Char Hakes of Safe Haven Llama and Alpaca Sanctuary still gets up every morning and spends her days caring for the cast-off, rescued or simply abandoned llamas and alpacas – “camelids”– her organization has taken in over the past 15 years. Although her herd now numbers only 30 animals (less than half what it was at the collapse of the llama market), the sanctuary itself is still thriving, and as the animals age, so does the cost of their care. Donations to the 501(c)(3) are more critical than ever to ensure the comfort of the sanctuary’s wards as they enter their senior years.
“Right now… we’re down to so many older ones and just a few younger ones,” Hakes says. “As of last month or so, we are not adopting out any because they either have health issues of some kind or they’ve not been handled enough yet.” Hakes has had her hands full lately and so hasn’t had the time she’s needed to devote to training those animals at the sanctuary that might be adoptable. Besides dealing with the typical aging issues among her herd over the past year, Hakes has been caring for her own mother, who recently passed away.
Hakes says the sanctuary has always carefully evaluated its wards before re-homing them, considering both health and behavioral issues, and training them when necessary (which is often). Many animals came to the sanctuary from owners who didn’t know what they were getting into when they decided to adopt the animals initially. Hakes does her best to evaluate prospective owners who call wanting to adopt any of her camelids.
“When people call [to inquire about adopting]…I don’t usually ask a lot of questions,” Hakes explains. Instead, she takes notes on what they tell her in an attempt to discover what they know about llamas and alpacas. She has a form adopters must fill out and she asks them to come visit the sanctuary at least once, if not twice.
“I have them lead some around,” Hakes says, “[in order to] try to connect the right animals with what the need is.” If they live close enough, Hakes will go to the owners’ place to make sure they have the proper facility for camelids. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out.
“There’s still that issue,” she says. “They want them like a dog or a cat, and that has been the hardest to get people to understand—they’re NOT that kind of animal!” She elaborates with stories of people she’s known over the years who were injured by rogue camelids—especially intact males—who had been mishandled, though not necessarily mistreated.
Because camelids are not native to this country, most Americans are unfamiliar with their nature. Llamas and alpacas were domesticated around 4000 BC for their wool, for meat and as beasts of burden. They are extremely alert and wary, which makes them excellent livestock herd-guards. However, they have also retained enough of their “prey animal” nature that they can’t be trained with the same methods used to train a horse. Most remain aloof, despite their friendliness and curiosity, and long-time camelid owners often call them “cats with hooves.”
The initial wave of camelid imports to this country consisted primarily of llamas bred as pack animals and herd-guards. From the late seventies until around 2012, the industry experienced a spectacular boom-and-bust cycle, with prices of the animals rising exponentially as more investors sought to jump on the train. By the early eighties, the llama population in the U.S. quadrupled to just over 100,000, and as their population rose, so did their value. In 1984, a well-bred, mature female llama could sell for $20,000, and the price of studs increased even faster to over $100,000. In 2003, one herd-sire sold for a whopping $220,000; the U.S. Department of Agriculture census noted a tenfold increase in the number of llamas in this country by 2007. Hakes knew of one stud—from a Bitterroot ranch—who brought $160,000. Raising llamas and alpacas doesn’t require a lot of land, and they are naturally suited to the dry slopes of the Bitterroot Valley. Because their value rose so quickly, they were seen as an ideal “niche farm” crop. As the llama farms became huge operations, breeding changed direction to focus on fiber production.
“Once they started breeding away from the pack llama and wanting to breed out that [rougher] guard hair, it just took off like wildfire and genetics got messed up,” Hakes notes. “Then some of those [bigger ranches] started breeding alpacas to llamas…” to produce a heavier, finer-wooled coat, impractical for a pack animal.
Within a few years, so many people were breeding and selling llamas that the market became saturated. Prices dropped as dramatically as they had climbed, and Hakes recalls that after the market crashed, one prime young llama stud (from a large local facility that was going out of the business) sold at auction for only $50.
Hakes first became interested in llamas in the late seventies—well before the market frenzy—when the animals were still relatively rare across the country. Her family owned a dairy, so she’d grown up with livestock. Her father knew the local Agricultural Extension agent, who had acquired a couple of pack llamas, and they piqued her curiosity.
“It just clicked in my head!” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Now there’s an animal that I could have and use and not have to kill it!’” Her father arranged for her to meet with the Extension Agent to learn about the animals. “So we went out there, but of course you couldn’t catch ‘em or get around ‘em, because they were just livestock.” The agent’s wife showed Hakes some of the llama wool she’d combed from their animals, and she gave Hakes a couple of llama magazines to help her learn more about them. Hakes subscribed to the magazines and read as much material as she could get her hands on. She began connecting with other llama owners around the valley and eventually bought her first two animals—a couple of young, untrained pack llamas—from some folks in Stevensville.
“After that, it just kind of took off,” Hakes says. She took training clinics and worked with other owners to learn how to handle the animals. By the late nineties, there were llama facilities all around the Bitterroot, the Missoula-Bitterroot Llama Club had formed, and there were huge sales events and shows across the region. Hakes immersed herself in it all.
“I loved that when they had those…big sales!” she exclaims. “All of us working our tails off—as handlers, as groomers…all rotated and staged…it was SO fun! I miss that!”
