Good morning all,
I arrived in Kalispell, Montana Saturday night, where I was met by my friends Barbara and Cyndi, who are providing me with housing, food, ground transportation while I'm here for the week. Barbara and I headed to the "sanctuary" in the dark yesterday morning. Looking for directions once we reached Hot Springs, we met Dr. Mike, one of the local veterinarians who is helping out with rescue efforts. A warm and friendly man, he drew us a map to the sanctuary, then filled us in on his work to get various states to waive certain entrance requirements for llamas going to legitimate rescue organizations in order to expedite transportation.
On site, we met the small but dedicated staff of Animeals (I'm still learning names), who have set up an extraordinary center for rescuing the sanctuary animals (talk about oxymorons) and working on the administrative quagmire connected to that. After very brief introductions, we immediately headed out to help. First on the agenda: 100 llamas needed to be prepared for a transport to New York. There were five of us available to do triage level assessment and preparation, including toenail trimming on the worst cases, confirming that we were not sending any intact males, and microchipping. I also added a component for recommending which llamas were not in adequate condition to survive the trip. Barbara and I were the only people there with any llama experience. Having said that, the young man, Sean from Animeals, on the team has been on site since December 20, has fallen in love with the llamas and is doing extraordinarily well handling them.
In everything I report, keep in mind that the Animeals folk are great. They are simply a pet food bank (for cats and dogs, primarily) who got called in by the MLAS people to provide them with hay when their major donor yanked all funding. Animeals could have easily called in the cops and taken off running. Instead, they signed on for the whole deal. They fought to get the sanctuary managers out of there, brought in all their own people to stay on site clock round, and just dug in with no large animal experience. At the time of seizure, there were 603 llamas, a couple hundred horses, 2 camels, donkeys, geese, chickens, emus, cows and potbellied pigs. As I write, the horses and donkeys have been moved and there are 350 llamas still on site. Transports of llamas have gone to Colorado, Texas and the southeast so far. Monday was New York. All this major efforts are part of a coalition formed by all the organized llama rescue outfits around the country, every one of which is being stellar in finding foster care and ultimate adoption for their already overburdened organizational efforts.
Sunday's work consisted of about 9 hours working in 30° rain, in 3" of muddy manure slop on top of sheer ice. All we have for work area are corrals, with a single fence panel to use as a makeshift chute. We fill the corral with a group of llamas, then one by one herd them toward the "chute," squeezing them in once they get there. Once held securely, the llama is haltered and gelding status is confirmed. (Now that the New York group goes, since they will only take geldings, most of the remainder of the males will be intact ones.) A quick physical assessment is done, microchip implanted, and toenails trimmed on the most extreme cases. We did this on about 100 llamas Sunday, completing the tasks on 80 of those after releasing intact males. I trimmed nails on about 40 of the llamas.
For the most part, stress levels in the animals were kept low by this small team that worked together very well. The biggest problems arose because from the site end, the primary goal is to get the animals out of there. With a non-llama, cattle vet on site, friction does arise when I insist on decisions and behaviors reflect the fact that we are dealing with very emaciated, stressed, ill and injured llamas and are in a rescue effort. I'm trying to choose my fights judiciously, recognizing that even I will have to accept compromises in order to help resolve things here. I did insist on instituting a selection of llamas I don't think can survive a long trip (some llamas that left before I arrived did not survive their trips). I've helped establish smaller numbers being put on each trailer, but not even that can be set in stone - when a group or individual requests a specific number, that's the number that gets loaded onto whatever transportation vehicle arrives to get them.
The condition of the animals is horrendous, although of course it can't be captured in photos like it was with the horses and donkeys. Bad toenails are hidden by dropped pasterns, and utter emaciation is hidden under pounds of untended fiber. At least a third of the llamas are suris, with dreadlocks dragging on the ground. Llamas now being pulled out as unlikely to survive a long haul packed in with many other llamas, include llamas who have been attacked by bears, those starting to go down from the stress of starvation, those with severe fungal disorders, extremely aged that are not very strong, and the severely lame. We mark these llamas with blue chalk across their backs.
Already, the eyes of the llamas are piercing any protective armor I might like to use for protection of my heart. I keep my anger at bay until I leave the muddy corrals, the inadequate shelters, the struggling animals, and walk past the indoor swimming pool, through the wrought iron fences and lush landscaping and into the lovely home where the people responsible for it all spent their time.
~ Gayle in Hot Springs, Montana
Day two here, and this has already become my life. I am absorbed by the hundreds and hundreds of animals in need, the mud and the manure and the ice and the rain. The llamas who are going down, the ones who are moved to areas with heat lamps, private hay, feed and water sources, the ones who now come to the fences when we go to them, who look eagerly at buckets, who wait patiently in corners because they know we will spread hay to them away from the crowds. And most of all, I am consumed by the eyes that watch me, every move I make, every action I take, every time I stop for a moment to look back at them and try to send the message that we're trying - we are finding hope for them in distant places where groups and individuals are making warm and loving space for them if they can just get through the unknown distance between this nightmare existence and that loving promise far away.
All Sunday night I dreamed of those eyes. And all night long I fretted because we people are so imperfect and the team struggles with each other, driven by different priorities, hampered by each of our own demons. All night long I worried because one of the llamas I insisted must not be loaded for the New York trip, was sent on through anyhow. I kept thinking about feeling every knob along his roach back, seeing the lameness in his rear legs, noting the dull film of giving up in his eyes.
The sleeplessness gave me the strength to be who I so often am - the big mouth trouble maker willing to fight for what I think is right. The moment Barbara and I arrived back at the sanctuary yesterday morning, I went inside and asked to speak to the Animeals project director, Karen. There was no time for sweet lead-ups. I went straight to the point and asked what her goal was for the rescue moving forward, that there was a struggle between the vet's approach that we needed to get as many llamas out of there as quickly as possible, and all other concerns came next.
"I know we have to move fast and do triage level work," I assured Karen. "But in my mind, we're here to rescue llamas, not hasten their suffering or death. There is a difference of opinion on animals capable of making long trips, on the need to trim certain toenails before transport, how quickly to handle stressed llamas."
Karen did not hesitate. This woman who, along with her own small team of angels, has given up her entire life for this rescue effort, who needs to go home, said to me, "Do what you need to do to take care of these llamas. If the transporters need to wait because you need more time, I'll give them coffee until you're ready. If anyone has any doubt about the health of an animal's ability to make a particular trip, they stay here and we figure something else out. If someone has a problem with you putting your foot down about how any llama is being handled, send them to me."
With permission to take charge in hand, I headed back to the mud, ice and the frightened llamas and barked out my orders. We took out the llama who had been haunting me, changing his green mark to blue. We did the toenails that were crippling llamas. And yes, I chastised hard working, generous volunteers when they moved too quickly and made llamas fall on the ice, or had llamas rearing in panic because they'd never been haltered before. Most everyone learned and slowed down and made the transport process to New York the best one yet. A couple of people ended up hating me. Oh well - I liked the look in the llamas' eyes better this day.
Best of all, a half dozen or so local llama people showed up to volunteer. Barbara and I had our own people for company. They were swift, quiet, sweet, and they knew llamas. A separate toenail team got to work on their own, and while we finished the New York group's processing, they finished trimming toenails on all the geldings at the sanctuary.
