The bus pulls up, and driver A.J. Collier hops out and sets a plank in place on the steps. Inside, the passengers stir, anxious to get out and start work. One by one, they disembark, sniffing the fresh air and solidly planting all four feet on the ground. The Rowanwood Farm “Llama Limo” has arrived.
This, said Ms Collier, the owner of Rowanwood Farm, is how most expeditions with her llamas begin. The Sandy Hook farm, located just off of Route 34, is home to 17 rare breed miniature llamas, and a herd of Pygora and Nigerian Dwarf goats that fluctuates between 5 and 15 in number.
Seven of the miniature llamas, which measure only up to 38 inches at the withers, are trained to visit off grounds, usually with Ms Collier or her “right arm,” Leslie Alexander, providing the educational aspect of the visit. The llamas have visited schools, birthday parties, senior citizen centers, and dementia wards. They are also the llamas that travel to take part in Rowanwood Farm Llama Hiking Adventures.
“We are the only USDA-certified and licensed llama hiking company in Connecticut, as of 2013,” said Ms Collier, making it a truly unique activity.
The llama is a true camel and like its other relative, the alpaca, it is valued for its fleece. “Llamas first came to just two places in America, in the 1980s,” Ms Alexander explained, although the pack animals from South America have been domesticated for more than 5,000 years.
The miniature llamas are particularly good pets and companion animals, Ms Collier said, the primary reason that she raises them.
“They like to work, and they like people,” she said, making them ideal for the hiking expeditions.
One hiker per llama is paired up on each tour, once Ms Collier has assessed the best combination. Groups larger than the one-on-one llama and human pairings can be accommodated, but others will not have a llama with which to hike. While the llamas and humans get to know one another, Ms Alexander or Ms Collier shares the history of the llama, its physical and mental characteristics, its traditional work in South America, “and a whole understanding of the animal,” said Ms Alexander. Each hike is tailored to the particular group’s interests, she added. Many hikers are also fiber wool artists, and want to hear about the classes offered by Rowanwood, or about the process of spinning or weaving.
The guides quickly dispel any concerns hikers may have about being spat upon by a llama, a common myth. They can spit, just as a misbehaved dog can bite, Ms Alexander pointed out. Spitting is usually an interherd thing that happens, though, for hierarchy, or if the llama feels threatened. Llamas are reluctant, Ms Collier said, to spit at humans.
“We are the Alpha, so they don’t want to do that,” she said.
Vineyard Property Hike
Each approximately two-hour tour takes place on the grounds of McLaughlin Vineyards in Sandy Hook, winding through woods, rambling along the river, and even stepping lightly through the vineyards. It is a blessing, Ms Collier said, that McLaughlin Vineyard allows them access to the property for the llama adventures.
The hikes are suitable for any age and nearly any ability. The usual hike is of moderate ability, but limited ability hikers can stroll hand in hoof through the level vineyard area. The llamas are not used as pack animals. Their work is to provide companionship, just as one might walk a dog, said Ms Collier.
It is a magical experience, Ms Alexander said, as human and llama bond on the peaceful tour. Equally magical, Ms Collier said, is the amount of wildlife hikers often encounter when walking with llamas.
“Other animals seem less afraid. Turkeys come right up to us when we are with the llamas,” she said.
It may be that the other animals feel the sense of guardianship llamas emit. At Rowanwood Farm, a “doughnut” style design of corrals is used. The pygmy goats dwell in the “hole” of the doughnut. A larger corral and pastures that accommodate the llamas surround their corral. Llamas are used as guard animals. Although not aggressive by nature, llamas are not afraid to intimidate their companions, whether of the same species or not. Coyotes, foxes, and fisher cats are dismayed to find a herd of llamas stomping toward them if they attempt to cross into the inner pens, said Ms Collier.
The otherwise calm nature of the wooly beasts makes them perfect therapy animals, and Rowanwood Farm llamas have brought peace to many residents of dementia units. “It’s an experience that is extremely special,” said Ms Alexander.
