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Packer’s Responsibility

by Murray E. Fowler, DVM
published in the spring 2012 issue of The Backcountry Llama

Llama packers in the United States will remember the challenges posed by a planned exclusion of llamas for Canyon Lands National Park in Utah. Similar exclusionary policies have been put in place in California. Another such policy is being attempted in Alaskan wilderness areas.

Some battles seem to be endless. Sometimes the challenges raised by government agencies are mired in beaurocracy or political overtones and sometimes downright bias. I have personally participated in discussions with government officials, trying to explain the lack of risk by using published scientific information only to have my words fall on deaf ears. Instead, I heard statements such as, “That is the way it is going to be!” or “Llamas are not native to this country and pose a threat to our wildlife!”

Having faced a brick wall so many times, I pondered if there is anything positive that packers can do to prove that their animals are not a threat to wild animals or other domestic animals for that matter, whether trekking in the wilderness or at home on the farm or ranch. Government officials contend that llamas may be carrying infectious or parasitic diseases that could be spread to wildlife such as wild sheep, goats and cervids (deer). Officials don’t seem to listen to scientific evidence to the contrary, so how can packers show that their llamas are healthy and strong? First, we should appreciate and support agencies’ concern for the health and welfare of the wildlife in their wilderness area of responsibility. Our responsibility is to make certain that preventive medicine is carried out and that the animals that go into the wilderness are free from any infectious disease and have a minimum parasite burden.

It is virtually impossible to rid all parasites from any animal. Parasites have been companions to animals since the dawn of creation. However, owners should be aware of the types of parasites present in their animals and should document steps being taken to minimize the parasite burden. Alaskan officials are attempting to impose such regulations with their new policy.

I have stated over and over that there has never been a documented case of a South American camelid being responsible for the transmission of any disease to either domestic or wild cattle, sheep, goats or cervids. That they suffer from some of the same general diseases of other animals is true, but llamas are not a reservoir for any disease of other animals.

So, what should packers do? May I offer the following suggestions?

  1. Keep your packers in optimal body condition so they don’t appear to be malnourished.
  2. Keep toenails trimmed properly.
  3. Monitor your animal while on trek for evidence of fatigue.
  4. Do not take any llama that has a discharge from the nose, coughs excessively, has diarrhea, has an obvious skin condition or is lame into a wilderness area.
  5. Keep your animals in a parasite management program in consultation with your veterinarian and keep careful records.
  6. Maintain a vaccination program that is appropriate to the area where you live and where you go on trek.
  7. Have an annual physical examination performed on each animal by your veterinarian.
  8. Keep a current record of all health related activities.
  9. Obtain a health certificate if you plan to cross state lines.
  10. Attempt to determine the precise cause of any illness in individual llamas. This is essential if a herd outbreak occurs. Use diagnostic laboratories as appropriate.
  11. Make friends with local regulatory agency personnel.
  12. If you have a llama in your herd that goes off feed, loses weight or has diarrhea, determine the cause. Usually there is a reason for such conditions and the individual animal involved deserves your attention. The well-being of your herd may be at stake. Document the steps you have taken to correct the situation.

Certain infectious and parasitic diseases are on the radar screens of government officials. You simply cannot allow a llama with even a hint of these diseases to enter a wilderness area. Diseases of concern include bacterial diseases such as Johne’s disease Mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis; tuberculosis Mycobacterium bovis and pneumonia Pasteurella multicida. Virus diseases of concern include contagious ecthyma (sore mouth), and blue tongue. These diseases have been reported to occur in llamas but rarely. A parasite of concern is the sheep and goat lungworm Muellerius capillaris. Fortunately this lungworm is not known to occur in camelids. Basically, except for parasites that are common to many domestic animals, llamas have parasites that are unique to them.

The bottom line is that no llama with clinical disease should be taken on trek. You don’t want to become the statistic of being the first to carry a disease to the wilderness. Regulatory agencies are rightfully concerned about the health and well-being of animals entering the wilderness. You also have another public that is looking closely at your animals. That is other people who use wilderness areas (hikers, campers, horse trekkers). Are your animals in tip top shape? Will they put in a good word for you in a hearing?

Will there be a cost associated with these preventive procedures? Yes! But, you owe it to your animals, and it may help to show administrators that you are willing to take responsibility for the health and well-being of the llamas that go into wilderness areas.

Be proud of your llamas. Present them to whomever as healthy, sound, strong animals that enjoy being in the wilderness. Enjoy your close association with these noble animals. Show the world that they are not just a tool of business but are a part of your life. Love them for their uniqueness and their willingness to serve mankind.