Llama Dramas is a series of interactions observed by Jacky Sawatzky at High Park Zoo. Join us on her adventures in learning!

In honour of the grandmothers of the herd
All three crias (a juvenile llama) born in 2019 have a grandmother in the herd: Dusty to Jazz, Salsa to Chilli, and Honey to Stardust. And, as Chiquita is Honey’s mother, this makes her Stardust’s great-grandmother.

In the weeks after Chilli’s birth I observed Dusty, lead llama to the herd, snap at Chilli. Salsa, on the contrary, would often nuzzle Chilli and even protect her when, for example, Arianna chased her away from the hay. Salsa lets Chilli climb on her back when cushed, lets her nibble on her ears and lips and nuzzle her nose (“nose to nose”). Chilli follows Salsa around. Salsa does snap at her, although this almost always happens around food.

As Tango’s cria (Jazz) was almost due, I wondered whether Dusty be more tolerant towards her soon-to-be-born grandchild. Dusty does nuzzle Jazz more often than Chilli, though she did not show the same protective and playful behaviour that Salsa did towards Chilli. Not once have I seen Jazz climb onto Dusty’s back. I then contemplated Honey’s responses to Stardust. Honey is not more or less engaged towards Stardust than with Chilli and Jazz. She would nuzzle all three of them.

Crias’ behaviour towards their grandmothers

Last week, Chilli climbed on Salsa’s back while she was cushed. Salsa snapped at Chilli and tried to push her off with her neck, but Chilli was just out of her reach. Salsa was increasingly irritated, however Chilli did not stop. Salsa, however, did not get up, which would have put an end to Chilli’s behaviour. Chilli only stopped her climbing activities to join her sisters, Jazz and Stardust, in a chase around the compound.

So far, I have only seen Chilli regularly engage with her grandmother Salsa, though this does not mean that the others don’t. Does Chilli recognize Salsa as her grandmother? How would we know if she does? She might sense something familiar in Salsa. Maybe Salsa smells like her mother, or, as mothers vocalize to their cria, Salsa’s humming might sound similar to her mother’s. Pepper is younger than Tango and Luna and might still be closer to her mother, and Chilli copies this behaviour. So I watched for this, and yes, Pepper can be seen more often in the vicinity of Salsa than Tango and Luna to their mothers (Dusty and Honey). But if and how this makes a difference won’t be known unless further research is done.

It is a bit of a challenge to tell Salsa, Dusty and Pepper apart. Focusing on behaviour as well as looks helps. Dusty is brown and has a dark patch around her eyes, and a grey/dusty neck. She does not engage much with the other llamas and is often cushed in the centre towards the back. Her spot, I call it. Salsa is also brown but with a red glow. With her daughter Pepper, she is one of the taller llamas. The difference with Pepper is her grey tuffs on the end of her ears. She is the only llama who will play queen of the mountain on the rock by the water. Honey is easy to tell apart as she looks different than all the other llamas. She is also the sweetest llama, you will seldom see her snap or spit at another llama.

An explanation of behavioural terms used:

Cushing – the official name for a llama sitting down.

Snapping – happens mostly while llamas are eating, though can also happen in a dispute around access to the dustbath. It is a negative gesture and means something like ‘back off’. The llamas put their ears back, muzzle up and make a pointed movement with their head and neck. Sometimes a little bite is included in this. You will see that the younger llamas, with the exception of Pepper, will seldom snap at their elders.

The High Park Five meet their new friends at Serendipity Farm

On November 15, 2019, five llamas from High Park Zoo (Dusty, Salsa, Angelique, Pepper and her cria Chilli – known as “the High Park Five”) moved to Serendipity Farm in Lanark, Ontario.

I was fortunate to accompany these five llamas to the farm and stay for three days afterwards. Hosted by farmers Elizabeth & Keith Adam, I had an amazing opportunity to watch the High Park Five’s behaviour in an environment that was new and very different from the Zoo.

Many beautiful moments happened in the days following their arrival, and the High Park Five (HP5) were troopers. I remember thinking they must be so exhausted! So many new smells, sounds, and sights for these “city-llamas,” including new llama friends, new humans taking care of them, new feeding patterns, and new creatures: alpacas! To my knowledge, they had never seen or met an alpaca. Would they be recognised as relatives (alpacas are a smaller cousin to the llama)? How would this then be expressed?

In the early morning I would stand outside and listen to their humming. This had me think about the different hums; whether each llama had their own signature hum and whether the quality of humming changed through their different encounters, like a stress hum, or a calming hum. I will write more about this in a later llama blog entry. At the Zoo the llamas often hum when they are waiting to be fed, and Jet is particularly vocal!

The morning after their arrival, the fresh snow in their field was covered with llama prints. Already, the HP5 had been out exploring. In the following days I kept a close eye out for any stress behaviour such as huddling together or spitting and fighting amongst themselves, however I didn’t detect any unusual behaviour other then the typical little tiffs around food. Pepper tried to get at Dusty’s food and was given a “back-off” signal (ears back and muzzle up), however this was also noticed at the Zoo. The HP5 were also not afraid to approach the other llamas, who greeted them with a “nose to nose” gesture across the shared fence line.

After two days sharing a fence line with the other female llamas and alpacas, the gate was opened. Tressie was the first to approach the HP5, who were hanging out in the back field. She slowly approached them, with her neck and head low, tail relaxed and ears straight up; a none-threatening posture. Angelique snuggled up close to her big sister Salsa, Chilli stayed close to her mother Pepper, and Dusty stepped forward to Tressie. There was no sign of hostility (ears back and muzzle up) in any of the llamas. The only moment of ears back was when Tressie sniffed Dusty’s bum, a common response no matter who does that!