Rowanwood Farm is a work of love, Ms Collier said, and the culmination of her many years’ experience working with animals. She has been a wildlife rehabilitator specializing in birds of prey for 20 years; worked as a veterinary technician for two decades; and was curator at New Canaan Nature Center and Stamford Museum. She is USDA licensed to work with exotic animals.
While Rowanwood Farm is owned by Ms Collier and her husband, Jeffrey, the farm is her baby.
“This has always been my passion,” she said, “since I first became fascinated with llamas when I was 7 years old.”
A career change coincided with the purchase of the farm property ten years ago, Ms Collier said, “So I decided to go for it and follow my dream.” She started out with a herd of 40 alpacas, but decided that their lovely fleeces did not compensate for their aloof nature.
“About five years ago, I started building up my llama and goat herd,” she said. Llamas are small, less intimidating, portable, and friendly, all characteristics (along with beautiful fleeces) that were more in line with Ms Collier’s desire to take the animals public and educate children about animal/human connections.
Licensed Petting Zoo
Rowanwood Farm is licensed as a petting zoo, and has hosted numerous special needs children’s groups, high school groups, inner city children, and others who are just plain curious about llamas.
“I make ethical and moral decisions all the time around the farm, and that’s what I try to teach the children. I teach them that animals deserve our respect, and that they are not a commodity to be abused,” said Ms Collier. She rues the loss of biodiversity in farms across the country. Although she breeds llamas and goats, she only does so if she knows there is a need to increase the herd or if there is a reputable buyer. She has recently donated a llama to the Stamford Museum.
“I like being able to give back,” she said.
A flock made up of two breeds of pygmy goats frolic at Rowanwood Farm, along with the llamas. The Nigerian Dwarf goats are a source of milk, from which Ms Collier makes yogurt for personal use, and a line of scented soaps sold at various locations in the area. When they are not scrambling over the boulders in the corral or running in and out of the “play house,” the goats have a comfortable area of the barn in which to escape the elements. A Norwegian design with narrow gaps between the floorboards allows any liquid waste to fall through to the ground below the barn. Solid waste can easily be swept out of the stalls. Always seeking to be ecologically sensitive, Ms Collier has reappropriated small baby cribs as hay mangers, or fashioned them into creep feeders that let baby goats in to feed while rebuffing the adult goats.
Like the miniature llamas, Nigerian Dwarf and Pygora are considered to be rare breeds. The goats also serve an educational purpose for visitors to the farm. While they poke their nosey noses through the fence or gently nibble fingers and coattails, Ms Alexander and Ms Collier share the story of the small goats and revel in the joy they see as children, adults, and goats interact.
The Pygoras are a source of fiber, sheared twice a year. Ms Collier spins the sheared fiber, as well as that sheared from the llamas, into yarn. In private or group lessons, she teaches spinning and weaving.
Rowanwood is not a for-profit breeding farm, Ms Collier emphasized. “All that we do, is to sustain the farm. Rowanwood is a farm where all the money goes back to improve the animals’ lives. I’m so lucky to have a good group of friends with similar interests to help me,” she said — or even strangers like Ms Alexander, who one day stopped to look at the llamas, saw the shearing process under way, and jumped the fence to help wrangle the llamas. “That’s pretty much how we met,” laughed Ms Collier.
It was a serendipitous meeting, as Ms Alexander is a retired art teacher (and llama mama), and was thrilled to design the educational programs Rowanwood Farm brings to schools and other organizations.
“These llamas have ridden in elevators, they love car rides, and they love to play in kiddie pools. We go to parties and community events. I like seeing kids get away from the cyber world and learn the joy of animals and what you can get from them in return. It’s a symbiotic relationship. If you’re good to an animal,” stressed Ms Collier, “it is good to you.”
Rowanwood Farm Llama Hiking Adventures can be scheduled, but weather must be taken in to consideration.
“Lots of our hikes are more spontaneous. Call us, or e-mail us and we go from there,” Ms Collier said.
The farm is at 31 Chestnut Hill Road in Sandy Hook. For more information on Rowanwood Farm programs, products, special events, and Hiking Adventures, visit www.rowanwoodfarm.com, or call 203-270-8346.
“I am so lucky,” Ms Collier said, an arm draped around the slender neck of a llama. “I couldn’t live without this.”