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Creating An Enriching Life For Llamas

llama looks at camera with a carrot in their mouth.
Tasty treats are just one of many forms of enrichment!
Photo: Blackberry Creek Farm Animal Sanctuary

*Photos contained in this resource may include alpacas in addition to llamas.

Enrichment is often thought of as an “extra” or optional provision for residents. Sanctuary workers are understandably focused on providing the food, water, and housing that is necessary for residents to live. However, we are hoping that by incorporating enrichment as an aspect of general care, the lives of llama residents will be enriched. This is of particular importance for residents residing in smaller, more confined, or barren living spaces. In cases like these, enrichment can make a world of difference in the lives of residents. No one likes to be bored, including residents, regardless of species!

Developing An Enrichment Plan

The best way to start any enrichment plan is to first consider natural behaviors. For example, in the wild, llamas spend most of their day moving about and grazing. It’s important to understand both the species-specific needs of your residents in addition to considering their individual needs!

Here’s an example of a basic enrichment plan: On an individual level, Poppins, an older hembra (female) resident, underwent leg surgery recently, and her movements must be limited (she really likes to roam) to allow the leg to heal. Setting Poppins up in her indoor living space and limiting outdoor access to a small paddock is vital to her healing process, but will likely lead to boredom and frustration. Stress can actually prolong recovery time and cause stereotypical behaviors. In order to reduce boredom and frustration, it is necessary to add elements to her daily life that help meet her physical and psychological needs. Among other things, this can be done by providing various browse and other food enrichment, like puzzles, so she spends more time eating. Enrichment may also take the form of providing calming music and ensuring she has access to her companion, Goyo, to varying degrees, as she heals.

When developing an enrichment plan for residents, it’s important to consider the types of behavior in which you’re hoping to see an increase or decrease. For example, do you wish to increase exploratory behavior? Novel objects and nutritional enrichment may be best suited to this task. Do you want to decrease confrontational behavior between residents? Cognitive enrichment, learning how to problem solve to find treats, engaging in clicker play, and adding multiple enrichment areas so all residents have an opportunity to access the enrichment are all possible avenues.

Enrichment Is Well Worth The Time Investment!
We know you have your hands full managing a sanctuary and probably never seem to have enough time. However, developing enrichment plans for species, particular groupings of residents, and individuals can actually help you save time and money in the future! Residents who are provided individualized enrichment are more likely to feel mentally stimulated, experience positive emotions, and are more likely to perform satisfying natural behaviors that can help mental and physical health. Happier residents heal more quickly than stressed individuals, and residents with enriched environments may be less likely to engage in confrontational behaviors, depending on their living space.

Sample Individualized Enrichment Plan

Example of llama enrichment plan

As you can see, enrichment can go beyond just offering toys or treats- and that offering enrichment isn’t just a one-time thing! Residents will become bored with certain enrichment that is left in their living space for an extended period or the same enrichment offered every day (tasty treats being likely an exception to this).

One At A Time!
It is important to only add a single enrichment element at a time when you are first observing and learning whether a resident(s) actually finds it enriching and for how long they find it enriching before they lose interest. Adding multiple enrichment strategies makes it difficult to get an accurate assessment of the appropriateness of the chosen enrichment. You will be better able to build a schedule when you have more accurate information.

Now that we have covered what an individual enrichment plan looks like, we will cover some of the different types of enrichment for llamas and how they could be implemented at your sanctuary.

Observations And Adjustments Are Key!
It’s always important to observe if and how residents use the proffered enrichment. Remember, it is only enrichment if the individual finds it enriching! If they are frightened by something or uninterested in it, then it isn’t enriching. 

Social Enrichment

This one may seem obvious, but it’s important to mention! Llamas are herd-oriented animals, and it’s important they have access to other llamas. Of course, there may be times when this isn’t possible, due to medical issues, resident disagreements, or sadly, the death of their companion. When residents have to be separated, every step should be taken to allow some form of continued contact. The type of contact will depend on the situation. In cases of contagious disease, this must obviously be more limited. In cases like these where direct contact with others of their species isn’t possible, there are ways that you can enrich their lives during this time:

  • Keep a calm buddy nearby and allow physical contact if contagion isn’t an issue.
  • Provide visual contact with other llamas.
  • Add a mirror to their living space (adding mirrors to a bigger space first is ideal to allow them distance and careful approach). There are acrylic mirrors that are much safer than glass mirrors.
  • Some llamas have been known to form good social bonds with humans. Increasing time spent with an isolated llama may be of benefit during separation from their social group.
  • If possible to do safely, walk with your llama pal! Using a halter and lead, go on sensory walks with your residents. This is great social time and an opportunity to feel more accustomed to a halter and lead so things can go more smoothly during health exams and transport. Plus it’s great exercise! You can walk with residents (those who are safe and comfortable to do so) in different areas if you have plenty of acreage. Some residents may just walk with you in their outdoor living space without a halter and lead.
Man looks over fence and touches noses with llama.
Social time can include time with caregivers too!
Photo: Blackberry Creek Farm Animal Sanctuary

Physical Enrichment

Physical or structural enrichment refers to creating a dynamic living space for residents. Let’s look at some llama-specific physical enrichment:

  • Provide multiple water and food “stations”.
  • Provide nice dusty or sandy spots for a good roll in the dirt.
    • Be careful not to feed residents on sand as they could ingest it, causing an impaction.
  • Add new features to their environment on a schedule.
  • Vary the terrain; a mound of dirt or hill can provide an interesting element for residents.
  • Practice rotational grazing which allows them access to new areas.
  • Provide a wading pool or misters.
Llama stands on mound.
Even a little mound or two in an outdoor living space can create a more dynamic environment!
Photo: Star Gazing Farm Animal Sanctuary

Llama rolling around in the dirt
Residents love a good roll in dirt at Winslow Animal Farm Sanctuary!
Photo: Sheepish Grin Photography

Nutritional Enrichment

This is a fun one! We all know llamas enjoy a good nibble and enjoy an array of tasty treats

Here’s a list of ideas for nutritional enrichment for your llama residents:

  • Take a 5 gallon bucket with a secure lid and make multiple holes in the sides. It becomes a food dispenser when the llamas roll it. 
  • Add a pile of llama-safe leaves and sprinkle treats throughout.
  • Offer llama safe branches with tasty leaves for them to nibble. Llamas naturally browse in addition to grazing. Try to vary the heights when placing the browse.
  • Drill holes in small sturdy bowls and put a dowel through them (think paper towel dispenser) and secure it vertically to a wall or fence post. Place little treats in them so they can use their lips to manipulate the bowls to get a treat.
  • Smear banana or other fruit mash on textured balls, large hanging pine cones and other appropriate places.
  • Grow safe herbs just outside the fence line so they grow through and residents can snack on them without destroying the whole plant. (fingers crossed!)
  • Individual llamas may exhibit a behavior called contrafreeloading. Contrafreeloading is the term for when an animal will choose to perform a task to receive food even when there is food readily available.
    • You may be able to stimulate your llama residents into exhibiting this behavior by packing hay into a cardboard box with holes, feeding balls, or hiding treats in a container like mentioned above. Llamas can solve logic puzzles, and this can be used to promote increased feeding behavior and that requires some effort on their part- to their enjoyment! 
    • If you think hiding a resident’s food or making them work for their food is a negative experience for them (everyone is different), you can try an experiment with your residents: Provide a puzzle like above or or a card-board box or other container that requires some manipulation in order to get their food and observe how your residents behave towards each. They will tell you if they find it engaging or not! 
  • When temperatures are hot, add chopped up produce to a mold, add water and freeze, creating a cool treat that can keep your residents engaged on a hot day.
  • Place fresh herbs, veggies, and fruits throughout their living space so they can go on a scavenger hunt, encouraging movement and natural behaviors.
  • Put llama-safe herbal tea bags (peppermint, ginger…etc) in a water bucket with warm water and let them steep just enough to add some flavor, but not overwhelmingly so. Remove tea bags and place buckets throughout their living space. These should not replace regular drinking water.
  • Bob for produce! Get a little swimming pool or something similar, add chopped up treats, and fill with water.
  • Attach two hanging plant baskets together, creating a ball. Make space at the top of one half so you can add treats and forage and hang it to promote natural feeding behaviors. (Check carefully for any sharp or loose areas before using.) This is not appropriate for residents with respiratory issues as dust from hay or other forage can aggravate their condition.
LLama nibbles on carrots stuck within a frozen mold.
Gypsy enjoys a tasty frozen carrot pie!
Photo: Nina Faust

Alpaca nudges toy to release treats.
Gypsy moves this wobbly treat dispenser around to get tasty nibbles. Photo: Nina Faust

Llama manipulates stacked bowls on dowel to access treets.
The “wobbly dish” enrichment requires Gypsy to manipulate these dishes in order to access treats.
Photo: Nina Faust

Grooming brush is attached to the wall with carrot pieces stuck throughout the bristles.
A simple grooming brush can become a nutritional enrichment tool!
Photo: Nina Faust
Alpaca nibbles carrots stuck in the bristles of a grooming
Canela enjoys the carrot brush enrichment!
Photo: Nina Faust
Alpaca noses container with holes placed on a paper towel dowel to release treats
Another easy nutritional item is to use a a plastic container and cut holes in the side so it becomes a treat dispenser.
Photo: Nina Faust

Sensory Enrichment

Sensory enrichment refers to enrichment that engages the senses. Arguably all enrichment engages the senses, but sensory enrichment focuses on sight, touch, hearing, and smell. Each can provide interesting experiences for llama residents!

