Saturday, January 10, 2009

Alpacas going Beserk! (Aberrant Male Syndrome)

Alpacas are normally quite safe for even young children to handle!

Alpacas and llamas can develop an issue that was previously called Beserk Male Syndrome (no, we're not talking about men going through mid-life crises or anything), but is now more commonly referred to as Aberrant Male Syndrome. This is basically a problem that is caused/made by inappropriate human interaction during a sensitive time in a cria's development.

It seems that crias that are overhandled (especially in conjunction with bottle-feeding) have their "brain wiring" mixed up. They may appear to be extremely friendly toward people, running up to you, nibbling at clothes, sniffing your shoes, getting into your space. Although it might seem cute in a small cria, these should be red flags of a potential problem, as this is not normal behavior and if not nipped in the bud early on, there can be irreversible dangers. The alpaca may appear more confident than most, which seems appealing, but watch out when "puberty hits!"

Alpacas and llamas, especially males, have a herd pecking order and can be territorial. To establish this hierarchy at maturity, they may chest-butt, mount each other, bite at ears, spit upon, or even tackle each other. This is normal and even healthy behavior that rarely results in injury. Males that have their identity confused by inappropriate bottle-feeding or handling can act in the same ways... toward people. Females with the same issues may also bump, jump on, or otherwise be very pushy or spitty. It is almost as if they aren't sure if they are human or you are alpaca... they are confused and if these behaviors are not discouraged at a very young age, the problem cannot be resolved later on, even by the best of camelid specialists/trainers. Sadly, many owners have had to make the difficult decision to put these animals down rather than put their children or themselves at risk. We actually heard of a man in Ohio who was bitten by a male llama with ABS (Aberrant Male Syndrome), and the bite hit an artery in his arm which could have been fatal! Biting is definitely NOT a normal behavior that alpacas or llamas engage in toward people!

Why is it that nearly every farm visitor we've ever had has recounted a story of being spit upon by a llama at a petting zoo? They tell me their sad story, and when I ask if it was at a petting zoo, they all ask how did I know that? It's simple.... petting zoos like to have friendly animals and bottle feeding produces that. It's not such a big deal with many species, but for alpacas and llamas it definitely is! Tragically, many of those petting zoo animals are sold when mature to unsuspecting newbies that are thrilled with such a friendly new pet... until they are knocked to the ground when they have their back turned, or their new pet starts spitting on them all of the time! Not every petting zoo llama or alpaca has been bottle-fed, but lots of hand-feeding can encourage some of the same behaviors.

So..... we have a bottle cria right now (though she is starting to nurse on her mom a bit more!) How can we prevent these issues from occurring? When we feed Belle we make every effort to do the following:

1. Refrain from talking to her. We routinely talk to many of our animals which is completely fine, but not a bottle cria.

2. Handle only when absolutely necessary.

3. Encourage as much interaction as possible with the herd, never separate her from her mother.

4. Don't make direct eye contact.

5. If one acts too friendly (ie. nibbling on clothes), give them a swift and matter-of-fact knee in the chest while saying NO and immediately leave the area.

Over the years, we have seen just a few crias develop over-friendly tendencies even though they weren't bottle-fed or overhandled- they just seemed to be wired this way. We handled these boys as little as possible and put them with slightly older ones at a younger age then usual to sort of help them be put in their place (not so that they would be injured, just so they wouldn't grow overly-confident).

For further reading about this topic, here are some excellent articles:
(by John Mallon)
(by Cathy Spaulding)


Alpaca Farmgirl said...

Hi Lindy! So glad you mentioned this issue. We have never raised up a male with problems like this, though I have seen it. I believe this is more rare these days as people are more educated about not bringing them into the house with you, etc. Boundaries are the key. In our experience it is the little friends of the bottle cria that come and nibble on us while we are giving the bottle that are the problem. A couple of thumps/flicks on the nose seems to do the trick, teaching them that's not okay.

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