For owners in the Northeast, animals can put on quite a show—and do a lot more.
WHY WE ARE HERE
We explore how America defines itself place by place. In Massachusetts, the beloved farmers’ fair was home to a distinct subculture of animal lovers.
Reporting from West Springfield, Mass.
It took Diego Camacho nearly a year to construct a competition-worthy “Ghost of Aladdin” costume for his llama Eclipse. He had to sew form-fitting golden clothing for the animal’s body, face and tail — plus matching golden stockings — and construct a three-foot-tall spirit to ride on the lama’s back.
“I wanted something that would have that ‘wow’ factor in it,” said Mr. Camacho, an 18-year-old from Gowanda, N.Y.
His efforts paid off. Mr. Camacho won the youth costume portion of a three-day llama competition that concluded this month at the Eastern States Exposition, the Northeast’s largest agricultural fair. And Eclipse was one of an unusually large number of llamas entered into the show this year — 180, a testament to the growing enthusiasm for llama ownership in this corner of the country, where smaller farms, rocky terrain and a cool climate lend themselves well to an animal native to the Andes. in South America.
Relatives of the camel and alpacas, llamas are quiet, docile and sometimes affectionate—smaller than horses, with deep-set eyes and huggable necks. They are easy to train, and their fiber (not technically wool) is prized by knitters.
While South American llamas are beasts of burden that haul bushels of corn through the mountains, North American llamas are more likely to mess around with pets that are regularly shampooed and rented out as photogenic wedding guests or even golf caddies. Prices are rising as people adopt them for companionship, or as hiking companions, therapy animals or unusual guardians for sheep and other livestock.
“There’s so much you can do with them,” said Edward Bender, a 59-year-old Amtrak foreman who has raised llamas in Lebanon, Conn., for 33 years. He likes to train his llamas to pull carts in which people can ride, while his wife Margret sells scarves and hats made from animal fibers.
While animal sales nationally are brisk these days, the Northeast has historically been a destination for llamas. Most llamas in the United States come from one of two herds: the once-famous Catskill Game Farm zoo, about 80 miles east of West Springfield, which closed in 2006 and sold its llamas to enthusiasts across the country, or the long-disbanded menagerie at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California.
The llama market fell into an extended lull after the Great Recession of 2008, but has been on a marked upswing of late, reflected in the presence of the animals at the Eastern States Exposition, better known as the Big E.
“We’re back,” said Carol Millard, a llama exhibit manager who raises a herd of the animals in Ashford, Conn. During the Covid pandemic, she noted, many people retreated to the countryside and started small farms, where they found llamas to be charismatic and useful additions. “They said, ‘I want to have some sheep or a couple of goats,'” she said, “‘and llamas are very well known as good predator deterrents, aren’t they?’
Recently, the number of llamas in the Big E competition has been growing by 10 percent annually, and an increasing number of spectators are in the market to buy. Carol Reigh, a breeder from Birdsboro, Pa., who brought nine of her 35 llamas to the show, said there were “a lot more people with pets.” And, she added, “there is a huge, huge market for guardian llamas.”
Animals were not a small presence at this year’s fair, which is by far the biggest thing to appear in West Springfield each year. On October 1, he drew a a record 170,000 visitors to the quiet town of 29,000 that lies across the Connecticut River from its better-known neighbor Springfield, home of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Over the course of 17 days, the fair, which began as a dairy expo in 1916, transforms the nondescript town from a place hikers pass through on the New England National Scenic Trail to a bustling hub of rides, attractions, concerts and Instagrams. decent selection of food. (Turducken sandwich, anyone?) In addition to the llama contest, there are also contests for sheep, dairy cattle, best Christmas tree, and homemade pumpkins.
Each of the six New England states owns a building at the fairgrounds, and once inside, you’re legally in that state, surrounded by local vendors. The prize money at the Big Eu is considered rich by llama show standards, and for the big winners it amounts to $101. While this hardly covers the cost of the competition, the show is seen as a marketing opportunity for owners to showcase the strength of their breeding programs.
The fair is also the place where the sale of the llama and the services of the tribe are negotiated. While a male llama can be had for about $500, a breeding female can cost $7,000 to $15,000.
“Honestly, many of our exhibitors and attendees take better care of their animals than they do themselves,” said Elena Hovagimian, director of agriculture for Big E.
Once people buy llamas, they are initiated into a tight-knit and idiosyncratic subculture of llama owners. Tabbethia Haubold-Magee holds “llama classes” for children at her place farm in Yaphank, NY, the way some people offer riding lessons. She also sells fiber products, takes paid visitors on llama walks and travels the East Coast to groom llamas.
Many owners travel the country to compete in shows like those at the Big Eu – think the Westminster Dog Show, but with 350-pound, low-maintenance livestock.
In one part of the competition, the animals are judged based on breed standards, which for llamas means a straight back, long neck and even gait. In another, llamas compete in agility, moving through obstacles such as obstacles, tunnels and puddles.
One event called “public relations” measures how kindly animals can treat strangers in a real-world setting like a classroom or nursing home.
All in all, the animals’ many talents have won the admiration of more than a few observers. “When we saw the obstacle course, we thought there were going to be dogs, and then we saw llamas,” said Dylan Porter, 22, a spectator who grew up near the fairgrounds. “I had no idea they did this.”