Having alpacas and llamas was a dream of Cynthia Johnson of Hillman. It was simply something she and her husband, Bruce Lindgren, would do once they were retired.
But in February 2011, the couple was reminded of how frail life can be when Johnson was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“They (medical personnel) thought it was just a simple little thing and it turned out to be a lot worse,” Lindgren said.
In June 2011, Johnson went through surgery. When her doctor came to tell of his wife’s condition, Lindgren knew by the look on her face that bad news would follow.
Besides his own intuition, he was also trained in reading people’s faces. He had worked as a cop for 25 years before he retired after he was injured in the line of duty.
The cancer had spread to the lymph nodes and had penetrated the lymph node walls, filling her body.
“When it happens to you, it’s almost like a death sentence, because it forces you to think about mortality,” Lindgren said.
Without knowing what the future would hold, Lindgren decided to make Johnson’s dream become a reality.
He refinanced their house, purchased 20 acres and began to build.
“To see the soul come alive in people is a precious thing. To see her light up and see that she has fallen into a place where her soul is just very happy, that makes me happy,” Lindgren said.
The two named their alpaca and llama farm “Ranch of the Friendly Beasts.” It is the home to about 17 alpacas and 17 llamas.
The ranch has become so much more than just a fulfillment of Johnson’s dream.
“It has become my saving grace,” Lindgren said.
Taking care of the ranch and the animals has allowed him to focus on something else besides the physical pain he experiences from getting injured in the line of duty.
The land also provided the opportunity to make a dream of his own come true, as well. As a child, he always wanted to have some big Heritage turkeys.
“Back then you couldn’t really find out who had them, but now with the Internet, you can,” Lindgren said.
Today, the ranch is the home to about 20 Heritage turkeys.
Johnson said that in the beginning, she was a little apprehensive about getting the alpacas and llamas. She had heard about people who had learned about how to take care of the animals and other extensive research about two years before they even purchased some.
“The difference between llamas and alpacas is that llamas have what you call ‘banana ears.’ They have a curvature to them. The alpacas, on the other hand, have short stub ears,” Lindgren said.
Since then, both Johnson and Lindgren have learned a lot. Not only about how to care for the animals in the general sense, but have gotten to know each animal on a personal level.
One llama Lindgren calls “Mama” is very friendly and will even rub her head against him as if to say she wants him to pay attention to her.
But in the fall when it’s time to shear, clip their feet and deworm the animals, she turns into an entirely different character.
“She will scream bloody murder like someone is being murdered. She will spit, stomp her feet and throw a tantrum like you have never seen before,” Lindgren said.
When llamas and alpacas spit, they draw the contents from their stomachs. It’s greenish in color, depending on if they’ve been fed grain, but regardless of color, will reek badly.
Lindgren said that even though their spit is nasty, spitting is interestingly only used in the animals’ social structure. It’s a way of showing dominance over another animal, such as at feeding time.
“You have to be careful when they get mad at each other, so you’re not in the crossfire,” Lindgren said.
Another interesting behavior that even other llama and alpaca owners find peculiar, is that Johnson’s and Lindgren’s animals will often not spit on them to let them know they are unhappy.
Instead they will bring their heads close to Lindgren’s head and puff a shot of air at him.
“That’s pretty nice. They are telling me that they are mad, but they don’t put the stuff on me,” he said.
Because of the meningeal worm that can be transferred from white-tailed deer in the area to the llamas and alpacas, they are given a shot of Ivomec every 30 days.
Johnson enjoys working with the animals, so several of them can be used for therapy, 4-H and as a pack animal on trails. Llamas can be brought along when hiking and camping in state parks, as long as they’re up on their vaccinations.
Another aspect of the animals Johnson finds interesting is fiber. She learned about the warmth and softness of Alpaca fiber when her son, Alex, made a scarf from alpaca yarn for his loom project at school.
“Most people do not have allergic reactions to the fiber. It does not contain lanolin as sheep wool does. Alpaca and llama fibers do not have scales as sheep wool does, therefore no itchy sensation from the fibers,” she said.
Two of their llamas are grand champions in fiber, Lindgren said.
Johnson finished chemotherapy and radiation in November 2011. Even though the cancer has not returned, Lindgren said it is what he fears the most.
But having the alpacas and the llamas has changed their lives. It has brought peace, Lindgren said.