Llama A La Cart


Wild Fibers - - NEWS - By Linda N. Cor­tright

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.

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