Llama A La Cart
FUEL EFFICIENT, ECO-FRIENDLY, SUNROOF INCLUDED
When she’s not in the driver’s seat, champion llama breeder Niki Kuklenski enjoys leading workshops,
teaching 4-H, and sharing her love for llamas in some very unlikely places.
In the early 1970s, llamas were touted as exotic pets, guaranteed to impress and entertain, and North Americans began welcoming them into their pastures. It wasn’t without precedent. In the 1920s, William Randolph Hearst had imported llamas (along with herds of antelopes, zebras, and kangaroos) to roam the “wilds” of San Simeon. Llamas are stately creatures with enormous curbside appeal. But unlike most exotics that come and go on a passing whim and have little value other than their novelty, llamas offer their owners the enormous thrill of packing with their animals, much as they have been used on the Altiplano for centuries. At one time, llamas were used to bring ore out of the mines in South America, until horses and mules, capable of carrying much heavier loads, replaced them.
By the 1980s, folks in North America were hitting the trails with their llamas in tow for an afternoon, an overnight, or sometimes weeks at a stretch. They were both ideal porters and steadfast companions. Llama packing even developed its own tourism niche, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where the terrain is ideal and many of the first imports came to live. Why hike the Cascade Mountains with a heavy backpack when a willing llama can carry your load?
A llama, however, isn’t just a stand-in double for a hairy-legged mule: it also produces fiber. Repeatedly overshadowed by their fiber-rich cousin, the alpaca, llamas are thought by many to produce fiber that is somehow inferior – a misconception that is slowly being quashed as better-quality llama yarn reaches the market. (see “A Man With A Plan,” page 45)
During the llama’s heyday in North America (many were also exported to Britain and Australia), it gradually became apparent that llamas also make great therapy animals. Dog therapy programs were popping up all over, and llama farmers soon discovered that some of their animals were well suited for therapy work in nursing homes and programs for people with special needs. Although hospitals still aren’t ready to embrace a fourhundred-pound animal wearing a blue service vest in its hallways, there are countless assisted-care facilities and summer camps for special kids that welcome the arrival of a livestock trailer in their parking lot.
Along with being a pack animal, a fiber animal, a therapy animal, and an excellent livestock guardian able to keep most predators at bay, llamas are also used for driving or, as it is often called outside of North America, carting.
Last year, as I was busy unloading my car to set up my booth at the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, Washington, a blond-haired woman in blue jeans and big sunglasses drove through the parking lot in what looked like a pony cart being pulled by a llama. I stopped what I was doing and immediately went running after her. I had never seen a llama pulling a cart and I wasn’t so sure that she might not be heading for the Interstate entrance ramp a few hundred yards away, never to be seen again.
The woman was Niki Kuklenski, along with her husband Jeff, they own JNK Llamas in Bellingham, Washington. Niki not only knows about packing with llamas, collecting their fiber, and using them for therapy, but she is also the top llama driver in the country, with enough blue ribbons, grand championships, and best-in-shows to make anyone wonder how she has time for her day job.
Not everyone has the opportunity (or desire) to go packing with a llama, and even fewer have the chance to hitch a ride in a cart with one. But after chasing Niki through the fairgrounds and ultimately hitching a ride, I was convinced I needed to learn more. Our subsequent conversation follows:
Linda: The day I met you at the Mother Earth News Fair, you were driving a llama through the parking lot
By the 1980s, folks i n North America were hitting the trails with their llamas i n tow for an afternoon, an overnight, or sometimes weeks at a
stretch. They were both ideal porters and steadfast companions.
where there were crowds of people, creating ripples of chaos. You made it look so easy. Is it difficult to learn how to drive a llama?
Niki: I wouldn’t say it’s easy. The question is really more about having the right llama. Not all llamas are going to be good drivers. It’s the same with getting any animal to do a certain task. Not all herding dogs, for example, actually make good herders. Some llamas make better drivers than others.
Linda: I know not all llamas are created equal, but what characteristics make for a good driving llama?
Niki: Most importantly, they need to have a strong sense of independence. Llamas are herd animals by nature and have an innate desire to stay with the gang. If you want to train a llama to drive it has to be willing to leave the herd behind. For example, people frequently teach their llamas to drive right on their farm with the rest of the herd frequently in sight. That can be a real distraction for an animal that wants to be back with his buddies.
Linda: I hate asking this question, but do male llamas make better drivers than females?
Niki: Not necessarily. Male llamas have the advantage of a larger body structure for pulling but trying to train an intact male is hopeless. They will run to wherever the girls are. No surprise there! Most of the time we use geldings.
My driving llama who was the top driving llama of all time, was only 265lbs and I am currently driving one of his daughters. It’s not just about size but also about independence and desire.
Linda: I was very impressed watching you drive. I was surprised by the comfortable ride and how effortlessly the llama seemed to move. How long can a llama typically travel with a cart behind him?
Niki: They can go for miles. A group of drivers in the Northwest gets together several times a year. Sometimes we’ll go on an overnight, traveling ten or fifteen miles a day, stopping just for lunch.
Linda: I’m not sure how I would respond if I was walking along a trail and suddenly fifteen llamas pulling carts came around the bend. How do people typically react when they see you?
Niki: They’re always surprised and lots of times people don’t know they’re llamas, particularly because alpacas have become so popular. We go driving because we love it, but it always has a public relations and an educational component mixed in. I’m a substitute teacher so wanting to educate people just comes naturally.
Linda: When was the first time a llama crossed your path, and where were you?