When the truck arrived, it was quickly obvious it would never get up the hilly, curving driveway to us. Which meant we must walk the llamas down the half mile stretch. Innovation sprang into action. A traveling "chute" was created by rows of trucks, tractors and humans. In 20-llama groups, the New York-bound llamas were quietly guided down the drive, led first by Sean with a bucket of llama treats, and Suzy with a beautiful, halter trained llama, who was probably once someone's show llama pride.
At the foot of the hill, a corral had been erected, leading to a chute that rose up to the double decker show hauler. Inside, 35 bales of hay, deep shavings (sorry, fiber people, but that fiber will all have to come off anyhow!), and waterers. This was not the typical cattle hauler who had made Sean cringe last week. This is a young man (everyone seems young to me these days) who moved the pigs rescued in the midwest, who has a contract to haul the Disney animals, who cares about the cargo he is hauling. I assured him he was wracking up very good karma.
This is not an easy, fun process. Llamas are frightened, starving, hurting. They have not been handled in years or ever. They are wrestled and forced, albeit with love and caring. This is hard on all of us. But we humans cling to the hope. This is their only hope. We know that NELR and SELR and LANA and individuals and other groups all over the country are doing amazing work out of our sight to receive and care for and heal these llamas. We are starting their journey of hope and it is the best we can do. Karen told me her biggest fear is that she will inadvertently be sending these llamas to yet another place that will dump them again or not heal them or worst of all abuse them again. I can't hang onto that fear, although I share it and know it could happen.
We did it. The New York 100 was loaded. No llama leapt away to land broken on the ground. Only one llama was slightly injured when he flung his head and hit his chin on a panel. It was a human mistake. He had been mistakenly haltered, turned out not to know what a halter was, then was not released soon enough. Once the halter was removed, he was quietly herded up the ramp to join the other 99.
After the last llama was loaded and the door shut, we quietly cheered and clapped. And cried. For the hope, the fear, the sadness, the tiny victory of trying to make amends. The volunteers headed back up the hill to trim more toenails, to start evening feeding. The men took down the corral, wheeled away the chute. I turned to head back, then saw Sean standing at the back of the trailer. I went down to congratulate him. Instead, I hugged him. He needed it, this young man I don't know who so clearly loves these animals he didn't know a few weeks before. Then we both walked back up the hill to help the others move hay, fill water, make plans for the morning.
The last thing I did last night was gently herd the worst of the "blues" into the driest shed, watching them sink with gratitude to piles of fresh hay. Today we will begin to sort by need and type, so I can help people shop for specific types of llamas, help start the process of placing the last 250 llamas in homes in the next week and a half.
~ Gayle Woodsum
Well, it's finally here. Today is the scheduled departure date for the NELR 100. Zeiglers Transport is picking up all 100 geldings near the sanctuary site, where he can park his giant rig. The boys are to be hauled down the icy, treacherous entrance drive in groups of 20 in smaller, more nimble trailers. We are praying that the Man Upstairs is watching over the operation, keeping llamas, helpers, crew, and trailers safe and sound. If all goes as planned, we should see their arrival late this week or next weekend to NELR's beautiful mountain-top farm in Middleburgh, NY. The facilities are top-rate and the hay is ready and waiting. A well-wishing crew will be there to assist their arrival and celebrate the end of one journey and the beginning of a new one. Phase 2 will see the llamas well-fed and cared for. Then we look forward to finding them peaceful homes.
From Gayle Woodsum, onsite at MLAS since this weekend
Montana Llama Rescue - the 18th
Today we breathe. A little. Of the 603 llamas who were on site when Animeals arrived, about 250 now remain. This gives us room. Whoever thought I'd believe that working a herd of 250 llamas would feel like a downsize, an easing of effort? Room to really see each llama, to begin to know a little more about who they are and what they need. Today we can refine the feeding, cleaning and general care. We can begin to make groups that make sense. Yesterday, one of the llamas bound for New York kept breaking away from the small herds that were being walked to the truck. Llamas don't leave their herds willingly. So after his third break for "home," I let him back in with the others to find his buddies. Today we can try and figure out what some of the smaller herd groupings are so we can try to keep special attachments intact.
But today we begin to face harsher realities. Time is becoming our enemy. Animeals will leave at the end of the month — 13 days. They must. Caretakers, not rescue people, will come in to babysit for one month beyond that while the place is sold. The llama rescue coalition, set up by the extraordinary rescue efforts across the country, are upping their pleas for homes - foster ones, adoption ones. But they must be the right ones. I will now "shop" for llamas - particular kinds for what people can handle/will give forever homes to. I've been asked to see if I can find a llama who was sent there three years ago. I'm taking requests in the early mornings and late nights, by email, facebook message and phone. We must make this happen. We will make this happen, I assure Karen and Angie and Sean and the other Animeals workers who I see moving hay, working equipment, trying to keep the camels from pulling down the shelter around them. What will happen to my "blue" llamas?
How did I get here? I heard from Gary Kaufman and got on a plane, charging $1500 to a credit card that must be paid in three weeks. Me who has no job. Me who left my sad dying ferret, cuddling her one more night then leaving her with my lifesaving ranch sitters, first Catie then Don, to care for her. Don to bury her when she didn't make it and I wasn't there.
But when the day starts, a few minutes from now, I will be powered by the people who love me. Lina who said to take her credit card with me, Kelly and Christine and Cecilia and L'illette and many others who said yes, go. Barbara and Cyndy who are feeding me, housing me, driving me back and forth (Barbara working at the sanctuary as hard as I am). Catie and Beth and Gene and Sharon who are caring for my home fires, for my animals waiting for me to return. Don who is driving through blizzards to do it.
Today we will organize. And care. And get cold, muddy and wet. And fall in love with more llamas and the other animals. And love each other while we do it. And hope.
Forward my emails if you think someone is interested. Contact me to delete you from my list if you'd rather not get these.
From Hot Springs Montana
NELR would like to publicly thank the wonderful folks at Destron-Fearing for their donation of 600 microchips and four readers to assist with the efforts to evacuate the Montana 600. They came in like the cavalry. Great chips, great folks. We are in their debt
Two days ago Elizabeth was getting ready to leave us. I don't know how she
has come to be called Elizabeth, but it suits her. A rich chestnut color,
she is pregnant, as most of the females are. Her face is soft and sweet,
marred only by the fungal growth on one cheek. As far as we can tell, she
has no disease or injury other than that of starvation and neglect,
magnified by the needs of the cria she's carrying. A volunteer vet believes
this is so. She's being given vitamin D and dexamethasone injections, and
Tums crushed into her feed for calcium.
The thing is, she hasn't yet crossed over. Settled in space of her own (surrounded by other llamas), warmed by lamps, she has her own deep bed of straw with water and equine senior and hay all within easy reach. Sean tends to her throughout the day - giving the injections, replenishing the feed, shifting her to different positions, cleaning out her soiled straw. Last night he asked me to clip fiber from the injection sites to make it easier to find her skin. My fingers despaired over the feel of bones as they looked for the tiniest spot of muscle. When I did trim that red fiber, a small triangle on each side of her, it was soft and silky and belied her decimated condition.
"She was so frightened and nervous at first," Sean tells me. But she isn't now. She watches him calmly as he tends to her. She sits quietly while we work. She hasn't yet left us. Sean placed bales of hay beside her before finishing for the night, wanting her to have support for staying upright. I know it's his care that is propping her up.
