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Conquering the Cave of Imminent Death!

I had been searching for many months for a reason why our llamas appeared to be frightened to walk past their field shelter – it was by far the quickest way to exit the paddock into the corridor that linked all of the paddocks with the stable area (which is where the food and fresh water is located). The faces on my llamas would take on an anxious look, feet gingerly stepping in the direction of the field shelter, nervously trying to peer into the field shelter checking for danger. I had named this particular shelter the ‘Cave of Imminent Death’ because this was how my llamas appeared to view it!

Whilst attending a Camelidynamics course in September we were all standing in the barn and Julie asked for opinions on the little acrylic mirror she had appended to the rear wall. “So you can see behind you”, I offered. “No”, said Julie, “it’s so that the alpacas and llamas will feel more confident accessing the pens at the furthermost end of the barn – an area they would normally avoid because they don’t like the feeling of being trapped.” This provided me with an idea – upon my return to Cambridgeshire, I researched online for a retailer of an acrylic mirror to hang in the Cave of Imminent Death. If the girls were afraid of dark spaces or had the feeling of being trapped, then the mirror would look like a window - they might just go for it! Although acrylic mirrors are often purchased for stabled horses to provide company and ease the anxiety for the horse being separated from its herd, I could find no such website catering for camelids (although that’s hardly surprising given llamas and alpacas are never stabled individually away from their herd-mates). I therefore purchased a standard acrylic stable mirror measuring 1200 x 800mm from Eclipse Equestrian and my husband, Chris, affixed it to a sheet of ply, which was in turn mounted against the rear of the field shelter wall.

It was with a great deal of anticipation that I stood waiting for one of the girls to notice the mirror. I didn’t have to wait for long…. Lila noticed the light bouncing off the mirror which lit up the shelter. She took a few steps towards the shelter, looking for the light source in a place that was usually dingy and dark. As she spotted herself in the mirror, she froze rigid and stared intently at the sight before her.

The other llamas were unaware of Lila’s new discovery and she did nothing to alert them to it; she took a couple of steps forward and then quickly retreated as the llama facing her appeared to be boldly walking towards her. She was totally confused!

Within 10 minutes the other llamas spotted Lila’s lack of interest in the herd, coupled with her pronounced stance and stare at what is usually a hum-drum place. They came to investigate. It took no time at all for the entire herd to enter the shelter and spot themselves in the mirror.

There seemed to be a general feeling of excitement and curiosity with each llama spending time gazing at the reflection of themselves and their herd-mates. My initial hope that they would feel less frightened at walking past the field shelter was quickly surpassed by amazement that the girls appeared to be enjoying looking at the reflections in the mirror. They spent time nosing their own and each other’s reflections.

They made some early attempts at trying to look behind the mirror and Lucy did spend a little time trying to nibble on the screws that held the mirror to the sheet of ply, which produced additional questions – she was able to see the screws as static items attached to the mirror and also herself as a floating/moving image within the mirror – I assume how we would see a fly sitting on our TV screen while watching a movie. I wondered what the reflection looked like to the llamas, as they were clearly viewing themselves head on, rather than from the rear or to the side.

As dusk was falling, and after taking some grainy photographs on my iPhone, I decided to leave the girls to it for the evening.

Bright and early the next morning, as is my routine, I took my bowl of chopped carrots and parsnips to the paddocks. Where I normally have six galloping llamas to contend with, I discovered them in an orderly queue patiently awaiting their turn in the shelter. I managed to coax them down to where I was standing but as soon as they were done with their morning treat they raced back to the shelter to continue their new pastime.

Did they think this was a window to another paddock housing another herd of friendly llamas? Did their herding instinct draw them to spend time with the other herd? Or were they displaying an element of awareness whereby within no time at all they were able to recognise the reflection as being just that – a reflection of themselves? Is a llama able to recognise their field-mates as a reflection of what they see every day?

It has now been a month since the mirror was installed, and the initial excitement of spending most of the day hanging around the entrance to the shelter has abated slightly. The llamas walk past and inside the shelter in a calm and easy manner and still queue (why do llamas queue?) to spend time in front of the mirror.

Various studies have been undertaken in the past in relation to sentience and awareness in llamas, pigs and mirrors. It would be great to hear from you if you’ve had a similar experience or for more details.

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