For the love of llamas

The llamas trotted across the pavement, their curly hair bouncing jauntily on top of their heads as they enjoyed their new-found freedom. Running aimlessly through the streets of a cozy retirement community, they eluded capture for quite some time while throngs of bystanders watched in amazement at the spectacle.  
Earlier this year, the two llamas in question had just escaped from their handlers in Sun City, Arizona. Their televised breakout was the day’s top news item and quickly inspired a Twitter account, several hashtags (including #LlamasOnTheLoose and #LlamaPalooza), many YouTube videos of the chase and even a Llama Drama Community Facebook page. The llamas -- the tall, gangly-looking American cousin of the desert camels in Asia and North Africa -- became instant celebrities.

In addition to their recent fame on Facebook, llamas have an emotional and economic impact in the U.S. for those who raise them as pets, use them for hiking or breed them for their silky fleece.

For Robert Van Saun, professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences and Penn State Cooperative Extension veterinarian, the fascination with llamas and their smaller cousins, alpacas, is evident when he talks about them.

“What’s not to love?” asked Van Saun about the soft-footed animals. “With their floppy, furry tufts; slender necks; deep brown eyes; coy grins; and big, fluffy, banana ears that are nice to touch, they are the ‘it’ animals of the hooved world.”

As perhaps one of the most enthusiastic champions of these members of the ungulate animal family, Van Saun has channeled his enthusiasm into devotion for maintaining their health and well-being.

By charting growth data, much like a pediatrician uses standardized growth percentile ranges to assess the size and growth patterns of children, Van Saun is able to develop prediction models that help llama and alpaca farmers and veterinarians calculate the necessary energy and protein growth requirements for the animals’ proper development.

Van Saun says the idea behind the models is to identify where problems may be within the growth cycle of the animals. He recalls one Pennsylvania farmer who noticed that his animals weren’t growing very well. By comparing the farmer’s growth data to the population-based growth curves, he could see where the animals were starting to lag behind within their normal development stages.

“We noticed the animals were growing normally at first, but then right around weaning time they would just flatten out and wouldn’t grow anymore,” said Van Saun. The growth chart helped determine if diet or problems with coccidian -- a parasite that can affect the intestinal tracts of llamas, alpacas and other animals -- or some other infectious disease might be compromising the animals’ growth and if corrective measures could be taken.

Van Saun first met one of the furry creatures while in residency at Michigan State -- at a time when the animals were still fairly new to the U.S. and most veterinarians were just learning how to properly treat them.

"I was assisting with a breeding soundness exam on a big male llama that wasn’t being cooperative, and he spit on me. It wasn’t a very positive experience, and I swore I’d never touch them again,” said Van Saun. Llamas are known to spit to assert their rank within the herd. Because the saliva from the spit is made up of the fermented liquids they regurgitate, the smell is rather putrid.

Although it wasn’t love at first sight, Van Saun quickly got over his initial dislike of the animals and later worked at Oregon State University with one of the first research herds of llamas and alpacas outside of South America. Because he was trained in dairy cattle ruminant nutrition, he was able to apply those basic concepts to llamas and alpacas.

“Being one of the few veterinarians with a nutrition background at that time, I weighed in on a prevalent bone disease that was affecting the legs of baby llamas and alpacas (known as crias) within the research herd,” said Van Saun. The bone deformity gave the crias crooked legs, making it hard for them to stand or walk. By offering his expertise, Van Saun helped determine that the abnormality was caused by a nutritional deficiency comparable to rickets syndrome, and the animals were given vitamin D supplements to help counteract the disease.

Building on his experience and success with the animals, Van Saun saw a need to further diagnose growth and nutritional defects in crias and started working on studies to generate standard population-based growth characteristics. While there were already some growth studies for llamas at the time, there was no such data for alpacas.

As a result, he set out to collect and compile information from alpaca farmers in the U.S. and abroad. Through the years he has collected more than 1,000 observations on more than 400 alpacas from birth to maturity to establish normalized growth models.

In addition to sharing his knowledge with llama and alpaca farmers throughout Pennsylvania, Van Saun also lectures in such places as Chile and Peru. On a recent trip abroad he was able to observe and gather data from nearly 4,000 alpacas from a large cooperative farm high in the Peruvian Andes. He’s planning to establish a database where he and the members of the cooperative can continue to upload and share their data in the cloud to simplify the collection process across the miles.

Several international alpaca groups in Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom are also interested in contributing their growth data to the models. Van Saun says he welcomes the information and has written statistical analysis software programs to organize the data online so he can access it from anywhere he goes.
So, although Van Saun’s years of data and findings can’t keep llamas from escaping and running amok through the streets, it can help keep them healthy so they can grow into the furry, loveable creatures that fascinate so many people throughout the world.

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Last Updated July 13, 2015