Do Llamas watch and learn ?

A subject considered by BLS members Caroline Pembro and Caroline Champion. There opinions follow :

Having been training cria for many years now, I firmly believe llamas do in fact watch and learn. I had a devil of a job getting my first pair of llamas to accept a halter; they (and I) were totally clueless. These days, a cria’s first lesson in haltering is to watch an experienced llama have its halter put on and walked around and I have found this gives the cria an inkling of what to expect when I then approach them with halter and lead rope.

However, one event that springs to mind as the ultimate proof that llamas watch and learn, happened at the beginning of December, when I had three of my boys (Felix, Ollie and Bullseye) gelded.

Although all three are well-trained and perfectly calm llamas under ‘normal circumstances’, since Felix has had a fairly recent sedation for dental work and Bullseye is probably the most nervous, it was decided that the vets would split into two teams, (the two vets whom I had been expecting turned up with five students between them!) with Felix and Bullseye going first, followed by young Ollie. Ollie was orphaned at birth and subsequently hand-reared by me, which means he is now absolutely un-phased by anything that life happens to throw at him.

Plan of action formed, the operations began and I must admit I was feeling really proud of my boys. Felix and Bullseye were anaesthetised without any problems, their operations were completed without any fuss and they were up and standing, albeit a tad wobbly, less than twenty minutes later. Ollie, meanwhile, just stood calmly to one side, held by one of the student vets, and watched the whole proceedings with interest.

And then it was Ollie’s turn.

As the vet parted Ollie’s neck fleece, Ollie wriggled a bit, the vet grunted something, drew back and stood up. As he did so, I watched Ollie slowly close his eyes, drop to his knees and stay there for a couple of seconds, before slowly and rather dramatically falling onto his side.

“Oh” I said in surprise, “I’ve never seen it work that quickly before!”
“It hasn’t” muttered the vet, showing me the syringe, “I couldn’t get any into him!”

At this point, I looked back at Ollie, who was still lying prostrate on the ground with his eyes shut. I jiggled his lead rope and called his name. As soon as he realised he’d been rumbled, he got back up to his feet again! Having watched the other two close their eyes and fall over, I think that’s what Ollie thought he had to do! I’d give him an Oscar for his acting ability. Fortunately his operation too, then went off without a hitch."
carocamera2012 395

Many thanks to Caroline Pembro.

"I have long been of the opinion that llamas can be reassured into accepting something worrying
if they first see another llama accept it placidly. I use this technique regularly whilst halter training,
nail clipping and so forth.

When my two geldings were a little younger, I would often have a day when one of them decided not to have a lead rope round his neck, his nails cut or a halter on. My standard practise was to fetch another llama, do whatever it was to that one a few times in front of the reluctant llama, whereupon the problem normally disappeared immediately I tried again. This technique has worked again and again – for introduction to neck collars, shearing and so on. It has only failed for me when it comes to trying to get one of them to go somewhere he would rather not, such as into the horse box or down a steep, slippery slope.

One of my females would really rather keep her distance from people and has spent the year since she arrived, watching from a distance as I handle the other three llamas daily, doing the same things most days and dispensing treats as a reward. A few weeks ago this female finally came to join the group unasked and let me put a halter on her whilst unrestrained (I had previously had to pen her and catch her). After a few turns for the whole group (halter on, halter off, treat, next llama) she was pushing her nose forward into the noseband of a halter held out to another llama. I am not sure that this compliance will last when the spring grass materialises, but for now, some six weeks later, she continues to come willingly to have an arm thrown round her neck, a lead rope round her neck or a halter on. She even comes at a trot when called. Had I not had three other llamas that I could handle easily, I suspect that I would still be tempting and tricking her into being handled.

So much for being reassured, but what about copying? For that, my only real experience has been having llamas that never previously raided the shed, but that were able to watch a visiting alpaca (which shall be nameless - but the guilty one knows who he is!) turn it upside down daily (and sometimes get tops off feed or treat containers) and were then able to continue with this behaviour after the departure of the said alpaca. Five years of leaving the shed alone, one visit from a mischievous (but ‘oh so cute!’) troublemaker and I am now left with my llamas, one of which has learnt how to pick up tubs weighing up to 5kg and throw them across the shed, in the hope that the lid will come off! Is that copying? Or just bad luck?!

Ollie’s story is much more dramatic; I was flabbergasted when Caroline related at a board meeting, what had happened. There are two lessons here – the first is that we should not, perhaps, assume we know much at all about llamas ... and the second is that you never know what you will miss if you don’t come to a board meeting! "

Many thanks to Caroline Champion

With thanks to Axel Bührmann, orazal, lucianvenutian, Veronique Debord, quinn.anya for creative commons use of pictures