Mission to Save the Llamas

By Diane Nelson June 15, 2012 11:56

LLamas of Circle Home

It’s not unusual for folks to follow their passion when they reach retirement age, when they have more free time to pursue the activities and adventures they love.

What is unusual is the road 63-year-old George Caldwell of Sonora has chosen: trekking the mountains and jungles of Peru to save the llama.

“Llamas are disappearing from Peru, where they once worked tirelessly alongside man, carrying their goods, providing clothing, communicating with them at the soul level,” Caldwell says. “The ancient Andeans knew llamas as their speechless brothers.  Now, in Peru, llamas are being eaten.”

They are still valued and still at work in remote villages where life goes on much as it has for centuries, he continues. But in the rest of Peru they have been replaced by cars, trucks, horses and burros, and are known only as a source of meat.

Caldwell’s plan: Reintroduce the llama to Peruvians by making it an integral part of the South American nation’s tourist industry. As a 30-year owner of an East Sonora llama ranch, he’s convinced these animals have the charm, intelligence and appeal to make this happen.

Circle Home

“Welcome,” Caldwell says, leading the way from the front porch of the sky-blue Victorian home he shares with his wife, Christine Dunham, to the three acres of pens where their 37 llamas roam. He rests against one of the fences and a half-dozen amble over to say hello.

“Put your nose up to theirs and exhale,” Caldwell says. “They’ll do the same to you. That’s how they get a sense of you.”

Those instructions won’t sound strange after you find yourself nose-to-nose with a 340-pound llama whose breath is gentle and eyes are wise.

“That’s McJagger,” Caldwell says, scratching the length of his long, graceful neck. McJagger’s pen-mates move in closer to get some scratching of their own

Caldwell and Dunham have owned Llamas of Circle Home since 1982, when they moved to Sonora from the Bay Area. They were looking for a back-to-the-land lifestyle, and llamas seemed a good fit. The original herd of four grew to 80 by the early 2000s, when they were breeding and selling more animals.

“Now we do more rescue than anything else,” Caldwell says, entering a pen where the lady llamas live. “Maybe it’s the economy, but people aren’t adopting llamas as much as they once were, so we haven’t bred ours in years.”

Caldwell and Dunham still sell llamas to good homes and provide onsite training. They also host ranch tours, lead llama hikes, and periodically visit classrooms and senior centers with the friendly animals.

“You have to be in a llama’s company to really understand how calm and intelligent they are,” Caldwell says. “People have a lot of misconceptions about llamas – they think they’re mean and they spit. But llamas only spit when they feel threatened. When you’re in a llama’s presence, you can feel the magic of their energy.”

At the sound of George’s voice, an old girl named Madeline saunters over, leaning in to exchange exhales with his guest.

Amiable companions     

Caldwell and friend at Circle Home

Caldwell and friend at Circle Home

A distant cousin to the camel, llamas originated in the plains of North America about 40 million years ago. They migrated to South America some 3 million years ago. By the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, llamas became extinct in North America, but they were reintroduced here in the late 1800s by zoos and private animal collectors. Today there are 80,000 to 100,000 llamas in the U.S. and Canada, embraced as pets, pack animals and providers of wool.

Llamas make excellent pets. They don’t bite or dig and they are great with children. They’re neat, too, with odorless, pellet-like droppings coveted by gardeners. They’re not cheap – expect to pay $600 or more – but can be relatively inexpensive to maintain.

They have efficient, three-chambered stomachs and graze on many types of forage, which reduces the need for expensive hay. As with most pets, they thrive on love and companionship.

“And scratching, right Madeline?” Madeline maneuvers her ample hindquarters towards Caldwell so he can give her a good pet.

Llamas were domesticated in the highlands of what is now Peru, perhaps as early as 7,000 years ago, making them among the oldest working animals in the world.

Trek to Peru

Their love of llamas prompted Caldwell and Dunham to visit Peru in 2005. They traveled with a tour, but often left the beaten path in search of llamas.

Caldwell returned in 2007, when he spoke of his love for llamas to a man named Jessic Chacon who introduced him to Isaac Mallqui, a shaman believed to have access and influence in the spiritual world.

Mallqui believed Caldwell himself was destined to become a shaman. With Chacon as his guide, Caldwell traveled the high, back roads of Peru, meeting indigenous people, learning more about llamas and their role in ancient times, and inadvertently gathering goods he would need for his shaman ceremony.

“Jessic led me to one village, about 15,000 feet, where we met a woman who sold me a beautiful piece of cloth for $1.50,” Caldwell says. “Turned out I later needed that very piece for my ceremony. She seemed to know all along.”

