Llamas take spotlight at Clark County Fair (with video)

Owners praise animals' versatility, independence

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 

If you go

What: Clark County Fair.

Hours today: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Where: 17402 N.E. Delfel Road, Ridgefield.

Admission: Adults, $10; seniors 62 and older, $8; military, $7 today with I.D.; kids 7-12, $7; kids 6 and younger, free; parking, $6; C-Tran shuttle, $2 per person round trip from area Park & Ride lots; children 6 and younger ride free. $1 discount on admission with a bus fare stub.

Carnival: Opens at noon; unlimited rides today, $25.

99.5 The Wolf Grandstands: Freestyle Moto X, 2 and 7 p.m.

Other highlights: Texaco Country Showdown, 6 p.m.; hypnotist Jerry Harris, 9 p.m.

Pets: Not permitted, except for personal service animals or those on exhibition or in competition.

More information: Clark County Fair or call 360-397-6180.

Online: Download the mobile app for the Clark County Fair.

It doesn't matter if you just scarfed down one of those giant Walla Walla onion burgers, Regal still wants to smell your breath.

That's how the 13-year-old llama, and first-time visitor to the Clark County Fair, says hello. You breathe in his face, he breathes in your face, maybe you share an alfalfa cube or two and before you know it, he's your best friend.

Regal and his fellow llamas — and their alpaca cousins — are the featured animals at the fair this year. And Regal's longtime friend (shhh … she says nobody really "owns" a llama), Cathy Wooldridge, says there's a lot to learn when it comes to the quirky, shaggy, sweet-tempered animals.

"People always ask if they spit," Wooldridge said. "And all llamas can spit, just like all dogs can bite and all cats can scratch. But they don't usually do that unless threatened. If you get between a mother and her baby and threaten the baby, you'll probably get spit on. But if you're just saying hello, it's pretty unlikely."

Once you've been around them for a while, it's easy to tell the difference between alpacas and llamas. But newcomers often ask about the differences, she said.

"As a rule, alpacas are shorter than llamas," she told an inquisitive visitor while sitting in the empty pen next to Regal. "Alpacas' faces are smooshier. Llamas have banana-shaped ears, and alpacas have straighter ones."

Llamas are often used as pack animals, show jumpers and for their wool.

"They also pull carts, they go in parades, and there are therapy llamas," said Cathy's husband, Bob Wooldridge, the llama superintendent. "There's a place in San Diego and you can hire a string of llamas, and they'll take your wedding cake and everything up to a mountain top for your wedding."

The couple, who own the Wishful Thinking llama farm in Battle Ground, are both retired from the military. They've had the farm since 1991 and have been showing their llamas at the fair for about 21 years.

Right now, they have six male llamas living with them, including Regal and Speckles, the two they're showing at the fair.

People use llamas for many different purposes, but for the couple, the animals are pretty much just beloved pets, Cathy Wooldridge said.

"There are two kinds of people on this Earth," she said. "One kind looks at a llama and says 'what do you do with that,' and the other kind says 'oh, I have to have one.'"

Many people also keep alpacas as pets, but they tend to be more of a herd animal known for their soft, smooth wool whereas llamas are a bit more independent, said Sharon Rico, who with her husband owns Lacamas Llamas in Vancouver.

The farm has 10 animals, which are used mostly for wool, she said.

"I've raised llamas since 1982, when I met babies in a petting zoo," Rico said. "When we got the farm I wanted to raise something, but I didn't want to raise butcher animals. Llamas are so diverse. They were perfect."

For 30 years, she's been breeding llamas with a goal of improving their wool.

"I've been breeding for longer, softer fiber," she said, as she spun yarn with a loom at the fair's Llama Greenway. "Ultimately the alpaca fiber can be longer, softer and denser than llamas, and more can come off of an animal, and alpacas have a crimp whereas llamas have straighter fiber."

Both alpaca and llama wool lacks lanolin, which is the typical cause for people's allergies to sheep's wool.

So why raise llamas instead of alpacas if it's the wool she's after? She just likes their personalities better, Rico said.

"Llamas have been raised for work," Rico said. "They're a little more independent. They pack, they pull carts. Whereas alpacas are fiber animals, so they're raised as more of a flock."

Llamas also make good guard animals for sheep. If a coyote threatens a flock, they don't back down. They put their long neck out and charge, unlike their more passive alpaca cousins, Cathy Wooldridge said.

"They also have a scream they use," she said. "It's pretty unsettling when you hear it, but it works well for scaring coyotes away."

People often compare llama and alpaca personalities to cats — a little stand-offish, smart and independent.

But 12-year-old Kelsey Lawrence, who's been in 4-H for two years with her llama, Mac Daddy, says her animal is more like a dog.

"He's very trusting and he's very friendly," she said, rubbing the top of his head, which is something the animals usually don't like. "If he's laying in the stall we can lay on him and he doesn't care. He'll follow us around. He's more like a big dog than a llama."

Usually llamas and alpacas prefer to be petted on the neck, but Mac Daddy leans into her hand as she ruffles his hair, completely unfazed.

"People think they're so bad because of their reputation for spitting, but they're really very gentle," Kelsey said. "I got him as a baby and trained him. He shows in showmanship, we shear him for his fiber, and he packs. Oh, and he guards my cousin's baby llama, too. He's very protective."

View a video of llamas at the fair on The Columbian's YouTube page.