GOLDEN, Colo. (AP) -- They shoulder the load, offer companionship, inspire the kids and open the door to the great outdoors. A llama can be a hiking family's best friend.
So say area llama ranchers, who began their businesses after turning to the South American pack animals to get their own families into the wilderness.
Without llamas or other pack animals, families with young children either cannot pack everything or they are uncomfortable, said Jerry Dunn of Bear Track Farm in Golden.
''You can take all kinds of food for the kids, like fresh fruits and vegetables,'' said Dunn, who does not rent her llamas for backpacking trips. ''You can take along large enough tents for the whole family. And some people have developed carriers to put their kids on the sides of the llamas.''
While his llamas often are leased for governmental backcountry work or fall recreational hunts, Stan Ebel of Buckhorn Llama Co. said families make up the bulk of the summer business at his 200-llama ranch in Masonville. ''It makes the trip possible for them,'' he said.
Llamas can carry from one-fourth to one-half their weight, depending upon their conditioning and how difficult the trek. Full-grown males usually weigh about 300 pounds and are the designated packers. Females are pregnant for more than 11 months at a time, leaving little opportunity to pack.
If they are overloaded, llamas have been known to lie down on the trail and refuse to budge. ''They're smart. If it's too much, they'll sit down and say, 'OK, I'm not going,''' said Jan Redenbarger of Winding Trail Llamas in Golden.
Redenbarger and her husband turned to llamas when their kids were infants. ''We just couldn't resign ourselves to car camping for 10 years because we just love to get in the backcountry.''
Most owners ask clients not to ride the llamas, for liability or weight reasons, but some offer instructions, saddles and llamas that are used for child passengers.
''We don't encourage the riding other than just as a support,'' Ebel said, especially for a family not experienced with llamas.
Whether they are ridden or not, llamas often are fun for children, who are intrigued by the creatures, Ebel said. And while llamas are not often social with adults, they seem to sense something different with kids, he said.
''The llamas tend to recognize the kids as less of a threat, or less demanding, so they tend to be a little more open.
''I've had animals that are really unsocial and really difficult to even halter. The family comes back, and the kids are hanging off their necks. It's obvious there's been a real adjustment there.''
Redenbarger said the animals are easy to train and handle. ''They know what's expected of them, and they handle obstacles in the trail very well. They are really sure-footed, and they are also easy on the trail,'' she said, referring to their environmental impact.
Llamas have soft-padded feet, more like a deer's than a horse's. The animals eat native vegetation, so food for them does not have to be packed. Related to camels, llamas can go for days without water, which can be helpful in dry Colorado backcountry.
Redenbarger said llamas' reputation for spitting probably stems from petting and other zoos where they were not well treated and thus spit on people. But well-treated animals rarely spit on humans, she said.
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