12 Days and Counting to get this done.
If all the committed adoptions/fosterings come through, there are now 167 llamas still needing homes. There is a miracle possibility of 70 - 100 more homes in the works. That would leave 67, give or take. People are now offering to take one or two but don't have transportation. I must remember to talk to L'illette and Gary about figuring out how to deal with that.
Four miles from the sanctuary, two llamas are spotted running on an open hillside. A small group, including one of the halter trained llamas, head out in mid afternoon to catch them. They return a couple of hours later with the lost ones. One dangles a rear leg that is useless from major injury.
Every day now a different group of local volunteers shows up. They look shy and awkward for a few minutes. Then they work. And work. And sigh and curse and coax and heal and work some more. I learn some of their names, then immediately forget them. Mostly we don't even introduce ourselves. We don't matter. Only the animals and work matters, and this is the way it should be. Sometimes a person or two needs to be told to slow down, to step back, to let the llamas find their way. Sometimes we have to push these suffering animals more than they should be pushed, because they can no longer stay here and the clock is ticking. We are all finding our way.
Every hour of every day, I love the people from Animeals more deeply. This small crew, with Karyn at the lead, her husband and Sean and Angie the grounding core, are truly made of hero material.
"Anyone will tell you I am the least qualified person to be doing this," Karyn says. Angie talks of feeling crushed by the sorrow, Sean speaks of not knowing anything. But they are all so wrong. They are precisely the right people, the best people, the only people to be doing this. None of them have ever worked with large animals before. But the big groups, the rich groups, all turned down their pleas for help - a few sent a little money from those multimillion dollar agencies, but no people have come. Just these people came on December 21 and have never left. Just these people have raised money, and rounded up animals, and minister to illness around the clock, and built shelters, and buried the dead, and found the horse rescuers and the llamas rescuers and the cow rescuers, and feed volunteers coffee and macaroni and cheese and chocolate chip cookies, and then spend their evenings answering angry criticisms from the outside world that doesn't come to help.
Yesterday we spent several hours separating the intact males from the geldings. One little guy, a little pistol, avoiding our guidance until the very end, ducking under our guide lines, leaping out of reach, hiding behind the bigger boys. In the evening, finally in the right location, he climbed the huge round bale of hay and stood on top of it, eating to his heart's content. We will prevail, he tells me as he eyes me from above, that little king of the hill.
Like me, Barbara is drawn most often and most deeply to the special needs llamas we have dubbed "the blues," for the blue chalk we use to mark them.
Most likely, not all of this group will even survive the next 12 days. They can't survive a traditional transport, so as I work I plot how to raise the funds to drive back up here next week with my 30' trailer specially outfitted for critical care travel. The problems of the blues range from ancient bear injuries to general lameness to skin disease to near-death starvation.
When I began the protocol of pulling out llamas with critical need, I knew we'd need a separate place for them. We now have the "blue shed." For hours yesterday, Barbara dug out mud and a foot or more of soiled hay and manure, replacing it with fresh, sweet straw piled two feet deep. She spread hay within reach of every llama, before the noses of those who cannot easily rise. And all day long she offered equine senior free choice. At the end of the day, when I had time to visit them again myself, the number of them was up to 17. But as I entered the blue shed, what I found was peace. The llamas were at rest. The ones who could rise, came to me looking for supper. A cria in the middle looked around contentedly at his adult company, bowing his nose in delight only when I set a bowl of feed before him. In this shed, they have softness and time. They don't have to compete with stronger animals, they don't have to move their hurting bodies to eat, they can munch for awhile, rest and still have food there to eat again. They fill Barbara's and my hearts with something I can't name. I think it's awe.
From Hot Springs Montana
Every morning we are greeted by drum song. It comes from the emus who strut and wait for their new homes in a pen alongside the llamas. The deep, staccato voices move in time with us, speeding up and slowing down when we do, sometimes sounding like a parade march, sometimes like a military drill. They beat out the rhythm of the day, mark the time that is running out.
Yesterday, we entered the group of 60 or so intact males we had sorted out from the geldings the day before. Here are the youngest, the strongest of all the llamas. I am told by a local vet that a few years ago someone donated funds on the condition they be used to geld llamas, and each year about 50 or so were castrated. Had that not occurred, I can only imagine the increased disaster we'd be dealing with now.
From the 60, we selected 25 of the strongest, least stressed males, focusing on 2- and 3-year-olds (a few older than that) for a trip to Texas where they will attend a gelding clinic and then move on to new homes already pledged. It is a relief to work in this group. Here we see beauty and potential. Here it feels closer to the home I come from where llamas are connected to life, to each other, to their 6000 year history of relationship to humans. As we gently keep back the little weanlings and yearlings, I drink in the youth of their faces, the brightness of their movements, the softness of their fiber. I want to scoop them all up and bring them home to play, to grow, to be happy in my world-but I know these are the ones who will find good homes more easily, who will make some child become a llama lover for life, become a cherished addition to someone's backyard herd. These babies don't need me as much as the blues across the yard.
The loading was perfect. Quickly, we had an elegant group of tall, straight, colorful males. They hung out in the big hay storage building, eating breakfast and milling around until the trailer arrived. It was the same driver who brought 25 to Colorado last weekend. He has become one of us, this cattle hauler who now wants to know the story, who cares that these animals make it to safety.
This time, there was no wrestling, no need to shout against cowboy tactics. I said only once, "we will do this slowly and quietly," and the small group of six of us simply walked the boys toward the open trailer full of bedding and hay. We stopped at the door, let them look for a few minutes, and in they jumped. Sean and Jeff (Karyn's husband - I now know his name!) moved them forward to the front compartment, and we repeated the process until all 25 were loaded. We have learned, and the llamas approve.
The day then unfolded to what has now become the routine of feeding, cleaning, medical care. And this day brought death on my watch. Two of the blues crossed over, one head cradled in my lap, one in Barbara's. The little appy who stole my heart with trust and need, just couldn't overcome the starvation that had claimed him. His head in my hands, he ceased to struggle. Had we found him even a month ago, the story would have had a different ending. But his final days were in deep straw with abundant water, hay, feed and love. We gave him that much. The other little guy who left us was in pain, his final journey a release. When we left the blue barn, holding back our anguish for private, late in the night, the emus' drumming was deep and slow.
Everyone here grieves and rejoices and fights in turns. Karyn continues to lead, to have long conversations with disgruntled neighbors, to raise more funds, to thank volunteers over and over again, to insist we do this right. Angie makes magic on the computer and the phone, finding homes, losing homes, finding more, arranging transportation, taking pictures, laughing at Sean ducking camel teeth. Sean glides from chore to chore, makes pens, gives medication, sits beside Elizabeth and tells her he loves her. Jeff fights the neglected equipment, demands that it work for us, moves hay, moves mountains.
Inside the house where organization central is, where coffee is always on and homemade cookies sometimes appear, there is life and silliness that comes from the four rescue dogs who belong to Angie and Karyn. They make us smile and giggle and talk baby talk. They too help save us.
This time is the wall that marathoners talk about. We have 11 days to finish this work. Yes, there will be a new couple taking care of the house for a month when we leave. But we must have the animals placed before that time. I can't accept an alternative, can't contemplate these llamas being left behind to unknown care.
