Take a walk on the woolly side to ease pandemic stress

Local farms that offer the opportunity to take halter-trained llamas and alpacas for a walk are experiencing a boom during COVID-19 as people seek out safe, soothing outdoor activities.

Local farms offering chance to take llamas, alpacas out for soothing stroll

Taking camelids for a stroll along the Jock River in Richmond, Ont., are Braden Garvey, left, with an alpaca named Huckleberry, and Jack Rabb, right, with Lenny the llama. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Here's a novel way to combat the anxiety of COVID-19: Why not take a llama for a stroll and feel the stress melt away as you amble along with your borrowed camelid, a family of cud-chewing mammals that also includes alpacas and camels?

There are two outfits offering such walks in the Ottawa region, Jock River Alpaca and Llama Farm in Richmond, Ont., and Serendipity Farm and Sanctuary in Lanark, Ont. 

Jock River Alpaca and Llama Farm, Richmond

"They're kind of like potato chips. You can't just have one or two," said Ben Rabb,19, who now owns 60 animals on a family property in Richmond, a half-hour drive southwest of Ottawa. The herd consists of 25 llamas and 35 alpacas, and clients can choose to walk either species.

It's just therapeutic. You can talk to them and they listen, or they seem to.- Ben Rabb, Jock River Alpaca and Llama Farm

Rabb started offering llama and alpaca walks four years ago. "It's just therapeutic," he said. "You can talk to them and they listen, or they seem to."

Clients may request a specific animal or colour, but ultimately, they can expect to lead "whichever ones are easiest to catch at the time — whoever's not out running around," said Rabb.

"For the most part, they're just like big dogs," he said.

Big dogs that occasionally spit. Well, it's not so much spit, Rabb explained, but chewed and partially digested food.

"If they're really mad and if you really provoke them, they can [spit it] 18 to 20 feet," said Rabb, who has been on the receiving end of a rare spitting incident.

Feeding time with Ben Rabb and friends at Jock River Alpaca and Llama Farm. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Rabb shut down the walks earlier on in the pandemic, but the timing worked out, as he and his partner are two of only a handful of skilled alpaca shearers in Ontario, and spent April through June on the road.

Since they reopened, business has been booming, up 25 per cent over last year, according to Rabb.

The cost is $35 per animal, and the hour-long walk takes clients along the Jock River and through pastureland and a young forest. Rabb and his partner can handle 10 groups on the weekend.

‘They have a weird calmness about them’: Why walking a llama may be the perfect pandemic activity

3 years ago
Duration 1:22
Jock River Alpaca and Llama Farm in Richmond, Ont. offers the opportunity to take halter-trained llamas and alpacas for a walk, a boon to people who are looking for safe, soothing outdoor activities during the pandemic.

Serendipity Farm and Sanctuary, Lanark

Keith Adam and his wife Elizabeth only started offering llama treks a year ago, but their business really took off when COVID-19 hit and more families began looking for safe, soothing outdoor activities. 

 "We're crazy busy," said Adam.

You feel their energy very quickly. If you're at all stressed, they'll sense it right away.- Keith Adam, Serendipity Farm and Sanctuary

The llamas are curious about visitors and seem eager to hit the trails. They amble over to investigate, "[as if to say], 'Hi, how are you? Why don't you give me a scratch? And how about you take me for a walk?'" said Adam.

So what's the attraction in leading a llama? "You feel their energy very quickly. If you're at all stressed, they'll sense it right away," said Adam. "But as you get calmer, they get calmer with you, and closer to you."

By the end of the experience, clients are "just hugging their llama and they don't really want to leave," Adam said.

Serendipity Farm owners Keith and Elizabeth Adam surrounded by alpacas. (Submitted by Keith Adam)

Expect the expectorant

"Llamas can spit. But a normal, well-adjusted llama? It's very rare for them to spit at you," said Adam.

The current exception to that rule at Serendipity Farm is a newly pregnant llama. "She's kind of grumpy now, so she's spitting," said Adam, 63, a former executive with the Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation. "We kind of keep her away from everybody."

A basic walk inside a fenced-in field at Serendipity is $20. Taking a llama farther afield for a wilderness walk on the nature trail is $30. 

Only about a half dozen of the farm's 17 llamas are trusted outside the fence. At about 225 kilograms, some llamas can be imposing. The matriarch of the herd is named Dolly Llama. "She looks me in the face, and I'm six feet tall," said Adam. 

Llamas at the Jock River Alpaca and Llama Farm in Richmond, Ont. Some are in the 225-kilo range and can look a tall human in the eye. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Others are called Coquette, Dusty, Angelique, Pepper, Salsa, and Chili, the latter three re-homed from High Park Zoo in Toronto, thinned from a crowded herd on the advice of a veterinarian.

Interestingly, llamas seem to be anti-maskers: according to Adam, they're uneasy around people who cover their face, be it with a winter scarf or surgical mask.

"We noticed it right away. All of a sudden their llama would be at arm's length," said Adam. "If you've got a mask on, they can't get the full read of what you're like."

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