On one of our first visits to an alpaca farm, we were standing in the pasture with the dams when they heard a coyote. The high-pitched, staccato alarm echoed through the group, all turning with necks and ears upright to face the direction of the danger. Immediately, the sentinel llama ran in the direction of the unseen marauder while the dams all ran in the opposite direction, circled up with the cria protected in the center, much like a wagon train under attack.
Alpacas make few sounds, and a 'herd alert' is generally used only for imminent danger. But some alpacas are more 'alert-y' than others. When we took our dog to a ranch that I had visited many times and kept her at a distance, Promise sounded the alert while the others quietly maintained a 'watch and wait' attitude. But as prey animals, it's always good to be cautious.
On a few occasions the distress signal has awakened us in the middle of the night. We jump up, pitch on jeans, jackets and shoes, grab the flashlights stationed by the door and head out to determine the cause. (We do not have livestock guardian dogs.) So far, we have only spotted the reflective eyes of deer meandering through our hay field on the way to the adjacent property. Before cross-fencing and critters moved in, this used to be their territory, too.
Last week during evening chores, as I exited Galileo's pen he sounded 'herd alert.' I looked all around and could spy no approaching danger. None of the other animals were on alert status, either by posture or sound. But Galileo was insistent and continued the shrill alarm.
Mike and I both looked all around and in the direction Galileo was facing. Finally we determined that the 'danger' he perceived was that the five yearling males in the pen next to the females, grazing along the same fenceline. As King of the Mountain, Galileo interpreted that as a strategic threat to his girls.
Shaking a dish of pellets, we enticed the boys back to their shed and closed them off from the neighboring pen. That was resolution enough for Galileo. He settled down and soon everyone went back to grazing.
All the while, our other herdsire, Orion, stood erect in his pen with his back to the drama, as if to say "I am not a part of the problem, I am not challenging you." These intelligent animals have a specialized system of body language that we continue to learn.
In the wild of the Andes, a macho herdsire stands atop a hillock and surveys his herd. Galileo is definitely in his prime and behaving exactly as he should. It's the silly humans that created this frenzy with our lack of understanding. If it weren't for the enforcement of fences, Galileo would have chased the boys away himself. So it was our job to rectify the disorder we'd created and return calmness to the herd.
This herd alert was not quite the heart-pounding rush of a 2:00 a.m drill by search-light, but very solvable once we paid attention. The alpacas listen and watch; as their shepherds, we must listen and watch them.
Moments later, a relaxed Galileo was eating his pellets out of my hand, satisfied that 'his girls' were safe.