Yesterday, I felt the load begin to crush these four magnificent people. They are still strong, loving, capable, but I am suddenly afraid for them. I caught Karyn's tears when she thought I wasn't looking. I saw Angie take extra walks around the house in order to breathe. I recognize the frustration in Jeff's kind and tolerate movement. Worst of all, I saw Sean whisper "I love you" to Elizabeth who I learned got her name from him. It's not volunteers these people need now that the bulk of the physical work is done. It's waves of strength and love and belief they need to have poured on them. They can and will do this, but I'm desperate for them to be comforted.
Some of that comfort now comes from the llamas they have saved. When I first arrived and had worked for a few hours, I realized there was an strange silence in the herd. Yes, llamas are quiet. But we were herding them, working them, moving among them. Yet there was no humming, no spitting, no sound. As the days have passed, this has changed. There is new life among the blues, new space and freedom for all the others, and now comes the sound of llamas. They are humming and greeting us at the gates, following us around, nudging noses into our faces, waiting in their favorite spots as we distribute feed. I see them watch their saviors and know they are sharing the healing they're being given. I watch Elizabeth as she cranes her neck to follow Sean's every movement. Her eyes are bright as she loves him in return.
Today I will finish taking pictures of the llamas needing homes, to post their stories and their faces. Today we will push past the wall and make the final miracles happen."
~ Gayle Woodsum
We have a new group of tagged llamas. The Light Blues, Karyn calls
them. These are the old, the lame, the ones who will need gentle
transport but still hold their own in the larger group. I wrap their
necks in light blue vet wrap, making them easy to spot, to watch in
case they need to join the Blues. It's meant to protect them, but it
feels as though they're being marked like dying trees in the forest
slated for cutting. We will talk to the transporter, whoever that
turns out to be, to make a special place of comfort for the Light
Blues in a separate compartment.
Among the Blues, two of them graduate. A large light wool no longer nudges at and ignores his food. He eats well and pushes the young ones around, demanding more than his share. A gray and white silky with staple length fiber to the ground now has a gleam in his eye and after feeding, paces the gate to the gelding yard, looking for missing friends. By afternoon it's clear they have rounded a corner. I happily tie a light blue, stretchy strip of vet wrap around each of their necks and send them back to the larger group.
Overnight we have all turned a corner, pushed past the marathoner's wall, come back to ourselves, greet each other with relief and renewed energy. Two new volunteers arrive to give Ivomec to the stronger, intact males. Shawn and Barbara checked them out the day before, had the woman give the leg injury guy his first dose of Banamine. She passed the test, keeping the bay gelding calm and steady as she worked. Now we are comfortable letting her and her helper work with the intacts on their own while we work around them on other things, checking in from time to time.
Barbara and I need to make our way through the females again, looking for potential Blues and Light Blues. And I'm on a search mission. Someone has contacted me, asking me to look for a female sent here three years ago, thinking she was being sent to luxurious retirement. Large brown light wool, banana ears, four white legs, white bib and white on her face. I've been keeping an eye out for her, but so far no luck. Today I have to make one more determined look. As Barbara and I wind around the girls that munch on three large round bales of hay, discussing their condition, feeling backs for weight, I think I spot her. Moving in close, she raises her head to look at me. The entire description fits. The shape of her body, type of fiber, matches the picture I've been sent. I snap some photos for comparison and we finish our rounds. After making mental notes on a couple of females who will need light blue vet wrap necklaces, we return to care for the Blues.
Elizabeth is still with us. We make plans to get her up. Throughout the day she watches Jeff and Shawn test beam strength, bring ladders, drills, huge eye screws and chains. Barbara has brought a belly strap and we put in a call to Dr. Mike for a sling. She must begin to rise if she is to survive, let alone leave this place. Sharon Beacham writes to tell me that the softness of Elizabeth's fiber is known as starvation fiber, a condition that has come from nutrients not available to give it normal tensile strength. Now I know why the feel of it wrenched my heart.
Beside her in the Blue shed, the next llama of concern grabs our attention. A youngster, maybe 18 months old, with mahogany colored silky fiber, cringes with timidity whenever a human or other llama gets closer to him than 10 feet. His space invaded, he either edges away or kushes and cowers. No one's seen him eat in the last 18 hours. Even the Blue shed is not special care enough for him. Shawn and Barbara devise a plan to build him his own 12' x 12' pen beside the Blues and in full sight of them. Shawn hangs a tarp against the windy side and lines the front tarp edges with bales of hay. Barbara makes him a deep bed of straw. After probiotics, he lashes away from us and goes to the ground. I cradle his head, Barbara monitors his heart, Shawn holds his breath. After a couple of minutes, the youngster's heart rate slows and he sighs, but still doesn't move. Then we notice that he's eyeing us. An ear twitches. It dawns on us that he's waiting for us to leave. As soon as the three of us leave the pen, he sits up. Within 15 minutes, he is standing. An hour later, with no one pushing his personal space, he begins to eat.
We treat all the Blues with Ivomec, desperate to begin the battle against parasites, adjusting doses for low weight. We treat goopy eyes with triple antibiotic ointment. The three of us handle the llamas easily - the llamas are getting to know us well. As soon as we're gone, they go back to eating and nesting in their straw. It's time to name this crew, so I start by creating a ledger with a description of each and a record of their medical care, and then move on to help with the evening feed. I stop by the new volunteer to tell her we need the shelter she's been using. Of the 36 intact males she began giving Ivomec to eight hours earlier, she's done only half. I feel the bulldozer in me come to life.
"None of these llamas are halter trained," she tells me. "We're not here to halter train llamas," I say, then the motor really kicks in. "Think M.A.S.H. unit, think triage. Be steady, gentle, low stress, but move like this is an emergency." The air goes still between us. "Okay," she says.
I've finished running her over and feel bad. Sometimes this is the kind of bad feeling I wrestle with when I'm not grieving. Sometimes I'm unhappy with myself.
In my world, far away from starvation and fear, I have only half the llamas who are beloved to me. The other half are part of a break-up related battle. We fight over them in court like they are children. Like we are children. Last night I dreamed they were returned to me as broken, limping skeletons with reproachful eyes. I woke up sweating with shame.
As the day comes to a close, no one has left us. The female I thought I found was not an exact match to her photo, so yet another ghost haunts us. But two come back. There are still a few llamas who have not come in from the hills, roaming nearby then running away. Tonight two come closer than ever before, probably lured by the bowls of equine senior spread everywhere for the males. Our last task of the day, Sean, Jeff, Barbara and I make a wide arc around them and slowly move them into their herd.
We are nine days and counting, including today. Last night we had all the llamas spoken for, but today 75 do not have the transportation. We spend more and more time on the phone, on the computers, dodging the politics and criticisms trying to slip into the process.
~ Gayle at Hot Springs
It was a long ride out, three hours. The sun was almost too bright to see, but it was deceptive . It was bitingly cold.
We arrived mid afternoon. The llamas were milling around and munching, relaxed and content. Several were off from the main group, housed in a high walled stall, safe from the sharp cold, with good green hay and water close at hand. No competition so they could focus on their recovery without stress. The main area was a sea of llamas in every direction — tall short, appie, black, friendly, feisty, hungry — all taking in their new surroundings. They marvelled at the hay racks along all sides of the barn. Hay everywhere, different than the hard life of the Montana range. No wolves here, no bears, no starvation, just a big safe barn, like it was, way back when, before that long trip to Montana.
