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Sesame Street Revisited: Me and My Llama

Check out the following websites for far more than you ever wanted to know about llamas!
I think the first time I ever saw a llama was on Sesame Street. Donít you remember the scene with that girl walking her llama singing, "Me and My Llama"? Anyway, I really haven't thought of these animals much since then. However, here in South America, the 3.5 million llamas are hard to ignore as they graze in pastures all over the country. They can be spotted all across the countryside while traveling between Peruvian cities.

Llamas are members of the camelid family which originated in North America about 40 million years ago, but from there they moved down to South America only 3 million years ago. The people of Peru and Bolivia began domesticating llamas 4,000-5,000 years ago, making them some of the earliest domesticated animals on the planet. During most of the Pre-Colombian cultures of Peru, llamas were often sacrificed to gods or along with the passing of nobility. The Inca used them as pack animals and as a source of fiber for clothing. They became extinct in North America about 10,000 years ago but were brought back to the United States this century by William Randolph Hearst, the famous newspaper industry giant.

The llama has some interesting habits. They tend to defecate in one communal pile, and their pellets make great soil. But, they also serve an important function in Peruvian culture. They are primarily used as pack animals and can carry up to 100 lbs. Children are the only ones who actually ride the llamas. Llamas are also used for their wool and are usually shorn once a year. The wool comes in many colors such as brown, white, black, red, and gray, and you can buy cozy sweaters made from it. Although not served in most city restaurants, llamas are also used for their meat (sorry, Seasame Street!). Once, I tried the steak of an alpaca, a distant cousin of the llama. Mmm, mmm good.

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Photo op with a llama in the streets of Cuzco.
Llamas are definitely herd animals and they don't like to be alone. They prefer to have at least one partner. When llamas mate, they do it lying down. Once pregnant, female llamas often spit on the ground to ward off other would-be suitors. This usually kills the mood anyway. It takes just short of a full year until the baby, called a "cria" is born, but once born they're usually standing and nursing within 90 minutes. They only weigh 20-35 lbs. at birth but eventually grow to weigh 200-400 lbs. As adults, they're roughly the same height as me, around 5'5", and so we usually see eye to eye (too bad they don't use breath mints!).

Llamas have an interesting way of communicating. They use a series of ear, body, and tail postures. Sometimes they're used to guard sheep and they give off a shrill alarm call and humming sound when they sense danger, although they're not really fighters themselves. In fact they rarely kick and don't even bite since they only have lower teeth and rear molars. They love to spend the day wandering around a field grazing and will eat most foliage. This grazing is not harmful to their pastures since they have small split hooves and tread as lightly as deer. Maybe Disney should make a new movie called "Llambi"!

Out of the four camelids found in South America, only the llama and the alpaca have been domesticated. The vicuna and the guanaco are only found in the wild. The llama is the largest of the four and differs from the alpaca with its longer ears and tail but shorter hair. The vicuna is the smallest and has never been domesticated. Its wool however is among the finest in the world and during Inca times was used to make clothing only for the Inca. Clothes of vicuna wool are highly valued and rare, as it's an endangered and protected animal here in Peru.

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Through the window, I could see a llama that had been hit by the train.
While riding the train from Arequipa to Cuzco, I noticed three beautiful white crias walking away from our train as we came to a grinding halt. On the other side of the train car however, was a fourth cria lying on its side after being hit by the train. It was barely moving, but was suffering greatly. After some deliberation, one of the passengers took a knife and promptly slit the cria's throat putting it out of its misery. It was very sad to see a creature so young killed because of our train speeding through its pasture.

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By order of height we have: Abeja, Kevin, Llama, and Campesina.
I now see llamas as more than just a scene from Sesame Street. The llama is one of my favorite animals. From time to time you can encounter colorfully dressed campesinas who are toting around llamas just to provide tourists with these rare photo opportunities. Abeja and I found one with a brown and white spotted face. He was only one year old and still looked smaller than fully-grown llamas. We took advantage of this rare photo opportunity and snapped a shot for posterity. So, we will always have this picture of me and my llama in Peru.


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Kavitha - The Beasty Battle: You've gotta fight! For your right! To be Poor?!?
Abeja - You Can Take 'Em Outta the Jungle, but You Can't Take the Jungle Outta Them: Freezing, Learning, and Living in Cuzco
Team - One by One, The Liberation of Latin America
Making A Difference - Save the Redwood Forests (and the Coho Salmon, and the Spotted Owl, and All of Us)!!!
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