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Llamas and Humans As Partners in Healing
Hannah-Leigh Bull, Llama Deara Ranch: October 2002

Two events that would change my life significantly converged in January of 2001. For most of my adult life, I had been a well-paid consultant in the computer industry. On January 11, 2001, that changed as a llamamobile pulled into my ranch with a large trailer full of llamas, six of whom were destined to grace my life. At that very moment, an executive of my main industry client was calling to tell me that the company was folding. These synergistic events thrust two different species into the development of mutual trust and committed relationship by necessity and have helped me to formulate my understanding of the loving power of interspecies healing, care, and communication. The initial tenets described in this article reflect this growing understanding of my relationship with my animal companions.

Since that time, the circumstances of changing livelihood and health challenges have allowed me to spend considerable time with the llamas. I have experienced their thinking and intuitive processes, how they assess situations, and what encourages them to trust, which, among other factors, seems to be spending time with them without a productive human-based goal in mind. Their sensitivity and intelligence are well developed, and they are able to pick up on stimuli that even very observant and sensitive humans can miss. It was important that in those early wintry days of gaining familiarity with each other, I was not afraid of these animals who are quite a bit bigger than I. As in my human relationships, I treaded gently not wanting to disrupt our growing intimacy by my awkwardness and concerns for their welfare. Herein was revealed a first tenet of cospecies healing, a term coined by Allen Schoen in his book Kindred Spirits.

Our relationships with animals reflect our relationships with humans.

This tenet has played out as the llamas and I have supported each other through llama births, breast cancer, my return to counseling and education careers full-time, and the challenges of Mother Nature and the diverse tricultural communities of Northern New Mexico. In the last two years, I have invited many people and animals to Llama Deara Ranch where I live with the llamas, and have learned some about how cospecies healing works between llamas and humans. The children and llamas especially have provided me with insight to our collaborative healing power; kids inherently understand when I answer the adult question of "what do you use the llamas for": Love. Of all the many services that llamas can provide to their human companions, the opening of human hearts is the primary focus of my teamwork with the llamas and the families who come to Llama Deara. This gives rise to another tenet of cospecies healing:

Animals help us expand our own understanding of intimacy and love.

This can be explained in large part by the llama's capacity to commit to, protect, and enjoy the other members of its herd or family. Llamas are instinctively protective of other animals, and also know their boundaries. Like humans, the llama personality varies from llama to llama. Llamas can become frustrated and upset with another llama while maintaining their interest in and care for their herd. The maintaining of two seemingly opposing emotions or feelings is just one essential component of healthy family relationships that llamas teach.

These strange and beautiful creatures can teach us a lot; mutual respect and tolerance stand out. They are non-aggressive and serene animals that have a soothing and peaceful affect on humans. They also have a natural knack for tickling the human funny bone, expressing their pleasure in many ways. Often in the course of a day, during their many happy hours, they will dance, which is an expression of pure joy and love of life that is capable of altering the consciousness of other creatures, including humans.

Llamas respect the boundaries of all creatures, and they don't send mixed messages: If you do something they don't like, they tell you; if you continue to violate their wishes, they simply walk away. Compare this to some humans' fear of confronting and the circuitous route we often take to voice our needs if we are graced with recognizing them. Humans may choose to run away from emotional discomfort (possible rejection, anger, silence) rather than face the issue and then walk away, as appropriate. Llamas tend to assess a situation thoroughly, remain alert and curious about circumstances, and act according to their combined instinct, intuition, and sense of timing. One more tenet of cospecies healing surfaces:

Llama instinct, intuition, and sense of timing are assets to the healing process.

When I first brought the llamas to the ranch, they were wild, and still are to some extent, given that there is little that I force them to do. I thought to myself, how will they learn to cooperate with visitors, so little do they like to be touched? Even some of the people closest to me commented that enlisting them in my work with children and families would be an uphill struggle.

I continued to spend time with them, and we became closer and closer, as llama crias, or babies, were born. Lorenzo, the first llama to be born at Llama Deara, is so affectionate with me that sometimes I wonder whether he knows I'm a human, not a llama. The llamas, being highly intelligent, have learned and accepted many of my routines and ways, and often know what I am saying, whether in words or emotions. The llamas have used their instinct, intuition, and sense of timing to develop the type of relationship with me that seemed appropriate to the circumstances of the ranch and the challenges and experiences we have faced together.

These same gifts I have seen played out in the llamas' process with families and children. The llamas know when to intervene and connect, and how much to communicate. When people come to stay at the ranch, I encourage them to spend as much time with the llamas as they want so that the possible opportunities to connect are expanded.