I waded into the sea of llamas. It was like being surrounded by waves of rolling fiber. The movement never stopped, soft surges of fiber as I moved quietly between them with my camera. At first there was some concern. 'Who is this new human, what will she do?' I sung softly to them, like I do my herd. Soon they settled and I rolled among the waves, taking portraits.
The llamas moved softly — no hums, no spits, all too busy eating to be bothered by the usual internecine llama dramas. There was an undercurrent of relief, a comfort that was palpable. Their long nightmare was over and they knew they would never be stalked again. They were remembering their youth, how it used to be, when they could rely on their humans to provide comfort and food, and keep them from predators. They were home again; it was a happy sea.
It's dark and quiet in the car that takes us to the "sanctuary" early every morning. Barbara and Cyndy softly talk about changes they need to make on Elizabeth's hoist and sling in order to get her entire body up, all four legs extended. We put in a request for a large animal sling days ago, but none has appeared, leaving us to our makeshift devices. I'm happy to leave the long conversations on the geometry and physics of the contraption to others.
My head buzzes from lack of sleep. Desperate to make my way through at least of few of the hundreds of emails and messages waiting for me, I stayed up until almost midnight, getting up again at my usual 4 a.m., to try and make a dent. The outside world nurtures us from afar with rich, kind words and donations. I hungrily seek these out, copying the warmest of them to share with the others. The outside world offers advice and suggestions. Increasingly, it criticizes.
This roller coaster of devastation and hope that I'm on, still not sure how or why I got here, is a very big one filled with hundreds — maybe thousands — of other people along with the llamas, horses, donkeys, bison, cows, pigs, emus, camels, geese, chickens, parrots and Cally Man the cat. Today I begin my second week here, feeling as if there is no other place, no other experience, even as I long for home and the animals and people I've loved so much longer than those I love here. But while we work in this isolated place, all around us other people move heaven and earth to save these animals. We feel it and rely on it — we are just the launching pad for great work being done all over the country. All but one of the New York 100 survived their long trip and begin what will be an even longer journey to foster care, forever homes, to health. Not all of them will make it, but we give them a chance they didn't have a short time ago. News trickles in as the Colorado 25, the Texas 25 arrive at their staging sites then on to new homes, temporary and forever.
One week here, and the outside world is foggy to me. What must it be like for Karyn, Jeff, Angie and Shawn who came here five weeks ago because no one else would, and have never left? For fifteen hours a day and sometimes more they connect with the village of rescuers in the outside world that rallies to take the animals in. They answer thousands of calls and emails, they feed and doctor and shovel manure and spread bedding and hold dying animals in their arms and beg for money and give their own and pay the bills and watch their paying jobs fail back at home and treat eat other with gentle respect no matter how exhausted they are.
In addition to the deeply rooted integrity and courage that motivates these people, there is a world of help, support and love that holds them together. There is also a strength they carry that they shouldn't have to. It stirs deep protective anger in me that every day they must also shoulder inaccurate accusations and ignorant criticisms from people who aren't here, from those who came briefly but left, from those who refused to help.
But I don't really worry about them. They're cut from a cloth no one else has ever worn. The other day Brian showed up. The man who created this nightmare. He came to pick up furniture and to whine about his perceived personal mistreatment. Somehow Karyn, Jeff, Angie and Shawn managed to treat him with civility. He stayed on the property for hours, making Jeff worry about Karyn and Angie working alone in the house. He didn't need to. These women are sweet, loving Amazon warriors. Angie continued to work calmly on her computer making arrangements to rehome the animals this man had tortured with neglect, a pistol sitting big and still on the stool beside her.
We begin the final week. The atmosphere is gradually changing. On Saturday, in an adrenaline pumping scene of wild animal management, the camels left with Camel Al for a place not too far away where camels are cared for with expertise, given shelter and space to roam. The pigs are on their way to Pigs Peace, all in one family group to a forever home. This sanctuary-turned-prison begins to grow quiet.
The Blue shed has expanded as we bring in more llamas to tend to abscesses, infections and extreme weakness. Some will pass through quickly, needing only to be tended carefully in order to join group transports now lined up throughout the week. Others will stay until I drive out at the very end with the critical care Blue transport. I am less tolerant than ever of the idea of death, so refuse to imagine that some will cross over before that happens, although I sense some may yet leave us that way.
The list of llamas needing medications has grown. Dr. Mike assures me I'm prescribing and dosing well, adds suggestions and puts out medications that Angie runs to town to get. Every day I now make rounds to administer antibiotics, creams, solutions and injections. Every day I walk alone among the Blues, talking with them silently about what they want, what they need, what I'm asking of them. I know people think I'm projecting human traits inappropriately, but I don't care. These llamas and I may speak a different language, but we communicate nontheless and I know they process emotion and spirit in their own way. No one will ever convince otherwise.
Shawn and I now give Elizabeth a complex mix of things to help with the diarrhea, to increase her strength. A large group of people struggle with the sling and hoist, but fail to get her entire body up today, so Barbara continues to work with her front legs that are stronger than they were yesterday. Keen minds wrestle with how to make the lift work. Elizabeth is exhausted by too much attention, but she remains alert.
As one more day ends, I find Shawn and Angie crouched among the pigs, saying private goodbyes. Angie tells me these partings tear strangely at her. "I'm so happy for the animals, so grateful they're going to amazing homes. But at the same time, I'm sad ... I'm feeling empty..." She gropes for words to describe emotions she doesn't understand. Her broken heart is feeling lost as she begins to let go of the animals she's helping to save.
~ Gayle from Hot Springs, Montana
If you're lucky in life, you find a friend along the way to be there for you when the going gets rough. The kind of friend who sticks to you like glue, moves in closer when you worry, steps up to defend you when you're vulnerable. The Montana 600 have, at least, had each other through all this. Us llama lovers understand the intense herd instinct of these animals, know stories of llamas who die from stress when isolated. Yet even within the general safety and comfort of this enormous herd, it's clear that in many cases special bonds have been made, have perhaps existed long before they ever arrived in Hot Springs. We can only hope that as the transports steadily decrease the numbers here, some of those special friendships move on together.
In the case of Franny and Frieda, they leave no doubt as to the depth of their relationship. One tall, fawn colored light wool, one stocky little gray heavy wool, they are never more than 10 feet apart from each other. They sleep beside each other, stand with their bodies touching, entwine their necks for comfort. When four people from Washington show up with their trailer to pick up the 5 llamas they've been approved to adopt, Franny and Frieda choose their next home. A couple new to llamas, being mentored by their experienced friends, walk up to where the females rule the hay shelter on the hill. Within minutes, Franny and Frieda make their way down to them and introduce themselves. Shawn moves quickly to explain that the two must remain together. The adoption is instantly sealed.
A little later, I climb up on the running board of the trailer to wish Franny and Frieda safe travels and a happy life. Perfectly synchronized, they turn their heads and look calmly back at me. It's so much easier to reach your goals when you have someone to help you do it.
