Take a walk on the mild side: Llama hiking

Friday September 21, 2012

LEE -- A strange, mournful call carries through the trees. Picasso stops abruptly in his tracks, and his black and white ears perk up with recognition. His feet are planted firmly on the ground, and he won't budge, not a bit, even though I pull on the leash attached to the harness that fits snuggly around his head.

He turns his head, looking intently at the trees before us, and he spies the large brown figure that can be seen through the branches pacing back and forth while anxiously calling to him.

Picasso is a llama who stands about six feet tall and clocks in at around 200 pounds. He's a beautiful animal, aptly named for the black markings around his mouth that suspiciously look a lot like a certain Cubist's iconic twirled mustache.

"He won't really move," I say, unconfidently giving his harness a little tug.

"No, not like that: Tug down on the harness and give it a little snap, not too hard, but he'll follow you," said Picasso's owner Richard Cleaver, who runs Hawkmeadow Farm in Lee.

I tug harder and give a little snap and, right on cue, Picasso follows me as we walk along one of the woodland paths behind Cleaver's farm that borders a portion of October State Forest.

Picasso gives one last forlorn glance in the direction of his friend Cuzco, who still calls in the background, before walking on, quickly finding a nearby branch of leaves to snack on.

Another groan comes from the farm.

"There goes Cuzco again. They are not solitary animals at all," Cleaver said. "They say that if you buy a lone young llama and put it in your backyard without any other animals, it will die in six months."

We head on deeper into the woods, as Cleaver calmly walks ahead of me with two llamas by his side, Happy Jack and Little Rock, while I trail a little behind, tugging on Picasso's leash.

A naturalist's oasis

Okay, time to backtrack a little bit. Why am I walking through the woods on a September afternoon with a llama in tow and mosquitos circling nearby? Cleaver is taking me out on one of his popular llama hikes, which attract hundreds of visitors each year to his property, a little off the beaten track at the top of the winding Lander Road.

His home is a naturalist's oasis, surrounded by a young forest that once had colonial-era farmland in its place. There is a small pond on the property, along with a fenced-off area for Cleaver's four llamas to graze and roam, and meditation stations. A yogi who studied at Kripalu for 13 years, Cleaver runs his home as a bed and breakfast during the summer, attracting its fair share of visitors who use Hawkmeadow as a meditation retreat. It's a place designed to introduce its guests to the calming effects and health benefits of being around nature, said Cleaver, an amateur naturalist who has a biology degree.

Cleaver bought the farm 14 years ago, and was soon introduced to llamas by a friend of his who took him to the llama equivalent of a dog show.

"I remember thinking, 'you're taking me to a llama what?,' " he said. As soon as he got there though, he was hooked by the good-natured attitude of the animals.

Over the years, Cleaver's llamas have put smiles on the faces of hosts of visitors, young and old. He said the hikes' positive effects were most tangibly felt when a visiting group of deaf students from Springfield came to the farm.

"I wasn't sure how it would work, since they couldn't hear my talk on the hike, but I told them how observant llamas are, and I said 'just look at the llamas,' " Cleaver said. "They let the llamas be their ears -- they followed the gaze of the llamas and saw squirrels and chipmunks, and discovered nature. They heard through the llamas, the llamas gave them another sense."

A partnership

We are about at the end of our hike. A little over an hour has passed, but even in that short amount of time, it stops feeling strange for me to lead a powerful 200-pound animal by a leash like a small dog. Picasso and I get along, but are not the most affectionate of friends. His pace quickens as we get closer to Cuzco, waiting alone in the pen. But it's Happy Jack who I particularly get along with. When a llama likes you, it brushes against you like a giant cat looking for attention, and as Happy Jack softly head butts my shoulder, it's impossible not to smile and run my fingers through his thick, pillow-like coat. It was a fun hike through the woods made much more calming by the strange gangly creatures.

While Cleaver plans to eventually phase out the hikes from his farm once this latest herd dies off, he says his commitment to his animals will never wane.

"Good job Little Rock, you're great, you're awesome," Cleaver says as he takes the harness off the llama at the end of hike. Cuzco grunts excitedly as his companions join him in the enclosed space.

"You can't rush them while taking off these harnesses," Cleaver says, while easing Picasso out of his. "I'll treat them well, and then they'll do what I ask them to do. It's an agreement, when you hike with one, you are both working together, helping one another."


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