In recent years, Llamas have become a major part of American popular culture, from representation in internet memes to Disney movies (anyone watched The Emperor’s New Groove recently?). Many people think of these animals as exotic South American cousins to goats or camels, but as it turns out, llamas have a longstanding history in North America – in fact, an entire species of North American llama lived on the continent through the last ice age before becoming extinct.
The lucky llamas who escaped the big freeze headed south, where they eventually became essential components of human life in the region. Pre-Incan cultures like the Moche thought of the animals as sacred, much like the ancient Egyptians thought of cats – both peoples would include representational figures of these icons in important burials, and the Peruvian Moche even made sophisticated ceramics cast in the form of the llama.
Their reverence in pre-Columbian Peruvian society was not unearned – the Incans empire literally fueled by llamas; they were the culture’s only beasts of burden, and their especially soft wool (move over, cashmere!) was used to make the majority of the civilization’s textiles. Llama herd were a symbol of social importance, and the Incan nobility tended to have control over the largest flocks. The Incas even had a llama-god, Urcuchillay, a rainbow-hued diety whose job was to watch over animals.
Eventually, llama fever hit the US, when ranchers discovered their potential as flock guards during the 1980s. Then, they were everywhere – remember the llama song? But now, America’s llamas are in serious need of help, with many domesticated llamas being abandoned by their owners in poor health condition and with no liveable resources. Many displaces llamas receive terrible treatment from local farmers, whose first instinct is to shoot when they find a homeless llama eating their hay.
Luckily, Wild Earth Llama Adventures, an organization based in Taos, New Mexico, is dedicated to improving the lifestyle of llamas across America. The group currently supports 30 unwanted llamas, but there are many, many more out there – and Wild Earth wants to find a safe home for every one of them!
You can show your support for America’s llamas by donating to Wild Earth, or you can take your very own llama adventure and get to know these amazing animals firsthand. Many former adventurers become serious llama advocates after spending a few days with these furry, sociable creatures, who want more than anything to be part of a happy family. You may not be able to add a llama to your own pack, but you can make a difference in a llama’s life!