Mallqui told him to meet in Ollantaytambo, an Inca citadel near Machu Picchu. The three-hour ceremony began just before midnight on June 1, 2007, under a bright moon.

“You are the connection between the people of our worlds,” the shaman told Caldwell during the ritual. “Your connection with the llama will be the connection of our peoples.”

As the ceremony ended, a shape appeared in the sky in the dark space between the clouds, Caldwell recalls. “It was the shape of a llama, as clear as can be.”

The white llama 

Earlier, he had trekked to the tiny mountain village of Pacchanta, where he encountered a stunning, white llama and chatted with teachers at a local school about supplies their students needed.

Caldwell learned more at a llama research facility in La Raya, Peru.

“In modern-day Peru, there are many more alpacas (the species’ smaller cousin) than llamas,” he says. “Llamas are being inbred with alpacas and eaten, like goats. Without intervention, I can see a time when llamas as a pure species will no longer exist.”

Back in Sonora, Caldwell pondered his next move while saving his pennies for the next trip.

“Llamas need to be valued in order to return to their place of respect in Peru,” he says. “Peruvians don’t need them to haul things around anymore, so my thought is to promote llamas for tourism.”

Last fall he returned to the Pacchanta school to deliver much-needed Spanish language math books, donated by the Yosemite Llama Breeders Association. Then he set out to find that beautiful, white llama from several years earlier – an ideal stud for breeding, he thought.

“We found the area where we had seen the llama and knocked on the door of the house nearby,” Caldwell remembers. “The woman who answered told us, ‘Yes, that was my llama, but he is gone. We ate him.'”

It broke George’s heart.

“If I had returned sooner, maybe I could have saved him,” he says.

Art discoveries  

The visit also brought rewards. With the help of his guide and interpreter, Caldwell talked with the woman, Ignacia, and learned about the lovely tapestries she had crafted.

“They were pieces of woven history,” he says. “Each pattern was unique and told a story. She used wool from her animals and roots from plants to make dye. I bought many pieces from her, as many as I could afford.”

Ignacia cried with gratitude, Caldwell says. “She told me, ‘This morning I prayed for help, for some way to make money so I can feed my family.’”

In other areas of Peru, Caldwell bought more tapestries and crafts from street artists. He also returned to a llama research facility in Cusco, Peru, which had developed a breeding program.

“The llamas are being bred for food, but I was happy to see that at least there is a place where you can get stock,” Caldwell says. “I talked to people about my hope for breeding llamas in Peru for tourism. I got a good response. I need to set up a foundation, a non-profit that can help make that happen.”

When Caldwell returned to Sonora, he told the story of the Pacchanta woman to Joy Severin, a Central Sierra Arts Council director who asked to see the weavings. She and fellow artists Laurie Livingston and Laurie Sylwester were fascinated, and the idea for an exhibit took shape.

“Woven Arts of the Andes: Fabric of a Culture,” will run July 27-Oct. 7 at the CSAC Gallery, 193 S. Washington St. in Sonora.

Caldwell and Sylwester, a Columbia College art history professor, in June were visiting Peru to secure more pieces for the collection.

“The show will be fabulous,” says Connie O’Connor-Gahagan, CSAC executive director.  “In addition to the beautiful woven artwork such as tapestries, dolls and garments, we plan to present Peruvian musical groups, a lecture series and work by some of our wonderful local weavers and spinners.”

Cria at Ausengate

Youngster at Ausengate

The show will celebrate ethnic diversity, O’Connor-Gahagan says, “and also bring awareness to how much we are all alike.”

‘Love connects us’

That’s perfect, Caldwell says, relaxing with Dunham in the home they share with two African grey parrots, six cats and a tortoise.

“That’s really what this is about, uniting people and helping them see the love that connects us all.”

Caldwell and Dunham are active in the Tuolumne County WATCH program, which connects mentally disabled adults with job placement, education and social opportunities. They care for four women with disabilities in their home. In addition, George is a 32-year Rotary Club member (motto: “Service Above Self”) who admits, “I see projects everywhere.”

Has life changed now that he is also a shaman?

Dunham smiles. “George is as passionate as he’s always been, about llamas and everything else.”

Caldwell shrugs. “I know the shaman thing can be off-putting for some people, but there’s really nothing strange about it. Our love of llamas led us to a culture and to a greater awareness that we are all children of God.”

He knows his quest to return llamas to a place of respect in Peru will take time, energy, money and connections.

“I’m not sure how I will get there,” Caldwell says, “but as long as I am alive, I will walk this path.”

 Copyright 2012 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Diane Nelson June 15, 2012 11:56
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