by Beth Clifton
Once in a while, be it fate, divine intervention, or just plain dumb luck––“The gods move in mysterious ways”––we become part of something truly worthwhile and gratifying.
Such an event occurred just at dusk on November 15, 2014 on Washington State Route 20. We had crossed the Deception Pass bridge minutes before sunset, 4:39 p.m., heading north from Greenbank on Whidbey Island to Bellingham to visit Merritt’s father. I was driving.
We descended the steep, winding grade into the unincorporated village of Gibralter just as heavy traffic in both directions slowed abruptly for no immediately evident reason. Two young men were running along the center line waving their arms, and a young blonde woman stood at our side of the road signaling frantically for all the vehicles to stop.
The llama appears
That’s when a dark brown llama, almost invisible in the twilight, bolted out of the opposite lane of traffic and turned to run back the way he had come in the road just ahead of our vehicle. The llama was clearly very scared and confused, looking rapidly to each side for somewhere safe to go.
Merritt and I both bring to our work as editor and Facebook editor of ANIMALS 24-7 considerable experience in handling large hooved animals––horses, donkeys, even llamas. We knew that between the two of us, we had a good chance of being able to help this llama.
I handed Merritt our 6-foot dog lead, told him to wait for me to tell him when to jump out, and used our car to try to guide the llama to a safer place, off the busy road: a driveway, a front yard, even a quieter side road.
But, becoming aware of a galloping horse who was watching the situation from behind a tall fence on the far side of the road, the llama missed several opportunities to find refuge. Herd instinct apparently told the llama to join the horse.
The llama bolted between oncoming cars into a driveway into the horse pasture. Perhaps we could calm and corner the llama at the gate. We made a quick left turn into the driveway and both left the car with arms outspread to try to keep the llama from doubling back into Highway 20.
Many other concerned people stopped and jumped out of their vehicles to try to help round up the frightened llama––easily eight to ten people altogether, working together as a team to rescue the llama. Some of them started clapping their hands as if trying to catch a dog, but quickly learned to stretch their arms wide instead.
We had almost formed a human fence to keep the llama safe when he bolted again, through the last opening, back among the cars. Most of the spontaneous volunteers helped to flag traffic. At least one called 911, trying to describe the scene and location to an apparently incredulous dispatcher.
The llama as Artful Dodger
The llama just kept running and dodging, with several of us following close behind, while Merritt sprinted ahead to try to head the llama up a driveway. That worked. The llama ran up the driveway into a large hedged yard, surrounding a house.
I walked up the driveway alongside the young woman who had first stopped us, with two cattle hands from the ranch across the road a few steps behind, so that the four of us formed a cordon.
Merritt scrambled up the steep side of the highway ditch to try to block the llama if the llama sought to bolt through the scraggly hedge back into the traffic.
The llama appeared to be a bit more comfortable in the yard, away from the cars. Starting to run around behind the house, the llama was chased back by a large friendly old dog, probably a Labrador retriever, who appeared quite happy to see us all converge on his property. Instead of pursuing the llama, the dog came to make friends and seemed to be looking for his own way to help,
With the others still forming a cordon, as best they could, after several of the volunteers returned to move their cars and stop blocking traffic, I took the dog leash and slowly approached the llama, talking to him gently. He began to walk right up to me, but abruptly changed his mind when the cars on the road began to accelerate up to normal speed, and bolted around me and the young blonde woman in a wide semi-circle.
The llama had just about passed Merritt, heading back to the traffic, with no one else between the llama and the traffic, when Merritt grabbed the llama by a dark red halter, almost buried in the llama’s neck fur, and brought the llama quickly to a stop. As I replay this action in my mind, I can honestly say this was the first time I’d seen my husband move so swiftly and decisively. No question his quick thinking and action saved this llama’s life. At this point there wasn’t much light left and surely another escape would have meant the inevitable death of this beautiful, gentle creature.
The Zen of catching llamas
[Note from Merritt: “Catching a scared llama, or any large, scared hooved animal, is a bit like catching a hard-hit deep fly ball in the outfield: the trick is to run diagonally toward the moving object, turning parallel to the object only when necessary to make the catch. The angle gives the animal as well as the human a good view, and most scared animals are a lot less scared of humans they see well.
“In this case, I think loping a few steps alongside the llama helped to persuade the llama that I was a friend, something like another hooved animal. Timing was everything in grabbing the halter, but I had an alternative plan, too: if I couldn’t hold the halter, at least I could push the llama forcefully away from the road, back toward the house and the other volunteers, and get back around between the llama and the road.
“Many hooved animals in that situation will rear up and buck. The way to stop that is to pull down hard on the halter at the first hint to resistance. I put all my 200 pounds into it, and the llama yielded. Then I just stroked the llama’s neck fur, kept my knee behind the llama’s front knee to keep the llama from trying to break loose by backing up, and waited for Beth and the others to arrive with the lead and the cattle hands’ ropes, to secure the llama until we could arrange safe containment or transport.”]
Merritt and another gentleman, one of the cattle hands, stayed with the llama, speaking quietly and calmly, which had a soothing effect on the llama. The young woman who had flagged us down had a large horse trailer already hitched to her pickup truck, and ran to get it. We stood and waited as the trailer made its way through all the traffic to where we waited in the yard with the llama.
The llama-catching “Dream Team”
Seeing all the commotion in the roadway, a friend of the llama’s people, a man named Dave Hose, put two and two together and found us. He said that the llama was approximately two miles from home, and had escaped during a birthday party when some teenaged girls accidentally let the llama out. The family had already been searching for him, but had no idea which way he had run. Dave was relieved that the llama was safe and in awe that so many motorists saw an animal in need and stopped to help at possible risk to their own safety.
I walked the llama into the horse trailer and he was returned to his home.
Though I am very proud of my husband Merritt for his part in the llama rescue, the most remarkable aspect of the story was that so many people stopped to assist an animal in danger. I was truly inspired by the entire event and took as many photos after the capture as the twilight permitted, including a group shot of the volunteers described by one of them as our “Dream Team.”
I hope that they all see this article and the photos.
This was something unique and special that the rescuers shared.
I would like them to know that their efforts were acknowledged. The llama’s escape had the best outcome possible, with no one hurt, and all of us feeling good that we were able to help.
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