It was a Friday morning and I was feeling distressed, unsettled. Maybe because I sensed the stress of Cal students as finals week approached… or maybe it was the bad lamb I had the night before. Regardless of cause, there was one thing for certain: I needed a reason to smile (and to get a paycheck). So I grabbed my notebook and headed to Llamapalooza, UC Berkeley’s first llama festival, in the hopes of lightening my emotional load.
That’s the idea behind bringing llamas to campus, said Ana Claire Mancia, a junior majoring in business and the ASUC’s official “llama coordinator.”
“Llamas are very calm animals, and they can withstand long periods of time being hugged and pet. They don’t get nervous very easily,” Manica said. “I think the therapeutic quality of llamas is that they help students calm down before finals.”
A similar sentiment was echoed by a grey-bearded, poncho-sporting rancher named Geo Caldwell, who brought the llamas from his ranch in Sonora, California.
“Llamas have this energy, and people, without knowing it…. Their heart chakras just open up,” said Caldwell, who has been tending to llamas for over three decades. “And here [at Berkeley] it’s all magical … You just see smiles everywhere when people interact with these guys.”
Berkeley has had llamas on campus before, but it had never had a festival with free food and planned activities—like a bean bag toss and llama obstacle course (llamas walking around traffic cones and over a small hurdle)—until now.
And, most importantly, there were six llamas present this time—more than ever before (to the administration’s knowledge). Why was this llama event taken to the next level?
“I think the ASUC just wanted to bring something unusual and something rare to Berkeley … that would really bring the students out,” said Mancia. “And what’s an animal that you don’t see every day? A llama! So that’s how it started.”
The event was from 10-1 p.m., and within the first hour, at least a couple hundred kids showed up at the Memorial Glade to pet the llamas, brush large chunks of their hair out onto the grass, feed them, and get wayward bumps from llama butts when the animals decided to swing their haunches and walk in another direction. I had estimated at one point that standing five feet from one was a safe distance to look down and take notes, only to find myself suddenly thumped forward like a bumper car whilst being laughed at by bystanders.
I laughed along with them, of course, knowing it was only a matter of time before they’d get theirs. We all had to watch out for the llamas’ long necks too, which would suddenly pop up from the ground like novelty drinking birds and nearly hit people in the chin.
Before I could say, “Como se llama?” Caldwell excitedly rattled off the names of the four younger llamas who had been swarmed by students—Amigo, Wykee, Yanatine, and Putukisi. She then introduced me to two older and wiser llamas: 13-year-old Quinoa and 12-year-old Tambo, who, according to Caldwell, “only cares about llama girls and food.” Caldwell said that to get on Tambo’s good side, I should tell him how handsome he is because “he thinks he’s the most handsome llama in the world.”
After waiting in a long line of students, it was finally my turn to feed him. I stepped toward Tambo gingerly, extending a hand full of feed pellets. “You’re handsome,” I said shyly, and with what looked like a glint in his eye, he leaned forward and gently nibbled some food out of my hand (no tongue, no drool) before brushing the rest of it onto the ground—like he wasn’t even hungry, and had only eaten to appease me.
“These guys have been raised with kindness and respect their whole lives, so they treat us well,” Caldwell said. “If you love them, they’ll do anything for you.”
But what about those rumors that a lot of llamas can be mean?
“In reality, people can be too. It depends on who you hang out with. These [llamas], they’re just like people,” said Caldwell, who thinks llamas were “dreamed into existence to communicate at the soul level” as our speechless brothers and sisters. “Not all people are really smart or kind, but the ones that are, show you what the capabilities are.”
“But what about the rumors that they’re always spitting on people?” I prodded.
Caldwell paused and his expression turned serious. He leaned forward to speak to me in earnest, like something need be settled once and for all.
Spitting, he said, is a “highly evolved” way for an animal to resolve conflict, much better than violent attacks like biting, and llamas understand that.
His llamas are trained not to spit at people, but, he said, when llamas do spit, they don’t typically spit at people or other animals at first. They’ll usually issue a warning shot adjacent to whomever is bothering them, and if the provoker doesn’t get the message, then they’ll hit them with a harmless, clear loogie. It’s only when they’ve been really pushed to their limits, he says, that they pull out “the stuff of legend”—a glob of digested, green bile from one of their three stomach compartments—a tool often used to help them escape predators. Since llamas can spit over 15 feet, the distance (and stinkiness) of the spit acts as a great distraction for predators so that llamas can sprint away (with a top speed of about 30-35 mph).