Niki: I was riding horses back in the 1980s, a typical young girl addicted to horses. We lived in a housing development. It was semi country, but not a farm. The farm where I went riding was about ten minutes from our house and there was a woman with llamas who lived across the street who paid me to come and brush her llamas.
Linda: You gave up your horse addiction just like that?
Niki: Not immediately, but the llamas were just so cool! I did a lot of gaming, a lot of barrel racing, the type of stuff where you’re either being kicked, or bucked, or rubbed off onto a tree. Even though I was young, I was getting hurt a lot and got to thinking that maybe this wasn’t so much fun after all. Llamas weren’t anywhere near as hazardous and eventually I joined both 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America). I was the first person in the state of Washington to complete 4-H and FFA with a llama!
Linda: Were you one of those kids who, instead of begging their parents to give them a pony for Christmas, begged for a llama instead?
Niki: No, I didn’t even bother to ask. Neither of my parents have a strong attraction to animals. We had poodles and a box turtle growing up. That was it.
Linda: How long did it take before you got your first llama?
Niki: At first, I only had part of a llama. I bought half interest in a male in 1996. It was all I could afford but I was determined. He went on to become the top show llama in the country. He won every ribbon imaginable and then our trailer was rear-ended coming home from a show in 2010 and we eventually lost him a few months later as we were heading to Idaho to go driving. It really hurts your heart but you have to be practical if you’re
Opposite Top: JNK’s Presto (owned by Emily Schneider) and JNK’s Versace (owned by Roxywood Llama Farm) whispering sweet nothings? Left: Niki Kuklenski with Isle Eagle, top showing, driving, packing and therapy llama, forging the Nooksack River, Washinton. (Photo courtesy of Kate Otey.) Right: Anders Tobias, all packed and ready to go.
going to be a farmer. Nothing lasts forever. I learned a lot from him and even though things will never be the same, it was still a wonderful experience.
Linda: How did you go from owning half a llama to driving one?
Niki: I went to a class led by Jim Logan that focused on animal husbandry and a bit of driving. Jim had designed some driving equipment specifically to use with llamas, but once I learned the basic commands – stop, forward, left, and right – I realized what the llama needed even more than good instruction was a harness and cart that fit correctly. Horses are controlled with a bit in their mouth: that’s a big difference right there between the two. I think I spent just as much time in the beginning designing the right equipment as I did the actual training.
Linda: Did your experience with horses help you to train your llamas?
Niki: Absolutely. I think once you have that basic understanding and patience with teaching an animal anything, you communicate more effectively. But my first driving llama, the same one that became the greatest driving llama of all time was a handful. The first week I went to teach him, he just threw himself down on the ground. A friend of mine happened to be standing next to me and said, “If I know you, you’re going to take that llama to the top.” She was right. But back then I just remember feeling frustrated. And it just so happened to be the same week that my
husband was planning to propose. He was being unusually insistent that we go sailing in the San Juan Islands for the weekend, and all I wanted to do was stay at home and go driving.
Linda: Would that be the same husband you’re married to now?
Niki: Yes. Eventually I gave in and went out in the boat. He took me up to this secluded bluff at sunset with a diamond ring in his pocket. He is a complete romantic.
Linda: Farming is inevitably a family affair. Do romantic husbands also make good llama farmers?
Niki: Mine does. I made him go to a llama show in the very beginning of our relationship. Otherwise, I knew we wouldn’t have a future. Farming is a full-time commitment, and you have to be with someone who is willing to make certain sacrifices. Even though we don’t have children, we just can’t pick up and leave for two weeks. We have twenty animals: that’s a huge responsibility.
Linda: In addition to showing and driving llamas, you also produce some of the best llama fiber in the country. What got you interested in the fiber?
Niki: Probably all that brushing back in beginning! Actually, I have always wanted to spin. It’s one of those things you see people doing and you think, ‘I want to learn how to do that too.’ I started spinning in 2001, and that really helped me to understand what fleece characteristics are important for good spinning. Some llamas make good drivers, some make good therapy animals, and some make great fleeces. I have second- and thirdgeneration animals on my farm that have been bred for specific traits, but I don’t do any line breeding.
Linda: How would you describe what makes llama yarn different than alpaca?
Niki: First, it’s important to understand that even the best fleece can be destroyed if it’s not processed correctly. My llama fleeces don’t have any VM (vegetable matter) and there’s virtually no waste. When you buy a sheep fleece, for example, it may weigh three of four pounds, but there’s a lot of heavy lanolin that’s going to be washed out. Unless the sheep has been kept coated, there’s frequently a lot of VM that needs to be removed. In my view, llama yarn is as soft and springy as the animal it comes from. People get addicted to it very easily. Everyone always talks about how great alpaca fiber is, but they should talk to me about my llama!
Linda: When you’re not driving, or showing, or spinning, you have several llamas that you use as therapy animals. What has that been like?
Niki: Doing therapy work is always very special. You never know how someone is going to react, and in some cases, they may not even be able to vocalize their reac-
Top: Niki Kuklenski at the 2011 Iowa Gathering of Friends Showmanship with NH Flight of the Eagle, Obstacle and Pleasure Driving Champion, (Photo courtesy of Debbie Shellabarger.) Bottom (left to right): Niki driving Isle Eagle with her grandmother in Portland, Oregon’s Rose Parade. Niki at the Rose Parade driving NH Flight of the Eagle, and Flight of the Eagle posing with posies. Jeff Kuklenski taking a break with Dazador.
JNK Tobias’s Sedona: a classic pack style llama.
4-H member Emily Schneider puckers-up for Sedona.
Niki Kuklenski takes her llamas to a nursing home for a special holiday visit.