En-route to the large hay feeder the HP5 encountered Dolly, who blocked the path. The HP5 had to negotiate passage: Salsa followed by Angelique calmly and non-threateningly approached Dolly, tail relaxed. Dolly just stood there, ears slightly back. Eventually she stepped back; she had made her point: I am the matriarch here!

When the HP5 approached the large hay feeder, they were mobbed by 10 alpacas and they bolted! Standing at a distance huddled together, they watched. After five minutes, Pepper, followed by her cria Chilli, calmly walked towards the group of alpacas and llamas. Chilli watched at a distance when Mila, a llama cria, stepped out of the group towards Pepper. She had her tail curled over her back, a gesture I have only seen crias and yearlings do. Pepper greeted her with a “nose to nose.” Mila’s mother, Penny, watched at a close distance. After this gentle exchange, Pepper ran back to the other HP5 and Chilli followed. When she approached she seemingly copied Mila’s posture: making herself small, neck low, head down, ears normal, and tail curled flat on her back. I had seen this posture by Arianna back at the Zoo in the fall, and now Jet and Lima were also doing it. It is called “I am a little cria” and yearlings do it when they are weaning. When Pepper arrived back at the HP5, Dusty, Angelique and Salsa sniffed her. Were they checking if she was asserting stress hormones? The posture and the smelling made me wonder if Pepper was communicating what she had experienced. It was so interesting and begs for more research.

Later in the day Chilli walked over to a group of alpacas and got the ears back motion from T’Pau, a young female alpaca. Angelique, who followed behind Chilli, went over to T’Pau. She put her ears back, and muzzle slightly up, as if she was saying “back off!”. She reiterated this gesture! In llama this is a clear gesture. Did she know that these alpacas could understand her? Would she have made the same gesture if they were small horses?

The High Park Five have now been living in their new home for over five months. They are doing very well. Pepper is the charmer and loves a good back scratch. Dusty is still the leader. And Chilli and Mila get into allot of mischief. Serendipity Farm has an open house on the weekends. It is worth a visit! http://www.serendipityalpacas.ca/

Humans aren’t the only visitors!

Do the High Park llamas get visits from other animals? Two years ago, I witnessed a muskrat entering the llama enclosure. The llamas had spotted her running alongside the fence and ran over. The herd was all excited, tails up and ears alert. When the muskrat slipped under the gate, they gave her an enthusiastic welcome and followed the muskrat until it found ‘safety’ in the pond. The llamas eventually lost interest, and the muskrat left through a hole in the back of the fencing. Had the muskrat visited before? I would like to think it did.

I was reminded of this event when I saw Tamara Shena’s video showing llamas checking out a raccoon walking past their enclosure. Again, the llamas were very curious. However, the raccoon did not enter and merely trotted by. And what about coyotes? They are in the park, and I have seen them in the zoo, trotting along as if they own the place. The llamas don’t seem to be bothered. Is this because they perceive them as just another dog? What if the coyotes come at night? Do the llamas respond differently? Do they then put out an alarm call and guard at the fence line? Llamas are guard animals and are often used to protect sheep and alpacas from coyotes. Although as the fencing at the zoo is coyote-proof, perhaps they sense they have nothing to worry about. Or perhaps they only guard when there are crias in the herd?

There are also birds that fly into the enclosure to help themselves to the food. As a cria, Jet would chase after pigeons. One quiet morning, a child asked her mother “why can the llama chase pigeons and I can’t?”. The mother looked at me and we both laughed at this excellent question. However, in contrast to their alarm when pursued by children, the pigeons seemed unbothered by Jet’s approach. Sometimes, she would gently touch the pigeon with her nose.

Figure 1 – Jet nuzzling a pigeon

One afternoon I was sitting on a bench when all the llamas ran to the fence. What’s up, I thought? And then the sound of horses’ hooves on the pavement reached my ears. The llamas had spotted the mounted police long before I did. They are here! As if they were watching a parade pass by. Lima slowly looked up at one; she jumped back! Those horses are massive!

This past Fall (2020), the llamas moved to a temporary home beside the yak enclosure. The yaks and the llamas each actively checked each other out. Jazz, crai, approached the yaks with her neck and head down in a submissive posture. Tango, Jazz’s mother, showed more alertness, her ears cupped forward, though her slightly bowed neck and head demonstrated she too posed no threat.

Figure 2 Tango and Jazz checking out the yak

It has been a delight to watch these encounters, as the llamas are always curious and excited. I, too, am curious to know if they form a lasting bond with their neighbours and the visiting animals.

Here are the links to the muskrat video https://youtu.be/mElnnzvMyt8 and the raccoon video https://youtu.be/El_jBw99WWo

About Llama Dramas – Jacky Sawatzky’s Biography

Born in Winnipeg, Jacky Sawatzky grew up in the Netherlands. With an educational background in visual art and science, Jacky landed in Toronto for a teaching job at Ryerson University and later taught at OCAD University. Jacky is currently is completing a Ph.D. at York University. Her research combines her passion for art and animals by attempting to understand how it is to be a llama and how they express themselves amongst each other. Jacky has created events where llamas and humans can come together in a shared space and observes their interactions. To-date, these events have included a concert where two musicians played (a viola and clarinet), and an impromptu visit by a juggler. In the few minutes of juggling clubs and balls, an audience of llamas, children and adults had gathered! To learn about llamas and their interactions, Jacky has spent hours watching the fourteen llamas living in High Park Zoo. They are getting to know each other pretty well!