In Peru, the llama’s place of origin, the animal’s greatest predator is the puma, said Fred Clarke, a native Peruvian and sound therapist who often assists Caldwell with his llamas. He says that llamas are generally much beloved there, and people often lose their pet llamas to hungry mountain lions. On the other hand, people can, on occasion, be a danger to llamas as well—since, in Peru, llamas have historically been used as sacrificial offerings for better seasons, rain, providence, and fertility, said Clarke.
“In the myths of the Andean world, the llama is kind of like the element, the animal that brings peace on Earth, keeping the balance in the natural world,” Clarke said. “[Sacrifices] are still happening. When you go to Cusco in August—that’s the month of offerings to the Earth—you’ll find all these different offerings, and you’ll see some [dead] llama fetuses.”
At one point Clarke was playing a qena, an Andean flute, and I asked what the deal was with it. He said that it’s long been a common practice for the Andean people to hang out with llamas in the mountains and play their qenas, and said that llamas have an “ancestral memory related to the flute” that draws them to its sound. So when he first played the qena for Caldwell’s llamas at the ranch, he wasn’t surprised that they all responded well—and apparently the ladies really loved it.
“The females were very interested. Just like female humans, they’re more curious and sensitive than males,” Clarke said. “It was interesting to see their connection with the sound.”
When asked if llamas are a source of food, Clarke said not as a general rule, and Caldwell agreed. “No. You’re not supposed to eat your brothers and sisters.” But, he conceded with a laugh, “If you do eat a llama, you call it an alpaca” (the llama’s closely related camelid relative).
Even though llamas can be found all over the United States, Caldwell said people should be concerned that their overall numbers are decreasing. In 2007, the USDA Agricultural Census reported that there were 122,680 llamas in the U.S., and by 2012, there were 76,086.
So why are they disappearing? Because, Caldwell said, they’re in less demand, so breeders can’t turn a profit. “People used to think they were going to make money [breeding and selling] llamas, and when they found out they weren’t, nobody wanted llamas, to give them a good home,” he said. Caldwell also noted that even though llamas are largely low maintenance, they’re a big investment because they require quality shelter, good fencing, access to a vet, open land to graze upon, etc., and many people don’t want to commit to that unless they’re getting something out of it.
“People aren’t coming by to say, ‘Please, sell me llamas,’” said Caldwell. “Doesn’t happen.”
Caldwell hopes that bringing llamas to college campuses will get the attention of psychologists, who will then want to study the positive effects llamas have on peoples’ wellbeing.
“It’s hard to see the value in something that you can’t measure,” Caldwell said. “I’m old, and I’m not going to be doing this forever, and I’d really like to see someone who has some influence recognize what the potential is with llamas so that they have a long-term future in mental health.”
When I asked the students how their mental health was impacted by the event, the overall consensus was that the festival was a true Shangrillama of fun.
“This event is a nice opportunity to bring students together and help us de-stress before finals,” said Ariana Apostol, a freshman majoring in political science. Freshman Anoushka Agrawal agreed, adding that the crowds did made it a bit less relaxing. “There are lots of people, so it kind of makes it harder, and [the llamas] are always moving, so you’re not really relaxed running after them—but it’s still really fun.”
Before the event, Caldwell trained six Berkeley students at Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills to be llama michiqs—caregivers responsible for guiding the llamas around on leashes and monitoring their interactions with other students. Student michiq Liam Duncan was assigned to Tambo, and when Tambo sat down on the ground and appeared stressed, Duncan would look into the llama’s eyes, press his face to the llama’s face, and breathe deeply. The practice, he explained, calmed him.
“Llamas trust people,” he said. “This exercise creates connection.”
Don’t get me wrong: the llamas were all wonderfully well-behaved under the circumstances. Having hundreds of strangers poke, hug, and force you into their selfies is anyone’s personal nightmare, and for these animals, it was mostly no probllama. And anyway, just like with humans, history shows that therapy isn’t everybody’s calling. Who could forget the great llama chase of ‘15, when two llamas went on the llam (a’thank you) to escape a therapy session at an Arizona assisted living facility, only to be chased by the Sheriff’s department and many interested bystanders? I certainly can’t. Not that there was a danger of that happening at the Llampalooza, but… All I’m saying is, I get it.
And I also get why the ASUC wanted to bring the Llamapalooza to campus, and why they’ll be bringing it back next year. Magical mental health benefits or no, I definitely felt better after—and acquired a new appreciation for some fascinating animals. Let’s just say… there was a whole llama love.