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‘Llama walks’ bring visitors to local trails

December 31, 2018

LITCHFIELD, Conn. (AP) — Long-known as the local spot to take a hike with the family dog in tow, White Memorial Conservation Center saw the usual visitors bundle up before brisk walks Sunday afternoon. But amid the usual stream of terriers and treckers, two llamas stepped out of a minivan to make their mark on the trail.

Debbie Labbe, owner of Country Quilt Llama Farm in Cornwall, has hosted “llama walks” at the nature preserve for the past five years. Taupe-colored Harley and cream-colored Theo are just two of Labbe’s five llamas she brings to nursing and convalescent homes across the state — sometimes to provide therapeutic support and other times for entertainment.

Labbe started raising llamas 30 years ago when a “llama craze” of sorts was sweeping the nation, she said. “There was more demand than supply as it became sort of a novelty,” Labbe said of raising and owning llamas. But by the mid-90s the trend had reversed. “Prices dropped down substantially and the investors pulled out of it. Now the only people who have llamas are people who just really like llamas,” she said.

Amid the boom, Labbe decided she too would become a breeder after reading an article about a llama farm in Country Living magazine and making several visits to a nearby farm in Cornwall in 1986. But when the baby llamas — known as crias — were born, she knew breeding wasn’t for her.

“I couldn’t get rid of them,” she said of the baby llamas. “They’re just too cute and I wanted to keep them all.” So she did, eventually growing her farm to have between three to 10 llamas at given points in her farming career.

Labbe founded Country Quilt Llama Farm with the intention of funding the farm through profits from homemade quilts, but those plans were pushed to the side as her “llama visiting” business grew. Her llama visits first kicked off with a trip to East Haddam Elementary School, which her children attended. After the first visit, Labbe took on an ever-widening circuit as the community began to recognize her and request visits to nursing homes, libraries and surrounding schools. Labbe now makes enough to sustain her llama farm and herself off the funding from llama visits and walks, she said.

“The business just kept growing bigger and bigger,” she said. The cost of owning and caring for a llama is comparable to the cost of owning a mid-sized dog, according to Labbe.

On a chilly Sunday, John Harris of West Hartford brought his daughter and two grandchildren, Harry and Audrey Stater to walk the llamas with Labbe’s guidance.

“My wife is the best grandmother and somehow manages to find the most interesting activities ever for the grandchildren,” Harris, said, ambling ahead of the walking group to take photos. As Harry and Audrey led the llamas along winding trails, wide-eyed Harley and Theo patiently waited for the children’s’ queues, pausing just once to make a quick snack of tufts of grass.

For Labbe, patience and personality is the most important factor when deciding on whether to have a new llama join her farm. When visiting in nursing and convalescence homes as therapy animals, it is important that her llamas want to be making the rounds and remain calm, she said.

Sometimes much to the surprise of patients, Labbe will make visits to nursing homes with one of the llamas. In some instances, the llamas will focus on particular patients, spending extra time and lavishing additional attention on them, she said.

“I’ve often had nurses come up to say that the person who the llama stay with is the one who really needed it that day,” Labbe said. “It’s almost as if they have a sixth sense and they know who needs the loving that day.”

Labbe hosts most of the llama walks in winter when school trips slow down and the heat does not threaten the llamas comfortable strolls. Several more walks are planned at White Memorial Conservation Center in the upcoming weeks.

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Online: https://bit.ly/2F0h2ea

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Information from: Republican-American, http://www.rep-am.com

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