While Hakes emphasizes how much time she spent learning about llamas before she acquired any, her experience has been that most people don’t do that, which has accounted for a lot of unwanted animals, and the need for the Safe Haven Sanctuary.
“When they were all getting out of the business, people would just give them away,” she says. “They never educated the people [who took the animals]… and some of those ended up coming here.”
Hakes wasn’t in it for the money; she just loved llamas and alpacas. As people began to get out of the business, they called Hakes to take in the animals they couldn’t sell or give away, a couple of animals at a time, and then in a flood.
She ended up with about forty cast-offs from Storm King, one of the largest breeding ranches around, located just outside of Hamilton. “They were not handle-able!” Hakes said of the animals. Sometimes it took her six weeks of working with the llamas where they were located—setting up a temporary pen to catch them in—before she could even load them in her trailer to bring them back to her place. By September of 2004, she recognized the need to start a non-profit organization to help with the expenses of what had become a rescue operation. One of her dog-grooming customers offered to help her with the paperwork and logistics of initiating a 501(c)(3) designation, another covered the expense, and the Safe Haven Llama and Alpaca Sanctuary became official.
Because Hakes had worked with so many llama owners and breeders over the years, she came to know their animals, as well. And because the animals are so long-lived, she would recognize them when she eventually ended up with them.
“I keep in touch with [the breeders and former owners],” Hakes said, “and I can let them know how they’re doing and if they want to come and see them, they can. It’s kind of a relief for them to know what happened to [the animals].”
Although she doesn’t know the exact age of some of the camelids she’s taken in, Hakes says the average age of her herd is much higher than it used to be, with several animals in their mid- to late-twenties. With proper nutrition and protection from predators, llamas and alpacas can live well into their thirties and remain in remarkably good health. But like any senior animal—and especially llamas bred for packing—they develop arthritis and other painful structural anomalies, which Hakes works to alleviate, using dietary supplements, regular foot-care and topical oils and liniments. The Sanctuary also occasionally calls on local alternative health providers for acupuncture and cranial-sacral therapy. Eye and kidney issues are not uncommon in these older animals, and over the years, Sanctuary wards have benefitted from the services of most of the Bitterroot Valley’s large-animal veterinarians.
“Every morning, I’m out here,” Hakes says. “Everybody’s eyes get looked at—I’m always looking at them [so] I know when something’s wrong.” There’s an enormous amount of work every day in caring for even just the 30 senior animals she’s down to. She doesn’t leave the facility often, and Hakes would love to have help with the fund-raising and other activities she’s conceived that would bring attention to the plight of the sanctuary and its residents. Visitors—she says—are always welcome, as long as people call ahead (her number is 961-4027).
Hakes notes that she’s extremely grateful for the help the sanctuary has received from volunteers, especially for the annual spring clean-up. Twice in the past few years, Safe Haven has benefitted from GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceutical Company’s “Orange Day,” which allows employees to take a paid day off to volunteer for a non-profit organization. Hakes was amazed with the number of GSK volunteers who showed up for a full day’s work and how much they were able to accomplish, from building and repairing fences to cleaning manure from the sheds.
“One guy brought his backhoe and dug all the ditches back there for me!” she says. “It was awesome!”
Because Safe Haven is not adopting out any animals at this time, that revenue stream is currently dry, and monetary donations from the public are crucial. Hakes also noted that the sanctuary has bags of llama manure—an outstanding garden fertilizer—available year-round for people to purchase.
“We go green and we re-use feed bags,” Hakes explains, “and then we close ‘em up with baling twine.” The bags sell for $12-15 apiece and can be picked up at the facility on Old Corvallis Road. Hakes is hoping to make the bags available through the local feed and garden stores next spring.
Another item on Hakes’ wish-list for the sanctuary is a running pick-up. Hers is no longer reliable enough for pulling their stock trailer and either needs to be repaired or replaced. Fortunately, one of the sanctuary’s board members has been hauling feed for her lately, but Hakes fears being unable to contact them in the event of a veterinary emergency.
Hakes notes with relief that the numbers of unwanted llamas and alpacas in the Bitterroot have steadily declined in recent years, and most of the other camelid rescue operations that were established to handle surplus animals after the market crashed have ceased operation. Hakes herself thought the sanctuary would no longer be needed by this time.
“I figured I would be done at the end of 15 years,” she muses. “But…now that 15 years is here and I’m down to this many and we’re still going…I guess, why not?” Her enthusiasm for the animals is palpable, and as she walks among them, their trust and confidence in her is obvious. “I’m just doing what I can,” Hakes insists. For the llamas and alpacas of Safe Haven Sanctuary, that’s a lot.
Monetary donations are especially appreciated as winter approaches, and contributions can be mailed to the Sanctuary at PO Box 226, Corvallis MT 59828, or dropped off at the facility itself, which is located at 780 Old Corvallis Road in Corvallis. There’s more information about the non-profit and the animals themselves—as well as a newsletter and more photos—at the Sanctuary’s website, www.safehavenlas.wixsite.com/safehavenlas, and on its Facebook page, @SafeHavenLlamasAlpacas. Hakes can also be reached through her email address: [email protected]