Flatt: The Back Story
Your Past is Not Your Future
The Challenge Adventures llamas have an important job: becoming friends, trail companions and confidantes for disadvantaged youth, many of whom have been abused or neglected. In addition to special training, each llama’s own personality and history is an asset in being able to win the trust of vulnerable young people. Flatt is no exception. We don’t know much about his life before he joined us. His torn right ear suggests that he had a few fights with other llamas, perhaps in his youth, but we don’t know for sure. The split ear gives him a rakish appearance that makes him look a bit disreputable, in a Waylon Jennings Outlaw kind of way. We do know that he had proper care in his early years, but was neglected at the time we got him due to the disability of his owner.
When Flatt and his buddy, Scruggs, arrived at Hyder Mountain Farm one September morning, they were a sorry sight; both were skinny and their wool was dirty and matted with burrs. In fact, their long wool was almost a solid mass of large, spikey cockleburs, like they were wearing a coat made of thorns. It was painful to look at, much less to imagine what it was like for the animals. We had heard that these two llamas were neglected because their owner had gotten too sick to care for them, but we hadn’t expected their condition to be this bad. How could this have happened?
When they got off the trailer, Scruggs immediately went into the shelter and started eating hay. Flatt looked around the corral for a minute before he did the same. For several days, both llamas did nothing all day except eat and sit to chew their cud. They both avoided getting close to the humans who came to feed them. We decided to give them some time to adjust before trying to clean up the burrs.
Llamas and other wooly critters often pick up burs growing in their pastures, especially in the early fall. Combing them out is painful for the animal and frustrating for the human. Left untouched, the burs work down next to the skin and cause sores. Most of the time, we can comb these out in an hour or two per animal. However, after working on combing Flatt for an hour, we had cleared only a small patch next to his right shoulder and he was very unhappy.
Finally George got out the hand clippers that we use to shear llamas in the spring. The challenge was to cut horizontally just underneath the matted burrs to free them without taking away too much of Flatt’s wool, which would leave him unprotected during the cold winter. Working slowly and carefully, George cut away the huge burr mats; it took about 4 hours. When it was over, both the human and the llama were tired. Flatt’s coat looked very raggedy but a lot better than before. He trotted around the corral, as if to test out the freedom from his burr straitjacket. He could even lie down without pressing on the burrs that had coated his legs and even his belly region. He rolled in the dust and looked a lot happier.
Now that he was free from the burrs, Flatt began gaining weight and was acting less skittish around humans. In some ways, he behaved like abused children when they finally get into a safer environment. Gradually, over several weeks, he learned his llama lessons: following humans on a lead, getting on and off the trailer and finally wearing a pack so that he could carry camping gear on the trail. Although Flatt was a bit reserved, he paid attention and learned his lessons well. He practiced with the humans over the winter and early spring. Finally it was time for him to become a useful member of his community, and he joined as the seventh member of the Challenge Adventures llama trail crew. He practiced walking single file with the other llamas, how to keep the right amount of space between and not to get tangled up. He learned how to get along with the other llamas, although he kept to himself a bit. They all practiced wearing their packs on short hikes up the wooded trails on Hyder Mountain behind the farm. One June day, George drove the truck and trailer next to the shelter; all seven of the llama crew got onto the trailer. They went on winding roads up a big mountain. This was a new experience for Flatt. When he got off the trailer in a big parking area, George loaded heavy packs onto him and all of the other six llamas. The packs contained food, tents, and other camping gear.
Soon a passenger van arrived with the campers. Several children and a couple of adults got out and walked toward the llamas. They were all from an organization that finds foster homes for children who have been abused or neglected. After George introduced these participants to the llamas, the children got to select the llama that they would be their own “trail buddy” for the next five days. Each child would be responsible for leading, feeding, watering, brushing and looking after their llama, and the llama, in turn, would carry the heavy gear and be a good listener.
Marcus, an awkward 11 year old boy hung back from the others. He had never been in the woods before and was a bit scared of the tall llamas. He heard George tell about each llama’s life and personality. Marcus thought that he had something in common with Flatt because the llama had been abused, as had Marcus, so he finally chose him to be his companion. The first day, Marcus was rather quiet, which was fine with Flatt; he just followed Marcus along the rocky trail and tried not to step on the backs of his heels, as he had been taught. Marcus was cautious with Flatt and a bit untrusting. What would this large animal do? On the second day, Marcus complained loudly to Flatt about the heat and having a rock in his boot. Flatt listened and kept walking steadily at the same pace. At the campsite that night, Marcus fed Flatt some grain and brushed his wool. Before he went to sleep, Marcus unzipped his tent to see Flatt lying in the grassy field ten yards away, chewing his cud. Somehow, Marcus felt a bit safer getting into his sleeping bag with his llama nearby. He heard rain falling softly on the tent as he fell asleep.
After the campers had eaten breakfast and helped to dry and pack up the tents, Marcus and Flatt began walking along with the group as usual. The trail followed a long, high ridgeline, so they could see views all around them. They even got to pick a few blueberries. After stopping for lunch, the campers continued hiking, now heading downhill. The grassy, open country of the morning became more wooded and shady, with tangled roots underfoot. There were more rocks on the muddy trail, too, so Marcus and Flatt had to be extra careful. Marcus could hear the sound of rushing water ahead but it was hard to see where the sound was coming from.
At the bottom of the steep hill, he saw a wide creek; the water was especially high because of the rain last night. The only way to get across was to step from one rock to another. Marcus was paralyzed. He didn’t hear the adults and other children discussing the safest way to cross the stream; he just saw lots of slippery rocks surrounded by loud, rushing water. George, the leader, went across first to find the best rocks to stand on, followed by Britt, the llama trail leader and his human, then the other llama and human pairs in turn. Marcus and Flatt were Number 6 in the line. Marcus had never crossed a stream this way before and worried that he might fall into the water. When it was Marcus’s turn, he stepped on the first large rock, which was fairly level. He stepped to the second one without any problem. But when he got to the third rock, it was round and slippery. Marcus froze in place and dropped Flatt’s lead into the cold, bubbling water. The other children on the far bank began calling out, “Come on, Marcus, you can do it.” But Marcus just shook his head and stayed where he was. After what seemed a long time, Marcus noticed that Flatt was wading in the stream next to his right elbow; he stood still next to Marcus. Marcus reached out his hand and grabbed onto the top of Flatt’s red canvas pack. Flatt walked slowly so that Marcus could move from rock to rock until they both got safely to the other side. Then Marcus hugged Flatt’s neck.
The group continued hiking for two more hours. As they walked along, Marcus began to talk and Flatt listened. By the time they reached the campsite, Marcus had told most of his life story. At the new campsite, everyone pitched tents, fed their llamas and helped to make dinner. Marcus fed Flatt a little extra grain in his open hand – his lips tickled. After dinner, over cups of hot chocolate, the campers talked about what they had learned or accomplished that day. Marcus shyly acknowledged that he had crossed the stream, even though he was scared. “Flatt helped me do it,” he said. George and other adults encouraged Marcus to set even more ambitious goals for himself the last two days of his trip, like taking more responsibility in the group. The next day, he agreed to hike at the head of the line and carry the map and compass to keep everyone on the right trail.
As the stars began to come out, some of the children played tag around the edge of the field. Marcus sat in the tall grass next to Flatt, who was lying quietly chewing his cud. Marcus leaned his head to rest on the neck of his new friend. Despite his checkered past, Flatt knew that he had learned his job well.