Grief Processing

During the processing of grief, for example, the llamas have been sensitive and attentive witnesses. In the case of one adult child and mother who came to stay at the ranch, I watched how the daughter and the mother drew closer over the few days they spent here and how their relationship with the llamas reflected a similar slow and deliberate rapprochement, cemented over casual meetings in the apple grove, one of the llamas' favorite loafing grounds. The two women were grieving the loss of their father and husband who had died earlier in the year; besides the gap in their lives that his death had created, the event had also been impetus for a redefining of their relationship with each other. The evolution of such a change if it is made in part in the company of other creatures can parallel the growth of the relationship the people establish with the llamas, in this example.

Behavioral Issues

When llamas are intermingling with little people, the dynamics continue to be touching. Llama-assisted healing can be particularly helpful for children (or adults) who act out or have behavioral issues, and for families addressing issues of boundaries and commitment. As mentioned earlier, a llama has learned how to walk away when appropriate and teaches humans how to do so without losing face. Llamas teach how to be both committed to a community, family, or herd, and also express disagreement. Children especially seem to grasp that animals help us to connect with our deepest selves.

One particularly touching interaction occurred late one Friday evening when two mothers and their young 8- and 10-year-old daughters, both managing significant psychological and emotional challenges, came to Llama Deara. Before the meeting, a colleague and I had talked with the parents about how llamas help kids learn to establish appropriate boundaries through mutual respect and discernment, a skill that many children lack. I had told the kids a bit about corral etiquette and llama ways and asked them to stay close to me in the beginning until they learned what are appropriate limits between them and the llamas. I gave them a few clues about the personalities of the llamas, including the haughty llama, appropriately named Princess, who is the largest in my llama family.

One girl decided not to come into the corral with the llamas, preferring to watch behind the fence as the twilight threw its shadows on our little gathering. As the llamas drew up to the one child and mom who had come into their domain with me, the other child changed her mind and came in when again invited. Princess is the one who keeps her distance the longest from humans, taking her time to ascertain that getting closer is appropriate. Not this evening. Within seconds, Princess had come up to this little girl and was taking grain from her hand. The little girl had already been educated about this llama's reticence with new folk and quickly grokked that Princess was taking a special interest in her and trusted her. In that moment, a beautiful child dealing with an awkward emotional challenge experienced brightly what is possible beyond her illness. Intuitively, Princess had sensed that she must connect with this child. One glimpse of the beaming face of this child who had aged beyond her years communicated that internal changes in her emotional makeup had been set in motion.

Self-Esteem Building

I have brought many parents with children of varying ages to Llama Deara. The llamas just seem to know what is needed. Often it is the ubiquitous need to build self-esteem. As most of us have likely experienced, self-esteem is generally built in small steps. Llamas seem to know this and adapt their interactions with the children to build the sense of connection and worthiness gradually. With each case, I have seen a gradual relaxing of guard in both species and the warmth of friendship built over time. This has been true of both human boys and girls.

Although much smaller than horses, llamas are large animals, particularly to a small child beholding them. One slight French boy who spent time with the llamas over many months was shy and apprehensive of their size for almost a year. I'll forever remember the moment just before his family relocated to California when he excitedly came running up to my office casita to ask the name of the first-born on this ranch. "Lorenzo!" I responded. "He just kissed me," the elated boy exclaimed.

And so it has gone with most of the children who have come to the ranch. Over time, they become good friends with the llamas and much more aware of their own self-worth as they confidently enter the corral or pasture to intermingle with their camelid friends.

Closing Thoughts

At this juncture on the planet, we are addressing the results of a human psychology of the past decades, a psychology that distanced and separated us from our environment. Systems theory is one area where the influence of the environment has prevailed and plays a critical role in the path we take to achieve balance. As humans, we sometimes forget that all species contribute to that balance, and that the animal next door is a potential teacher and collaborator. Animals so often help us to connect with our deepest selves, and in this sense self-care at Llama Deara is achieved through interspecies collaboration. Holistic healing involves our relationships with all creatures, not just our individual selves, and just as Noah invited species two by two into the ark, so will we find ourselves in interspecific living and work as we find our way back to center. Given the state of our political world and our environment, we can hardly afford to limit the balancing act to strictly human devices and must consult with our fellow creatures for insight, encouragement, and healing.

To this end, I often sit and talk with my llamas. Sometimes I speak in English, my mother tongue. At other times, I humm, which is how llamas primarily speak. We listen, reflect, and do all right after just a few years of community.

We allow our ignorance to prevail upon us and make us think we can survive alone, alone in patches, alone in groups, alone in races, even alone in genders.
  -Maya Angelou, poet (1928- )

Let not our arrogance assume we can survive alone as a single species. May we thrive instead through interspecies collaboration.
  -Hannah-Leigh Bull, counselor (1953- )

Llama Deara Ranch   P.O. Box 305   Medanales, NM 87548   phone: 505 685-9416   email: [email protected]
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