Local woman seeks good homes for her herd of 27 llamas

APPLEGATE VALLEY — Wanted: Good homes for 27 mature, gentle, graham cracker-loving llamas.

The colorful, shaggy herd of older females silently gathers around their owner, Harriet Ferguson, in a grass pasture at Haddo Half Moon Ranch in the Upper Applegate.

"They remind me so much of unicorns, especially in the moonlight. There's just something magical about them," Ferguson says.

One polka-dotted llama gently places her velvety nose to Ferguson's lips. Blossom's long, blond lashes sweep across large chocolate eyes as she exhales. The small puff of air smells like grass hay and sunlight.

"Aww. That's a llama kiss," Ferguson says with a smile.

Handing her friend a golden cracker that disappears with the flick of a long, pink tongue, Ferguson speaks of letting go of a dream.

"It was my dream to have llamas. I bought my first herd from (actress) Kim Novak in 1991," Ferguson says, adding she paid $20,000 each for her initial five llamas.

She and her husband, artist Barclay Ferguson, moved to the Applegate Valley from Carmel, Calif., in the spring of that same year — just six months before his death.

"Barclay knew he was sick. He knew having llamas was my dream. And he also knew the effect his death was going to have on me. He knew I'd have to have something wonderful to put my heart into," she says.

And so, after Barclay died, she built a life with her llamas on the pristine 65-acre ranch. Going into partnership with Jerry Lambo in 1992, and enlisting the help of ranch manager Will Mumford, she raised and sold llamas during the peak of the animals' popularity.

"In our heyday we delivered a lot of baby llamas," Ferguson says.

Their herd grew to 40 llamas. DJ and Ajax, in nearby pastures, are two of their prize studs from the Lion of Bolivia bloodlines, Lambo says.

"Harriet traded in her 2-year-old Lexus for DJ," Lambo says. "His sire had sold for $100,000."

The baby llamas (called "crias") were a source of much enjoyment.

"The crias are so adorable. They'd take a graham cracker, then they'd go nurse. We'd say they're having graham crackers and milk," Lambo says.

But the craze created a lot of poorly bred llamas and llama crosses with alpacas — something Ferguson feels is not in the best interest of either breed. Bolivian llamas were no longer a hot commodity with the advent of "fad llamas," and soon the bottom fell out of the llama market all together. She stopped breeding her herd in 1996, Ferguson says.

Now, as much as she loves her llamas and the ranch, Ferguson is 66 years old and feels the need to live closer to her children and grandchildren, who live in Ashland.

"I thought I'd live here forever and grow old with my llamas. But I am lonely here, even in the midst of all this beauty," she says.

She recently sold the ranch to a neighbor who plans to maintain the property, protecting it from development. But he's not much interested in caring for a herd of aging llamas, Ferguson says.

"Most people go for the babies because they are cute. But the mature llamas have a calmness about them. They come into themselves," she says.

Llamas make good hiking companions, herd guardians and lawn mowers — and their coat is good for fiber arts, says Mumford.

Llamas clip grass, instead of pulling it like goats or sheep. And, speaking of sheep or goats, llamas make good guardians once they bond with their herd. Social by nature, llamas are watchful and quiet. But when alarmed they give off a "loud, high-pitched screeching alarm call," says Mumford.

A wise rancher knows to heed the call of a llama, because it usually means there is a predator in the area. But if the rancher is remiss, and unless the predator is a cougar, llamas have been known to dispatch interlopers, he says.

A llama placed with a herd of sheep in Phoenix was ignored by the rancher the first night it made the alarm call.

"The second night the llama killed the coyote," Mumford says.

Ferguson prefers to stress the calming nature of her llamas, and what good walking companions they can be.

"They are halter-trained and quite mellow. You tend to notice things more in nature if you're walking with a llama because they'll stop and look," she says.

"We've taken our llamas to nursing homes," says Lambo, showing pictures of one of the llamas taking a graham cracker from an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

But what about their reputation for spitting? Not generally a problem — unless you've placed yourself between two feeding llamas, or llamas looking for love, Ferguson says.

"If you get spit on, you're probably in the way," she says.

A female llama knows within 24 hours of being bred whether she's pregnant, Lambo says. If a pregnant llama is brought back to the stud for a second breeding, she lets him know in no uncertain terms she is not interested, he says.

"He's singing his orgling mating song. And she spits right in his face. That stops his singing right there," Lambo says.

While their herd still has studs capable of breeding, most of the females are past that stage of their lives, says Ferguson.

"Llamas live to be about 25 years old. Our oldest llamas are getting close to that," she says, pointing to one 19-year-old female lying in the sunshine.

Ferguson is looking for folks who can provide pairs (or more) of her llamas with good homes. Prices are nominal and negotiable for those who will care for her llamas and appreciate their gentle, amiable nature, Ferguson says.

"They really like to have one of their kind around," Ferguson says. "My aim is to find good, responsible homes for them. And I won't let them go until I do. I owe them that. I just don't know of any llamas who are so gentle. I guess it's all that love and graham crackers."

If you can provide a good home, contact Ferguson at 482-5040 or Mumford at 899-8021.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.