Sensory Walks

Sensory walks cover all the senses! They allow llamas to smell new things, see new scenery, hear different sounds, feel the different textures of surfaces and objects they come in contact with, and even taste something new! You don’t have to have tons of acreage in order to guide your resident on this journey. Even simply leaving their enclosure (on halter and lead), being able to sniff what they want here and there, having a different visual angle of the property, and feeling different substrates under their feet can have an enriching effect. Depending on the health of a resident, you can take them on short walks nearby or long walks further away. You can even set up enrichment focus areas. Of course, this may not be appropriate for every resident. Staff and resident safety must come first, so it isn’t recommended to do this with extremely scared or confrontational residents until they have spent time with caregivers, building a bond and decreasing problematic behavioral responses.

Visual Enrichment

Llamas have excellent vision and have a behavioral need to look out for predators, make sense of their surroundings, and stay connected with their companions. While there hasn’t been much in the way of research studying the effects of visual enrichment in llamas, appropriate visual enrichment for llama residents may include:

  • Providing access to view the outside and other residents
  • Providing a mirror for residents (if it does not cause them distress). If you know a resident is confrontational with other residents, you might want to skip this. Adding it to their outdoor space first is a good idea if possible, so they can investigate it with the option of moving away. 
  • Simply adding new, interesting items to their living space to break the monotony. Move things around.
  • You can add things outside of their living spaces for them to look at, too.  If you or volunteers are working on projects, do it within view of residents so they can watch if curious.
Alpaca looks into mirror attached to the wall.
A mirror can be an interesting form of visual enrichment.
Photo: Nina Faust

Llamas watch construction of a new fence
All sorts of things can be enriching, even watching staff perform tasks nearby.
Photo: Blackberry Creek Farm Animal Sanctuary

Olfactory Enrichment

Llamas use their noses a lot too! This has implications for llamas in sanctuaries. It provides a useful form of enrichment that can be easily provided by care staff. It also means that, because llamas have a better sense of smell than humans, staff should consider how strong the scent is they are offering and water it down if possible if it’s particularly strong! Strong perfumes or cleaning solutions may also have a negative effect on llama residents.

  • If you need to transfer a llama resident to a new living space, add a bit of soiled bedding from their previous space.
  • One study revealed that lavender can lower heart rate in horses while being actively inhaled. It is worth trying for llamas who may be faced with stressful situations. 
  • Try adding different fresh herbs around their living space, or even llama-safe spices for them to smell.
  • Scent two traffic cones or scratching brushes with a spritz of watered down essential oil and one without and see if they investigate the one with the scent more closely. Be sure to never directly apply the essential oils to the resident or provide direct access to essential oils!

Auditory Enrichment

Do you love a good tune? Or have a favorite song that soothes you? The same can be true for llamas! Just remember not to play the music too loudly and avoid chaotic sounds, as llama residents are sensitive! Make sure to observe them to see if this is, in fact, enriching and doesn’t cause discomfort.

  • Some animals have been shown to experience reduced stress levels when classical music is played for them. You might try this for your llama residents too.
  • Other possibilities include calm rain sounds or soothing music. 
  • Playing the radio should only be done with careful supervision, as you cannot control the sounds, and sudden loud noises can be upsetting to llama residents. 

Tactile Enrichment

To encourage llamas to interact with their environment and redirect otherwise problematic behavior, consider adding tactile enrichment to their living spaces. You will start to find that many forms of enrichment overlap! This might include:

  • Attach push broom heads to fencing or other secure areas around both indoor and outdoor living spaces for a good scratch.
  • Grooming is a great tactile enrichment and good human-resident bonding time.
  • Adding piles of sand or dirt for a nice dust bath can also be stimulating (Avoid putting food on sandy areas, as it can lead to impactions).
  • Add toys! Find objects with different textures and feels, a hanging salt lick, chopped fruit or veggies in water to “bob for apples”, and really anything that is safe for them can be added randomly for them to explore. Baskets, traffic cones, cardboard boxes(make sure they don’t eat it), balls with ridges or dulled points like those used in exercise, frozen blocks with treats etc…
  • Add things they can manipulate with their feet, heads, and lips.
  • Drill holes in small sturdy bowls and put a dowel through them (think paper towel dispenser) and secure it vertically to a wall or fence post. Place little treats in them so they can use their lips to manipulate the bowls to get a treat.
Alpaca looks at a texturec rubber scratcher pad attached to the wall.
Scratcher pads are an easy way to introduce different textures in to living spaces.
Photo: Nina Faust

llama lays in the sun
Different substrates like sand, dirt, llama safe mulch, or piles of leaves can be added to add new textures to a living space.
Photo: Star Gazing Farm Animal Sanctuary

Cognitive Enrichment

Cognitive enrichment involves experiences or environments that encourage curiosity, problem solving behaviors, and learning. A number of enrichment strategies listed above also fall into this category. Puzzle feeders and engaging with curious things in their environment are examples. But lets touch on another form of cognitive enrichment: positive reinforcement learning (This is often referred to as “training”, but we like to refer to it as clicker “learning”, “play”, or “bonding”)

  • Positive Reinforcement Engagement
    • Many llamas may enjoy interacting with their human caregivers. One way to build a strong human-llama bond and boost cognitive functioning in your llama residents is to engage in clicker “learning”. Clicker learning and positive reinforcement are not interchangeable words. However, a clicker can be a useful tool during positive reinforcement engagement!
    • Examples of activities to learn with your llama residents could include learning to choose a specific shape or color of an object, rewarding them with an immediate click and treat. Other examples include learning to push a large ball or plastic barrel around (providing both exercise and engagement), move through agility courses (you can often make a simple agility course with things you already have on hand or by getting inexpensive supplies), or even to ease fear or reactivity to medical procedures and loading into a trailer. (This works for alpacas too.)

Focus On The Resident
It is important to note that clicker learning or play should only be implemented for the positive experiences that can be provided to your residents. This should not be used to encourage behavior that might be unsafe or exploitative.  

Alpaca rings a bell for a treat.(clicker training)
Canela learns to ring a bell as part of a clicker learning session.
Photo: Nina Faust

Person clicker training gypsy, the llama, to toss a partially inflated beach ball.
Using positive reinforcement, Nina encourages Gypsy to toss a partially inflated beach ball! Photo: Nina Faust

Two alpacas walk through a small maze as a form of enrichment when they can't go on walks.
Canela and Gypsy walk through little “mazes” to reach a target. Photo: Nina Faust

Take Notes

Because every llama is an individual, they are likely to have individual responses to enrichment. When you first add enrichment items, be sure to carefully observe the reactions of your residents. To prevent discomfort to new items or enrichment schedules, consider adding novel objects to an area to the side of their living space that doesn’t require them to walk past the item to go inside, outside, or to reach their water or food. If you believe one of your resident groups or individuals may be fearful of certain enrichment, encouraging them to investigate the object while you are standing by it and encouraging them can help ease fears. This is unlikely to work if you don’t have a bond with the resident. Using food or treats to motivate them to interact with the item is a great way to start. Giving your residents the option to engage or not with enrichment items can be empowering and improve emotional states. Be sure to make notes of any reactions and when their level of interest seems to subside. This will help you know how to best schedule days to change up their enrichment and provide them with a mentally stimulating environment.

Novelty

Novelty can be enriching on its own. However, llamas can become unsettled by big sudden changes, so care must be taken to slowly add new things and observe the resident(s’) reactions. And never make changes to their meal times or change a diet quickly, as this can have serious health complications. Llamas are clever and become bored after some time with provided enrichment. For this reason, it is important to incorporate “switch it up” days into your residents’ enrichment schedules! 

Building A Schedule

Once you learn more about your residents’ interests, you can build an enrichment schedule to provide varying forms of enrichment as part of your caregiving routine, as well as schedules to replace enrichment. This will keep things interesting for the llamas and help provide a stimulating and happy life for your residents.

Do you have an exciting enrichment strategy you use with your llama residents? Tell us all about it!

SOURCES:

Camelid Enrichment Overview | Pasado’s Safe Haven

Alpaca Enrichment | Camelidynamics (Non-Compassionate Source)

The Beginner’s Guide To Sensory Walks | Enriching Equines (Non-Compassionate Source)

Clicker Training with Alpacas | Karen Pryor Clicker Training (Non-Compassionate Source)

What Is Clicker Training? | Karen Pryor Clicker Training (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?
If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on April 8, 2021

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