by Alexa Metrick, Editor
(ed. note: this article was read and reviewed by Dr. LaRue Johnson DVM, PHD, who did pioneering work on ABS and coined the term)
As a kid, while at one of the Pack Festivals that kicked off a season of llama packing, I ate Berserk Llama Stew. It was one of many delicious dishes in that particular year’s Camp Cook Contest, a cherished and highly competitive event that celebrates one of the best parts about packing with llamas: the food. (How many backpackers are willing to haul Dutch ovens to camp?)
This is a sore subject among llama and alpaca owners, but people need to be aware of the issue. Actually, all three topics (berserk llamas, Camp Cook Contest winners, and eating llama meat) are sore subjects to a variety of people, but in this post I’m going to focus on the berserk llamas.
A quick YouTube search will give endless examples of llamas or alpacas that exhibit threatening or dangerous behavior toward humans, including screaming, spitting, charging, biting, butting and ramming. These animals can be very dangerous, and their actions can cause injury.
This bad behavior has been called Berserk Male Syndrome (which was how that stew got its name), as if a hereditary switch was flipped in a seemingly normal animal and his hormones drove him insane. This is simply not true. The animal’s actions are a result of poor handling when young, combined with the onset of adulthood. By calling it “Berserk Male Syndrome,” we are transferring the responsibility of the behavior from the owner to the llama. The truth is, improper human handling creates these dangerous animals. I don’t imagine anyone ever intends for this to happen, but that doesn’t make it any less their responsibility.
Llamas are herd animals, and their self-preservation instincts are still very much intact. In addition, llamas are territorial and, just like any other wild animal, will fight to defend that territory from intruders. This goes for females as well as males, by the way.
Territorial aggression is perfectly healthy and normal (this is why the llama is an ideal guard animal for sheep, goats and even alpacas). But when a llama fails to distinguish a human entering its territory from any other animal entering, problems start to occur. The Syndrome may start with endearing behavior: the young llama might nuzzle or cuddle with people (especially if being bottle-fed), follow people around the paddock humming, or run to greet a person, often with its tail flipped up onto its rump (a normal sign of submission within the herd). The little one might seem friendly and sweet and show no fear of humans. But this only means that it doesn’t recognize that there is a difference between llamas and humans.
As this animal gets older and the hormones of puberty set in, the signs that something is wrong will become less and less endearing and more and more dangerous. It may start with what seems to be an innocent “bump,” where the llama casually brushes against or past a person. If this behavior is allowed and the llama is not reprimanded, the llama assumes that it is the dominant animal in the relationship and will continue to act as such. A halter-trained animal that refuses to be haltered (by raising its head out of the handler’s reach) or refuses to move out of the way of the handler (or deliberately blocks the way) and shows aggressive behavior (ears lowered, nose and head up in the air) is asserting its dominance over its owner. A llama running up to a fence to meet a person on the other side may seem like a greeting but is actually an attack thwarted by the fence.
This behavior is called misdirected territorial aggression, and it will turn even nastier (to become Aberrant Behavior Syndrome, or ABS) if it is not dealt with immediately. Many folks believe that, depending on the severity of the behavior, the llama can be re-trained and end up leading, if not a productive life, then a non-violent life. Early castration in males will likely help, but once the Syndrome has started, these animals can never be fully trusted. Even if a given handler manages to hold the upper hand, all other humans are still considered fair game by an animal with ABS. (Understand that females can also be adversely affected, but become more obnoxious than dangerous toward humans.) Sadly, not much can be done with an animal with aggressive ABS except to start preparing the marinade.