First thing in the morning, a man who I think is named Craig shows up with a sling for Elizabeth. He designed and built it during the night. It's perfection. A beautifully welded, safe frame of steel, a lush and comfortable cradle of canvas, all designed to hang steady and straight from a two-pulley system. The sling team, as I've come to think of them, gently prepare Elizabeth for lifting. It all works. Up comes her body, down drop her legs. She doesn't fight us. She lifts her neck and head to the expanded view around her. Then she begins to struggle for breath. Within seconds, her nostrils close in a useless attempt to get air into her lungs. I tell the team to lower her immediately. The cria Elizabeth carries makes it impossible for any sling to be used on her.
For the rest of the day we prepare for seven trailers to come pick up 120 llamas, all going to different locations, all requiring a specific mix of llamas. Shawn, Jeff, Barbara, Cyndy and I work through the 50 or so females, pushing out the males who continually jump back in with them in spite of herculean efforts to keep them out. Marking chalk and spray paint is gone. Around the neck of each girl, I loosely tie a strip of narrow, stretchy pink vet wrap. When that runs out, we move to red, with a few purple and greens along the way. Surprisingly, it's among the females that we find the greatest number of healthy, well nourished llamas-more recent arrivals at the "sanctuary." The final transports will involve complicated selections, rounding up the most nervous, the less well. We need a quick way to identify the females.
We work all day to make groupings easier for selection. Shawn builds staging areas for loading. We don't talk about Elizabeth. We work together quietly, unspoken fears heavy between us. I put out calls to Dr. Mike and Dr. Charlene, the llama vet near Barbara. I've known from the beginning there would be problems because of Elizabeth's pregnancy. The time has come to deal with it, do something about it. I share the difficult reality with everyone, but don't ask for their advice. I'm going to consult the veterinarians and make the decision on what will be done next, based on Elizabeth's physical needs.
Late in the evening, when my cell phone works again and I can turn on the computer, I'm flooded with offers of slings for Elizabeth. I start to make calls and send emails to explain we've solved that problem, are now faced with the next one, when I realize I'd have to stay up all night to do it. My thanks will have to come later. I just wish there was some way these generous people could know how powerful and valuable their offers are, flying through the air to cradle our Elizabeth.
~ Gayle from Hot Springs, Montana
The drumming stops. Early in the morning, the emus are herded into the trailer that will take them to their new home of emu lovers. The pen and shelter where they've been strutting beside the llamas, sounding out the varying beats of our days, is empty, flat and still. The pace and feel of everything is changing quickly. A strange quiet floats between the sheds, makeshift shelters and corrals. In some ways the llamas relax more in the growing space. In others, we can see their tension rise as they watch us more closely, trying to decipher what the departure of their herdmates means.
Among the Blues, there are two I look at differently when I pass them now. Ursus, the one who has survived two bear attacks, and a very large, old, white gelding with a bad back and bent rear legs, will be going home to live the remainder of their lives in the soft woods at Barbara and Cyndy's home an hour and a half from here, joining the three pampered llamas who already live there. Every time I walk by one these two Blues, I feel relief instead of worry.
It snowed during the night, covering the grounds in 4" of soft whiteness that hides the mud, the manure, and turns the elegant home with its wrought iron fencing and stone patio into a dreamy showplace.
About 120 llamas begin their exodus today. With the daylight, right after the emus ride away, three commercial transport trailers arrive and the sorting begins. The first of the loading is happening when I finish giving Elizabeth her morning meds. Several drivers, whose cargo is usually cattle, move in on the small group of nervous llamas being guided toward them by Shawn, Jeff, Barbara, Cyndy and a local volunteer from a while ago who has returned to help us. The cowboys hold long paddles in their hands, raised high over their heads. As I approach the loading area, they begin to shout at the milling llamas, prod them with the paddles, poke their faces.
I roar up behind them. "We're not going to hit, prod, or shout at the llamas," I say in my voice of authority, full of the promise of fury if they dare try to defy me. They stop. Throughout the morning they learn that they will mind me, mind Shawn, mind Jeff and Barbara and Cyndy. They learn that the llamas are precious cargo to us even if they aren't to them. We make sure they understand there will be consequences if they don't mind us.
All morning long, we bring a variety of group mixings to each trailer. After the first rocky loading, the remainder goes well. The llamas are calmed and given time to look carefully at the trailer before we ask them to climb in. As the numbers increase and loading looks less appealing, we are forced to lift and nudge and push. Still, we move quietly and speak with assurance.
Time is running out on us. Transportation is drying up. There will be only a few more transports to follow this one later in the week. I have not been consulted about the number of llamas each rescue group wants loaded into each trailer they arrange to come here. I'm not happy about the numbers. Yet I have no alternative for the llamas other than to remain where they are, which would mean there would be no hope for them. No one has any alternative - the rescue groups are broke, they are moving heaven and earth to pick up and receive these llamas. Every one on today's transports has a forever home approved and waiting.
My heart sinks as the trailers fill up, but my mind tells me this is the only option at this place, in this time, under these inexcusable circumstances. I promise myself it will never happen this way again — I silently promise the llamas I'll fight for everything to change, inwardly apologizing yet again for our stupid failure to do right by them. As the llamas are guided forward, we allow only the strongest to ride on these crowded trailers.
It takes hours to get the trailers loaded. Once done, they sit lined up on the driveway, waiting for the hay Shawn and I insist be spread inside for the trip. The drivers look pointedly at their watches and sigh. Cyndy climbs onto the running board of the first trailer in line and calls out to me. There are llamas down, unmoving, being stepped on by the others. I run to check, my heart sinking further than it was. Shawn boards and begins to move the down llamas. My head spins with what I can do versus what my options are. With cold calculation, I check each animal that is raised to judge its strength and capabilities. It's clear that most went down in the flurry of loading, not having a chance to find their footing or space. Once up, I see they are still strong. They find a place and claim it. I let them stay on. We repeat the procedure for each of the trailers. I order one llama to be unloaded. He has already given up. He won't survive such a trip.
When these first trailers pull away, hours later than scheduled, I can only hope the llamas can endure this next step on the road to a slim chance for a happy ever after.
Elizabeth hasn't changed. She is as regal, strong and bright as ever. She remains kushed. I will wait all day for the vet who ultimately can't get here. She munches her hay, takes her meds, calmly watches the scene around her.
There is another transport scheduled for early afternoon. Dick Williams, a local llama packer legend, arrives with homemade huckleberry fudge and four 4-horse trailers to pick up 30 llamas. I grab him up in a tight, grateful hug the moment he steps from his truck. Along with the ample, roomy trailers, he's brought with him a slew of llama lover helpers. All of us brighten. The llamas load slowly but sweetly. The first of the Blues step away from my care as I nudge little Charlie Brown from his deep bed of straw. He's reluctant to go, but I know he is ready. For the next four months Dick and his wife Jean will feed him, treat his skin troubles, grow him up until he's ready for a forever home in Indiana. He rides with the young gelding I pulled from the morning's trailer. As soon as they're loaded, they sniff each and settle down in a compartment that could have held 10. Behind them, Superman with his injured back leg, is the second of the Blues to leave. He's found a forever home with Kathy, who has already nursed two llamas with broken bones and makes an immediate connection with this smart, beautiful llama.
