Dangerous Behaviors in Llamas
        by Alvin Bean

There has been much said, done and written about the terror of "Berserk Male Syndrome" or "Aberrant Behavior Syndrome" in llama circles. Yet no clear definition of either "syndrome", which should be a collection of symptoms, seems to exist in veterinary texts or llama care books. This would understandably be confusing to the person new to llamas, the veterinarian new to llamas, and even intimidating to experienced llama owners. Perhaps we should not be so concerned with the fact that llamas do indeed sometimes exhibit dangerous behaviors, but more amazed by the fact that there is only one documented case of a human being being killed, albeit indirectly, by a llama. People are killed by horses every year, and by dogs several times a year. Hand raised male deer are listed as "dangerous animals" in wildlife rehabilitation texts and human deaths are not unheard of from these animals.

So, in light of the previous, I would like to try and offer descriptions of several syndromes, as described by the observable behaviors, appropriate actions that owners might consider and veterinarians might recommend. I hope only that these syndromes might be helpful to all involved with llamas, perhaps spare human injuries, and perhaps save the lives of some animals who are mistakenly thought to be "incurably berserk".

The Untrained Llama

Untrained llamas are generally fearful of human contact and attempt to escape from routine health maintenance and necessary management practices. These llamas may display the following behaviors, or injure people in the following ways if cornered or loosely restrained:

  • swing their rumps or shoulders into people in an attempt to escape
  • run into people with their chests, on their way out of being cornered
  • swing their necks and heads, especially when being haltered or touched about the head
  • kick
  • spit
  • if attempting to pick up a foot, the llama may drop it's shoulder or hip and effectively fall onto a person
  • if being lead, the llama may "spook" at new stimuli, and if the person leading the llama attempts to hold on to the lead rope, injury can occur (and this was the case in the only documented "llama caused death")

Although untrained llamas can cause injury to people, there are many excellent training videos, books and clinics available which may effectively solve the problems. Also, many times, local llama breeders and trainers are willing to give advice and help.

The Over-handled Llama

At a potentially more concerning level of aggression we might describe the llama showing early symptoms of a more serious problem. This would not be an animal that was simply untrained or mildly mishandled, or yet dangerous. This llama would most likely have some kind of history that would indicate further potential danger which has not yet erupted.

These llamas have some or all of the following history:

  • bottle fed (supplemented with bottle or tube)
  • veterinary tx other than routine care
  • separated from mother
  • separated from other llamas
  • handled by numerous people inexperienced with young, large, livestock (i.e. at the vet or petting zoo, bottle baby whom in laws helped to feed, etc.)

And/or exhibit the following behaviors:
  • orgle at people
  • flip tail over back and drop into U-neck
  • regularly follow people within a 2-foot distance, without enticement, such as food
  • position themselves to prevent people from attending to chores or other animals
  • do not respond to training or consultation as recommended
  • these are usually llamas under 4 years old

Although these animals have not yet injured anyone, or even necessarily caused any discomfort for the owner, as they sexually mature the probability that they might misbehave causes concern based on lay experience and the recent survey research conducted by Ohio State University.

The instant that these animals mature to the point at which they attempt to assert their already tested dominance, they often frighten both new and experienced llama breeders, and are thought to be incurably "berserk" and euthanized. In our experience, these animals are easily trained after gelding, which seems to be the single most effective intervention, and is often by itself the only one necessary.

We do not have enough data at this point to say definitively that these llamas should be gelded or referred to professional trainers at a certain age. However, we can say anecdotally that gelding at 12-18 months seems to be an appropriate recommendation, although gelding at any age seems to be the single most important intervention that can be made.

Consultation with a trainer experienced in aggression is always recommended. Many trainers interested in aggression consult free of charge. (Please contact SELR's own Annie Higginbotham with any questions you may have and also see our Other Rescue Resources page .)

The Aggressive Llama

This llama is usually an "over-handled" llama who is intact (an un-gelded male), has often been bred, and has received no training or intervention. However, in our experience, we have seen llamas who had no prior history become aggressive later in life without obvious provocation except for management changes.

Behaviors include:

  • screaming at people on sight
  • spitting on people on sight
  • charging fence lines and attempting to bite or spit on people on the other side
  • attempting to jump over or get through the fence

If people should enter the enclosure the llama may:
  • charge at full gallop and hit the human with chest and knees
  • bite
  • rear
  • stomp
Alvin training Herschall