teeth. Like all camelidae, they have a split lip.

They are inexpensive to feed, since a llama eats about one-quarter of the alfalfa or hay that a horse eats in a day.

"A bale and a half a day feeds 35 llamas," said llama breeder Sigmund Lichter, a West Los Angeles plastics manufacturer. Lichter keeps a breeding herd of 30 to 40 llamas at a ranch in Frazier Park and sells his young llamas privately.

"And they're clean animals, too," he said. "They only drop small pellets, and they all defecate in one corner."

Most of the llamas in North America are believed to be descendants of a herd imported to California in the 1920s by William Randolph Hearst for his estate at San Simeon, according to Terry Price, a lawyer and llama breeder from Phoenix. Price has just begun publishing an industry newspaper, Llama Life.

Price said U.S. borders were closed to importation of South American llamas from 1929 to 1983 by the federal government because of the contagious foot-and-mouth disease found in the South American countries.

In December, 1983, Irv Kesling of Kokomo, Ind., imported the first group of 54 animals, both llamas and their smaller cousins, alpacas, from Chile. But two months later, the viral disease was found in cattle in Chile and the United States stopped llama imports.

"The borders are closed now, and I don't expect them to open up for 10 years," said Kesling, who came to Los Angeles to sell seven llamas and alpacas. "Or maybe never. There's a lot of pressure from some llama people to keep them closed and keep the price up here."

"Llamas are real hardy animals," said Herm Rowland, owner of Blackwood Llama ranch in Walnut Creek. "They're intelligent, curious, a little bit aloof, but they will come and say 'hi' to you. They have an easygoing nature and a loving attitude. They don't often kick, and if they do, they don't hurt you like a horse can."

Rowland, who also raises Arabian horses and manufactures Jelly Belly candies, added: "I've been kicked full bore in the shin by a llama, and it doesn't hurt that much. You can feel the concussion, but it doesn't break the skin."

To show what he meant, Rowland lifted the foot of his Blackwood Beau, a beautiful, long-wool male white llama he had brought to sell.

"See, although the top of the foot is cloven, the bottom has little pads."

Rowland and his wife, Andrea, would later sell Beau for $17,500 to Canadian buyer Barry Lammle of Calgary, owner of 16 leather boutiques and six Western-wear stores in western Canada.

The Rowlands were nearly in tears about selling Beau because she had picked the llama out in 1983 when he was a baby at Dick Patterson's ranch in Sisters, Ore.

In the llama business, Patterson is considered one of the industry's founders. He began his llama herd in 1958 and has a waiting list of more than 200 buyers each year.

"I'm really depressed about selling Beau," Andrea Rowland said. "But we don't have anyone to breed him to anymore, and we don't want to have an inbreeding problem."

Contrary to popular belief, Rowland said, llamas do not spit as much as camels.

"They spit only if they're being abused, or maybe a female protecting her young," he said. "When they spit, you know it."

Colly Gruczelak of Thousand Oaks said she hadn't seen a llama spit at anyone in the two days she and her husband Norm, a computer consultant and designer, had attended the show and sale.

"I've been kissed by more llamas here than I have by men in a year," Gruczelak said, explaining that she had come to buy some llamas and get into the breeding business. She had been studying about llamas for a year, she said, and had attended an International Llama Assn. conference last summer.

The Gruczelaks sat in the front row at the auction, studying each llama intently as it came into the sale ring. By afternoon's end, they had bought three young llamas, named Johann, Jewell and David Webb, for a total of $9,850.

"My husband is in a high-pressure job," Colly Gruczelak said. "So he needs something for relaxation. These animals have a very relaxing quality to them. I knew Norm would fall in love with them. They're so peaceful.

"We came here with a cat, a dog and two birds. Now we have three llamas."

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