We load and load and load. The paddocks become roomier by the hour. Nearing the end of the day's transports, Shawn gently guides one of the final llamas into the trailer, when suddenly he lets out a scream. The llama beside him has delivered a lightening kick into his bad knee. This time, it's a human who goes down. Shawn can't get up. Barbara, Cyndy and Jeff rush in to lift him. While Jeff stays behind to supervise the last of the loading, Barbara and Cyndy deliver Shawn to the house in a wheelbarrow. This vital team member is out of commission.
In the meantime, I've been required to escort an evaluating veterinarian who's been sent by the Humane Society. He confirms to me that 90% of the llamas have a body score of 2 or less (on a scale of 10). "Llamas are very hard to starve," he says. "You'd think there would be more disease and pestilence here, but I guess that was taken care of through death."
He wants to know where the bone pile is, how many llamas have died since Animeals arrived. These things I send him to Karyn for. I don't have the stomach for that conversation. I don't have the time. This is what Karyn does all day, every day. She says the hard things to people who are distant observers and don't get their hands dirty.
We finish the loading. Just before they drive away a short distance to Dick's home, one of the older women in the group comes up to me. "We have a large place with beautiful deer fencing all around it. We don't know anything about llamas, but Dick says he'll teach us and help us. We thought we were just coming to watch, but now we've decided to adopt a couple of the llamas."
She has no idea that she's helped to save our day, that she's given us a drop of joy we desperately needed. Forever homes. This is the growing challenge calling to us as we begin to move toward the end of evacuating the Montana 600 from this place of death.
~ Gayle from Hot Springs, Montana
Elizabeth continues to wait. Her diarrhea worsens in spite of every medication and herbal remedy we give her, including many suggested by llama lovers who contact us. For the first time since she went down, she shows signs of weakness.
As it turns out, the vet won't make it back here to confirm her pregnancy, leaving us only with the supposition and the earlier vet's thoughts that she carries a cria, an idea held up by the pain Elizabeth had when we raised her in the sling. I call several vets, ask their advice, discuss options. Elizabeth will definitely not get better, will not survive, if she is pregnant and stays that way. I decide to induce labor. We should have results within 24 - 48 hours. I pack my small bag, move out of my cozy guestroom in Bigfork, and move onto the sanctuary grounds. I spend the night in the barn.
Shawn and I start the vigil together. Then we spell each other. I spend a couple of hours eating supper and talking with Karyn while Shawn and Angie stay with Elizabeth. At 10 they come back to the house and I put Barbara's sleeping bag down on a bed of straw, my head a few feet from Elizabeth's.
After an hour of obvious discomfort, Elizabeth goes back to eating. All night long she munches hay and slurps water in my ear. Otherwise it's quiet and cold. Coyotes pass by, yipping. I can hear the Blues chewing their cud at the other end of the barn. Sometimes a distant gate rattles.
I think about Brian. The man who ran this place. A few hours earlier he stood in the driveway and screamed at me while Shawn and I took care of Elizabeth. "You're a f***ing, lying b****, he screams over and over and over again. You f***ing llama people never gave a donation, never helped us. You're a lying b****!" I assume he's gotten hold of my journal entries. Shawn and I exchange whispered desires to go after the man. We remind each other to stay focused on Elizabeth, on what the llamas need. Brian rants for another five minutes, then leaves.
The night passes. There is no labor for Elizabeth. No cria. I now assume there is no pregnancy. We have to make her stand. Dr. Charlene, the llama vet I spoke with in Kalispell, briefly mentioned that adding a sling between Elizabeth's hind legs or even under her tail might help with her abdominal pain. I relay the idea to Barbara and Cyndy so they can get back to work on the lift's design.
Meanwhile, my magnificent friends in Wyoming and Colorado have set the stage for me to take care of the Blues. Kelly and Larry drove six hours round trip to fetch my truck from the Denver airport. Don has picked it up and will hook it to my trailer to drive 15 hours to get it here. Catie, Beth and Rick continue to take care of my place and the animals I share it with. Laurel and Maryalice have launched fundraising efforts to get llama coats and supplies donated, will deliver it to my home. The feed guys Cody and Allen have donated minerals, as many pony sized blankets at cost as we need. A huge box arrives here from Quality Llama Products full of vitamins, wormer, skin ointment, syringes and needles, llama coats, probiotics. The critical care transport will work.
With every hour, we move steadily toward the end of the evacuation of animals. Beyond this isolated place, a world of magnificent women and men are working to save the llamas. I feel indebted to people I may never meet, grateful beyond words.
All but one of the llamas make it alive to Colorado, Missouri and Texas from the Tuesday transports. We have three days ahead of us without a scheduled transport. The small break will give us time to reevaluate the Blues. Time to locate the three young intact males hiding out among the geldings and move them in with the rest of the intacts. The break is our final window of chance for the llamas that struggle just this side of crossing over. Elizabeth has to stand.
Barbara arrives with yet more changes to the sling design. She, Shawn and I fiddle and lift, fiddle some more, adjust here and there. Little by little, very slowly in the quiet barn, we make it work. Elizabeth cooperates, her breathing not too constricted this time. She leans her head and neck into me, giving me the rare, sweet experience of holding a llama in my arms. I drink in the scent of her, love the soft brush of her ears against my face. She spends several hours suspended above the barn floor, Barbara doing therapy on her cramped legs. She stretches, seems content. We have five days left to prepare Elizabeth for travel.
~ Gayle from Hot Springs, Montana
It will be a long road back to any kind of health for the Blues. Their starvation has been so nearly complete, their immune systems so taxed, there are a lot of skin conditions, eye infections, abscesses among them. For many, it's their advanced ages and burdensome disabilities that make them especially vulnerable to the neglect they were subjected to. For the young Blues, it's been undeveloped systems and an inability to fight for what little food was available to them that sunk them even deeper than most of the llamas.
There's not much physical beauty among the Blues. Not the kind that would typically win them magazine cover status. I imagine that of all the walking skeletons leaving here and coming off trailers in New York, Washington, Oklahoma, California, Colorado, Indiana, Texas and more, the Blues are the ones people particularly think of when they whisper or rave that these animals should all be destroyed.
Yes, we know what's being said. We know that around the edges of love and support sent to the llamas here, beyond the donations and herculean efforts throughout the country that are producing transportation and homes for them, there's a force to the contrary. Even some volunteers who've spent a day or two helping here have suggested mass, immediate ending of the lives of all these llamas. Some truly believe widespread euthanasia would be the humane course of action. Others believe that any kind of llama rescue undercuts the successful business of llama breeding, that death to the unwanted ones is a management tool. In fact, Brian and Katherine, the people who were responsible for the care of these animals, believed that allowing the llamas to die alone and suffering on the overgrazed hillsides was in fact the "natural" thing to do.
There's no policy or guideline to cover all values in leading individuals or organizations through the precarious navigation of euthanasia decisions for beloved animals. But if I know nothing else, I know the Montana 600 became beloved the moment Karyn, Jeff, Shawn and Angie began their work here. And from that starting point came the commitment to fight starvation, ease suffering and provide hope for a comfortable life. Every llama is watched carefully every day. We pay attention to pain, to strength, to quality of life and will to live. Sometimes we help llamas cross over.
But there's been no death here for days and days. Among the Blues, slated to travel home with me in a roomy trailer designed for critical care, who must be ready for that journey, I watch with particular care. There are three I was convinced would never leave here. But they surprise me every day, bad eyes clearing up, nonexistent appetites gradually coming to life. I begin to think all the Blues will come with me.
