When Barbara Berg has seen one too many frightened children or neglected relationships in her job as a Baltimore social worker, she retires to her special rock in the center of a grassy field and nuzzles her llamas.
For Ms. Berg, 37, the gentle eyes, calm demeanor and soft wool of the three dozen llamas on her farm bring her serenity she can't find in the city. Ms. Berg and her partner, Joyce P. White, 41, operate Rolls Adventure, a 40-acre llama breeding farm in Fork.
The unusual name of the farm dates to the 1700s, when the Rolls family obtained the deed to one of several properties known as "adventures." Ms. White, formerly a Domino's Pizza franchisee, bought the farm with Ms. Berg in 1988, kept the name, and replaced acres of corn with llamas.
"They are great pack animals," Ms. White explains. "Their wool is considered an exotic fiber. They make guard animals for sheep. And you can take them jogging."
Golfers even use them as caddies. They don't complain about lots of walking with heavy clubs, and the only tip they want is a handful of sweet hay.
But Ms. White says the real reason she and Ms. Berg breed llamas is love of the curious and intelligent animals. When she and her partner leave town for llama-breeders' conventions or seminars, Ms. Berg says, they have to make side trips to local llama farms to avoid "llama deprivation."
Business as well as pleasure
As much as they love their llamas, the women run Rolls Adventure very much as a business.
They send their pedigreed, dominant male llama out for stud service, and each time they receive $1,000. They market raw llama wool from their sheared animals at various farm festivals throughout the year, netting about $6 per ounce.
Ms. White and Ms. Berg sell male llamas, usually in pairs, for prices ranging from $500 to several thousand dollars each. Females, depending on their blood lines and characteristics, each go for about $4,000 and up -- well up -- into the $20,000 range. Fortunately, Rolls Adventure animals come with one-year mortality insurance.
The U.S. government considers llamas "domestic livestock," not exotic animals, so Ms. White and Ms. Berg sell many as pets. They are also desired by people looking for unusual investments.
"First-timers will get a pair of boys, but they usually come back the next year for a couple of girls," Ms. White said. "People say once they have a couple, they just want more."
Along with the llamas they sell, Ms. Berg and Ms. White also have their own favorites that accompany them on regular visits to nursing homes and day care centers. A young, affectionate llama named Belle is a star of the Pets on Wheels therapy project for the ill, elderly and
disabled in Baltimore.
Nursing home and day care center residents who initially may be nervous about the visiting llama soon realize how affectionate it can be. "At the end of the visit, they all want to hug and kiss her," Ms. Berg says.
"One of the things we notice with Belle is that she'll bend down for people in wheelchairs," she adds. "She wouldn't do that for me or you. But she knows something is different about them. She really responds to people with special needs."
In fact, some llamas are trained as guide animals for the disabled. Ms. Berg says a deaf acquaintance uses her hands to sign on her llama's neck for assistance. Other llamas, which generally are passive animals, may be trained to lead their blind owners.
Llamas could bite or kick, Ms. White admits, but she has rarely known one to do so unless it was cornered. "They are very passive animals. Cats have similar personalities," she says.
Native to South America
Native to South America, llamas originally were domesticated there as beasts of burden. "They were equivalent to the North American buffalo," Ms. White says. "Every part of the animal was used: Their hide was made into robes, their dung was used for fuel, their meat for food."
Now, few U.S. markets exist for llama meat. That suits Ms. Berg and Ms. White -- not to mention Rolls Adventure llamas -- just fine. Neither of the women think they could sell animals they name at birth and treat almost as their children to become someone's exotic dinner entree.
Rolls Adventure llamas are usually named after the predominant male of the herd, known as Touchtone TL. His progeny include Tender Touch, Touche, Keep in Touch and Touch of Autumn.
"They know their names, but they choose to ignore them," Ms. White says. Indeed, as Ms. Berg shouts across a sloping field, "Hey, llama-llama-llama," several young males spring to attention, cavort up the field, happy to see her, then pretend to ignore her when she nuzzles and strokes them.
"I'm their mother," Ms. Berg explains. "But if you're new they have to check you out." Several llamas enter the shelter and inspect a visitor by very quietly walking up from behind and stretching their necks to sniff a face, a neck, a pen. More or less satisfied, some move away with a loud sniff and something like a groan. Others stay close, inviting their long necks to be petted.
Llamas are head shy; they tend to recoil when strangers reach out to pet them between the ears or on the face. Most on the farm prefer to be touched on the neck. Some allow themselves to be smothered with hugs. "Vinnie," the guard dog, makes sure no stranger comes near llamas on the farm unless the interloper is with Ms. White or Ms. Berg. A breed of dog known as Maremma, he is a sweet giant with eyes as calm as those of his charges.
"He's been bred to guard sheep against wolves," Ms. Berg FTC explains. "He's a ferocious guard dog and will guard the llamas against anything he sees as a threat," including rabbits, strange cats, foxes, and, of course, strange people.
"But he's also the gentlest dog I've ever seen. For punishment, we take him away from the llamas," she jokes.
Llamas endure heat, as long as their heavy wool coats are sheared before the Maryland heat and humidity of summer get too intense, and as long as they have shade and
a pool of water for drinking, wading and splashing. Each of Rolls Adventure's four llama shelters is equipped with large fans to cool the animals in summer.
They also are particular about keeping their shelters clean. "The daily communal dung pile is very important to them," Ms. White says. Where one goes, so go the rest.
Llamas are herbivores, choosing to dine on grass, hay, leaves and tree bark. As a result, all the trees in the llama pasture must have a protective covering about their trunks to keep nibbling llamas from destroying them.
Ms. White says llamas tend to get bored without a change of scenery now and then. A trip to Gunpowder
Trail along the river is a favorite outing. "It's like a field trip," Ms. White says. "We take them for walks and they're like kids. They're thrilled to get out. It's fun for us, and to them, it's like going to a new cafeteria with all the new leaves."
The reaction of passers-by on the trail is usually predictable, the women say.
"A lot of people say, 'Mighty big dog you have there,' " Ms. Berg says. "Other people just walk by, like they see them everyday."
Ms. White, who is president of the Greater Appalachian Llama Association, doesn't miss he former job. "What could be a better job than this?" she asks. "There's never a bad day on the farm."