Here’s another guest post from Ron. Not sure about the ratio of “regular” and “guest” posts in recent months, however.
Diego the llama has been with us for several months now, and I have spent a fair amount of time observing the interactions between him and our flock of Navajo Churro sheep. As some readers may recall, we held high hopes for him as a guardian of our little flock, particularly following the failed coyote attack on Joseph the lamb. The intra-species interactions would be interesting to watch from the perspective of a dispassionate observer of animal behavior. This description does not apply to me, though, as I freely admit an excessive attachment to our sheep and have accordingly been watching for any signs of aggression, mating behavior, or–on the positive side–development of a bond between the two species. In summary, in spite of a few glitches, I have been very pleased, and at times touched, by the somewhat gradual development of this multi-species flock.
With that, I will tell you about Diego and Chaco the lamb. Chaco is Cinnamon’s (not so) little boy, and the first lamb born in 2017. We saw him slip out of his mother on a lovely April morning followed by his brother Francisco (Paco) 10 minutes later. Both lambs are a shade of white quite distinct from Diego’s chocolate brown coat. The day I integrated Diego with the sheep flock, Chaco came walking up and introduced himself with a nose inclined towards Diego’s face. Chaco seemed to have no fear of this six foot tall, two hundred plus pound creature. Diego, however, turned and scooted away. An odd power dynamic considering Chaco might weigh 40 pounds with eyes at the level of my thighs. Chaco was not dissuaded though and tried this again several times that day with Diego growing more comfortable with this much smaller, white creature. A week or so later I caught the tail end of a different interaction with Diego slowly chasing Chaco around the pasture. I did not see any potential for harm, but Chaco was a little disturbed by this. I let it play out and all was calm in a few minutes. Perhaps Diego was irritated with the invasion of his personal space, or perhaps he was herding his little charge. I have not seen this again.
A week or so later, we looked out in the pasture, Diego was lying down, and Chaco was standing right next to him–looking his hero Diego in the face from a few feet away. This went on for something like 30 minutes. At the least Diego had decided to tolerate his lamb worshipper. However, I gathered later that more than tolerance was likely occurring.
A day or two after moving the flock to a new pasture I noticed burdocks in some of the lambs’ wool. This can make mess of the wool so I went out, pulled up any burdock, and cut the burrs out from those lambs that would let me grab them. Chaco and Paco are too skittish for this so I had to lure them in to the catch pen. Once I had the two white boys corralled, Diego came running over and stood right next to us on the other side of the catch pen fence intently watching. When I grabbed Paco and flipped him on his butt, Diego let out an alarmed whine and got quite agitated. I then did the same to Chaco and Diego paced the fence line whining. When I set them down the llama stuck his long nose through the fence and sniffed everyone as if to check that they were okay. Diego did not relax until I let everyone out in to the pasture. To me this showed an obvious sign of a protective bond, especially for those two (not so) little white lambs.
That evening I was sitting on the back patio as the day’s light faded and I saw Cinnamon walk out into the pasture to graze with her two boys. This time of fading light is the golden hour for many predators. Diego got up and followed the trio into the pasture and simply stood next to them, watching the tree line–looking, looking, looking. At one point Chaco put his face up towards Diego, just like on the first day, and Diego stretched his long neck down and briefly touched noses with his admirer.
As a biologist I know it is bad practice to interpret or apply human emotions to the animals we observe. However, it is hard to imagine the gesture of touching noses as anything but affection, bonding, family. Diego is Chaco’s hero, and this shepherd’s hero as well.