Addicted to llama love

Local couple owns nine llamas

By Julie Fann
star staff

For the past seven years, Phyllis Tsarnas has been addicted to the love of llamas - unique, remarkably intelligent animals of the Camelidae family that normally live in the high Andes in South America. In fact, Tsarnas and her husband own nine of the creatures, one of which once belonged to the Nordstrom family.
   "They're just so friendly and easy going and very regal. They're the best packing animal in the world. They never harm the environment. A lot of national forests in America will not allow horses or mules because they will harm the environment, but llamas will not because they're so sure-footed," Tsarnas said.
   Tsarnas and her husband, David Valadao, 589 Laurels Rd., keep the animals on a large piece of land below their home. On April 2, Princess, a prize llama that has a blood-line that is half Chilean, gave birth to Rainey, named after the weather on the day of her birth.
   "It was a horrible, rainy day. It was cold. We almost lost her to hypothermia. When I couldn't get her warm enough, I had to take her inside ... and rubbed her and rubbed her, and she finally came back to us," Tsarnas said.
   Baby llamas are called Crias. There are three other members of the Camelidae family in South America - vicunas, the wild guanaco (Lama Guanacoe), and the alpaca (Lama Pacos). Llamas and alpacas are both domesticated, and the llama is the larger of the two. Llamas are used for fiber production and show in the United States, but in South America they are used also as pack animals, a source of meat, and their dung is used for fuel.
   Tsarnas and Valadao only keep the llamas as pets, though Tsarnas said she wouldn't mind giving some of the wool to a spinner who is interested in doing something with it. Llama wool comes in 20 different grades. "I'd love to give them the wool and see what they can do with it. I could sell it, but if there's a spinner who would like it, I would graciously give it to them," she said.
   Having moved to the Johnson City area just two years ago, the couple bought their original four llamas while they were living in Idaho. "We had over 10 acres in Idaho, and I was working a great deal, and we were thinking of cows, but I didn't know much about cows. Then we thought horses, but they take a lot of care," Tsarnas said.
   While taking a walk with two of her dogs one day, Tsarnas noticed nearly a dozen llamas staring at her from a neighbor's farm. "So I told my husband, 'There's llamas up there.' I said, 'I want llamas.' And he said, 'No there isn't. I don't want llamas. What the heck are llamas?'"
   The first four llamas cost nearly $4,000. One of them, Anna, is now nearly 15 years old and was originally bought for $8,000 by the Nordstrom family, owners of the upscale department store chain. Some llamas are worth thousands of dollars, but because the animals aren't widely known in Tennessee, the market for them here is small, Tsarnas said.
   One of the most interesting facts about llamas is their breeding habits. Female llamas never go into heat, so they are ready to breed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Also, male llamas serenade females before and during intercourse.
   "The male will come to her, and he'll start singing a song that's called orgling, and that's what it sounds like, and it causes her to bend down. He will mount her and continue to sing his song. Her egg then drops and that's how he fertilizes her," Tsarnas said.
   A llama's gestation period lasts nearly a full year - 11-and-a-half months, so most llama owners breed the animals during spring so the infants will arrive in spring weather.
   Llamas have only four to six bottom teeth and no top teeth. They also have a cloven, two-toed hoof. They eat mainly grass and grain, and they are easily trained. Unfortunately, the animals have a reputation as being unfriendly and prone to spitting at humans.
   "I have extremely friendly llamas. A lot of people say, 'Do they spit?', and the only reason they spit is if there's food involved and there's a pecking order, then they spit at each other. Now, if they've been mistreated they will be extremely unhappy and unfriendly," Tsarnas said while the llamas sniffed this reporter and the photographer.
   "They get to know you by smelling you, and they often get right in your face. They love to be petted and they're very communal. They need to be around other llamas or other animals. If you just had one by itself it would be very unhappy," she said. "You usually only need to show them how to do something once. They can turn the light on (in the barn) by themselves, but they're not like a horse with a kick; they're not rough. People think that they're mean, but they're not."
   Baby Rainey is one of four generations of llamas Tsarnas and Valadao have on their farm, which is called Valatsar Farm from joining the first four letters of the couple's last names. Rainey's great-grandmother is Anna; her grandmother is named Cinnamon, and her mother is Princess, who was born when Princess Diana died.
   According to the State University of New Jersey's Rutgers Cooperative Extension Web site, approximately 125,000 llamas currently reside in the United States.