By Jo Hannah Leyda
Web Exclusive – February 13, 2009
Watch the slideshow here.
My husband John grew up in the city but wanted our family to experience all that country life has to offer. Once we moved out to an old farmhouse on a corner of land in the heart of Amish country, the next step was to decide what to do with our property besides the endless mowing. We looked into many different kinds of animals, from horses and cows to ostriches and bison. After much research and a number of visits to various farms, we were most drawn to the gentle, versatile llamas, especially because of the stories we heard from happy llama owners about what a wonderful experience the llamas had been for their families.
In the fall of 1999, two llamas joined our family, and the herd has since grown to more than 30. Caring for llamas together with John and all our kids—his four older children and now our three younger ones—has not only been a family undertaking that has helped us learn, work, and grow together, it has also been influential in my pregnancies and births.
My Pregnancy Fitness Regimen
I sometimes envy pregnant women who have the luxury of time and designated facilities for workouts during pregnancy: I have barn chores. During my first 16 to 18 weeks of pregnancy, I dealt with morning, noon, and night sickness. There were so many mornings when all I wanted to do was stay in bed and pretend the day wasn’t starting. Then I would think about the hungry bellies in the barn and those big, expectant eyes looking for someone to come bring them their grain. I know they’re animals, and I know they really will survive until my husband gets home from work, but I can’t stand the thought of all of those trusting creatures wondering if I’ve forgotten them. Invariably, by the time I’ve dragged myself out of bed, thrown on a flannel jacket and barn boots, and gotten half way out to the barn, the brisk, fresh air, and distraction of my task have calmed my stomach and I feel much better than if I’d still been in bed. Countless times I’ve thought, “I am so glad I’m out here!”
Although entering a barn might seem unthinkable for someone with morning sickness, the main smell in our barn is actually the mild aroma of hay. Llamas are very thorough digesters, so their marble-sized “llama beans” (manure) not only make for light work, but have exceptionally minimal odor. Raking several stalls, taking the wheelbarrow out to the manure pile, feeding grain and hay, and filling water buckets is a 30- to 45-minute job that doubles as a workout, which I have been able to do until literally the day before our babies’ births. I am convinced that this activity, which made me get out of bed and get active each morning, contributed to my overall healthy pregnancies and the success of my unmedicated births.
Birthing Inspiration Out in the Field
When a friend recommended Dr. Robert Bradley’s Husband-Coached Childbirth to me during my first pregnancy, it only took about three pages until I was convinced that I wanted to pursue the Bradley Method of natural childbirth. Dr. Bradley begins his book by explaining that he grew up on a farm, and his birthing method was developed after observation of farm animals delivering their babies naturally and peacefully. It made so much sense to me. My experienced, but gracious husband (this was his fifth child) agreed to attend the classes with me, and I did everything I could to be as prepared as possible for a completely natural birth.
Llamas, like most animals, prefer to birth their young quickly and inconspicuously, so we had not witnessed the first births on our farm. It was perfect timing for me that the first llama birth we observed took place exactly three weeks before my first baby was born. A cria (baby llama) had been born that morning, and the previous owner of our other pregnant llama informed us that if Gypsy, an experienced mother, was near her due date and she smelled another birth, it would probably trigger her labor as well. Sure enough, when John came home from work that afternoon and we walked out to the pasture to see the day’s first cria, we noticed Gypsy going into labor. She was a professional, and it was exhilarating for me to watch. She walked around between contractions, then stopped, concentrated, and pushed. Within approximately 45 minutes, the baby’s front feet poked out, followed by the face, and then two long ears slipped out and sprung straight up. With the next push the long, giraffe-like neck and body followed. John gently supported the little girl as she fully emerged to help her with a gentle landing. I was so inspired—I thought, if that llama can do it, I can do it! I even gained an extra measure of confidence in my impressive birth partner, whom I had just observed in the role of a llama midwife!
“What Do You Do with a Llama?”
The first time I met a llama owner, back in 1994, I asked, “What do you do with llamas? Eat them? Milk them?” I’ve learned a lot since then. While most people don’t eat llamas (there’s not that much meat under all the fluffy wool), and llamas don’t make enough milk to share (although milking is occasionally required to help a weak newborn), the things that can be done with a llama are diverse and continually expanding.
Before we got our llamas, we went as observers to a couple competitive llama shows—similar to horse or dog shows—and later we began entering and showing our animals. We were delighted with the friendly community of llama owners: Our competition was very supportive and encouraging, especially of our children. Soon we were invited to take the llamas hiking/packing and exhibit them at the county fair and the annual fiber festival at the local farm park. (We have since made a habit of all of these activities.) Before long, we were joining parades, taking llamas to school, to summer camp, to church, to birthday parties, and even dressing them up for trick-or-treating. Along the way, we’ve sold llamas, their wool, and breedings.
Another thing I appreciate about llamas is that they are very quiet. They can make a loud, turkey-like alarm call in case of danger, such as a stray dog or coyote near the pasture, but in nine years, I’ve only heard this sound a handful of times. Their primary noise is a hum, and many of them don’t even do that very often. It is true that my 30 llamas are much quieter than my three little kids! Llamas are used as therapy animals in hospitals and nursing homes, and many times I’ve gone to our peaceful barn and pasture for my own doses of llama therapy, especially when my firstborn was colicky. It’s a wonderful place to sit, breathe, and decompress.
A Family Endeavor
In a blended family, with kids ranging from infants to teenagers, it can be difficult to find activities to do together as a family. With the llamas—for example, participating in shows—we all work together and everyone has a role. Kevin, 18, is our behind-the-scenes right-hand man. He is Mr. Busy, running animals back and forth, grabbing water buckets, stall mats, fans—you name it. We couldn’t pay him to get out in the show ring, but he makes sure the rest of us get there on time with our animals looking good. Jaimie, 15, is another story. She loves the spotlight and enjoys nothing more than showing off her llama in front of the judges.
Annalise, 6, is just old enough to start having fun showing in some of the peewee classes, and there is no better advertisement for our animals than a pigtailed little girl brushing or walking a 375-pound gentle giant of a llama. Four-year-old Greg can groom, load a llama into the trailer, and lead one through an obstacle course. Some of the obstacles are more challenging for him than they are for the llama, and the llama waits patiently to make sure Greg clears them before following him through. My husband’s oldest sons are out on their own now, but one of them always helps us by caring for the animals at the farm when we are away at shows.
Years ago I don’t think I could ever have predicted that I would one day live on a llama farm! But having these animals has become a significant part of our lives, and I am so grateful that it has truly become the family activity we had hoped it would.
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Jo Hannah and John live in Orwell, Ohio, with their house full of children and pasture full of llamas. Jo Hannah is a freelance writer and copyeditor.