It isn't as if they've suddenly become whole, but still they astound us with a transformation more noticeable every day. Once frightened and frail, they follow us around looking for their next bowl of treats, fresh flakes of hay. They eat with gusto and chew their cud peacefully. Every few hours, when exhaustion catches up with them again, they rest.
Today Perseus, who lives in a private pen because he refused to eat if anyone came at all near him, growls at the females who come by to steal bits of his hay. The skinny guy Angie named Rodney stops at the gate every time he passes it to enjoy a body-long scratch. The gray heavy wool with floppy ears who couldn't stand for more than a few moments at a time now follows us around and watches when we administer medications.
In the early morning, we find Old Man Moses visiting the geldings. A gate came off its hinges and he's the one who found his way out. This giant llama with fungus encrusted ears, long teeth and bone deep abscesses, whose eye was sealed shut a few days ago, who paddles on collapsed pasterns, walks regally on his outing and runs for 10 minutes before standing still for me to halter then lead him back to the Blues. This llama has a lot more living to do. All the Blues have more living to do.
~ Gayle from Hot Springs, Montana
Throughout the rescue there have been llamas on the loose,roaming the hills above the paddocks crowded with their herd mates. Every few days one or two would comedown to explore, a gate would be opened, they would join the others.
But one remained on his own. Phantom. A beautiful white, medium wool gelding who had dodged the spreading starvation, parasites,and susceptibility to disease by hopping over five and six foot fences as if they were designed for that purpose. During progression of the rescue efforts, he wandered through the proceedings long enough to take in the details of what was going on, jumping out whenever a worker new to the place thought he could be contained by the closing of a corral gate.
When the New York 100 moved out by walking the long drive to the double decker transport rig, Phantom wandered up and down the length of the designated path, watched the loading from the sidelines. It almost seemed as if he might join them. Instead, he soared over the highest fenced yard to share hay with thecamels.
Over time, his bold explorations take him to the feed storage area — a large shed with the front fenced off to keep in birds residing there until a few weeks ago. We use it to store feed. Phantom visits the shed for breakfast. When he's absorbed in devouring a bale of hay, Shawn moves in quickly and shuts the door.
Phantom's roaming days are over —the atmosphere at the sanctuary changes again. He paces back and forth behind the chicken wire, craning his neck in search of an opening. Every day we single outanother llama lover, tell them about the gorgeous, potential packer looking for a home. Shawn takes them to see Phantom. They fall in love withhim. Then they find out he can leap tall buildings at a single bound, and the potential home disappears.
All of us wait for the final transports, more isolated than ever. There's never been cellphone service here and there hasn't been Internet access for over a week. Brian shut it down. News from out where the llamas are being received reaches us in dribbles. We're assured that rumors of more llamas dying in transit are false. We're notified that weekend transports are delayed by weather. Monday, our last day, will be packed with movement.
Karyn makes a dozen phone calls and finds a home in Washington for Phantom. Elizabeth rises in her sling, has physical therapy, battles diarrhea. My llama vet, Dr. Christa in Wyoming, suggests additional medicines but we can only find some of them. Dr. Charlene donates six tubes of biosponge, all they have, all anyone near us has.
Gradually, my mind makes its shift to plans for transporting Elizabeth and the Blues for 15 hours to northern Colorado. Don is on his way with my truck andtrailer. The Animeals team offour, who have lived like this for five and a half weeks, are beginning tophysically droop.
It's been a long time since I've cried in direct response to the horror surrounding us. My heart moves with dry beats. My fingertips find hope in the tiniest bit of flesh stretching away from exposed spines. I smile at new energy that allows the llamas to spit and complain to each other.
I cry about different things now: Angie and Shawn whispering and giggling in the middle of the night, reminding me of the resilience of youth. Leaving Barbara and Cyndy's place without ever having a chance to visit their barns. Looking at the photos of sweet young llamas sent to me by people searching for animals they left here years ago, thinking they'd found a luxurious llama retirement home. Elizabeth becoming weak.
I can't remember a time when Karyn, Jeff, Shawn and Angie were not in my life. We sleep under the same roof, the tiny guest house, in open dormitory style. Karyn cooks a vegan dish for Shawn and I. Before the two of us return tothe barn to tend again to Elizabeth, we all share an evening meal.
~ Gayle from Hot Springs, Montana
As the final day on sanctuary grounds approaches, it's hard not to think about the last scenes in the movie Titanic. Every fewminutes the phone rings with a panic stricken message about uncapturable cows, rescue groups running out of money, approaching storms, late transports. Criticism of the work done here rises as the work beyond us becomes more demanding. We begin to feel a little blessed that the Internet is no longer working for us. The remaining llamas have watched over 500 of their herdmates drive away without them. In addition to the critical care Blue group, those still waiting include the weakest, the most frightened, the most adept at avoiding loading.
Cowboy Doug has a new plan to catch the two bison. It involves more than one corral, an increased group of large animal handlers, a vet, tranquilizer darts. He promises us the bison will be rescued before the weekend is over. More cowboys work to herd the last four cows that have become feral. We're promised that they too will be safely contained and ready for rehoming before the month is over in two days.
Sunday arrives with a frigid storm. All day long, high winds drive snow into drifts and force the temperatures down to zero. As we count and recount the numbers of remaining llamas, we expect two transports today. The first is a long horse trailer with no dividing panels, which means we're expected to load 30 llamas on at once, without the ability to hold some of them in while loading the rest.
I'm told this trailer will be taking 30 llamas to Washington, including Phantom. We load him first, after having the trailer backed up right to the door of his chicken coop housing. Next it's females. Within minutes of loading, I know we're in trouble. The driver and her husband begin to shout at all of us, llamas and humans alike. I begin what's become my mantra. "We're going todo this quietly and gently." The driver spins on her heel to say, "If you'd stop babying these animals and make them move, they'd get on the trailer." Then she starts slapping the llamas' faces. After I insist she and her husband stop hitting the llamas, and the trailer begins to get very crowded, the driver tells me how she hauled 30 llamas the last time and only one of them died.
With 15 llamas finally on board, there's very little room left in the trailer. I tell everyone we're stopping at 21. The driver explodes. It's my turn to hit the wall. I suddenly have no idea how to handle a person who shows no compassion. "Let's try to avoid having a dead llama on this trip," I tell her. We close the doors at 21 llamas.
Shawn, Jeff, Don and I are flattened by the experience. Within an hour of leaving, the driver calls Karen to tell her she refuses to return from Washington the next day to deliver her next load of llamas to California. There are no more days to change plans. I scramble to line up potential alternatives, then call the rescue worker who had hired the driver. He hears my name. "I've had it with you" he says. "I'm just trying to get live llamas toyou," I tell him. "Stay the f***out of my business," he screams, and hangs up the phone.
The heat of his anger, his disgust, rises in my face. I've failed. Everyone. For a split second I want to run from all of it: the horror, the pain, the sorrow, the war among good people trying to do hard work. Then I look at Karyn's face. This is whats he and her magnificent team of three others have been doing for two months. I pull myself together and spend the next two hours trying to help fix things.
Our day is saved by the return of Barbara and Cyndy who come to pick up the two graduated Blues they've adopted: Ursus and a big white lame male they've named Chester. The geldings limp slowly to the trailer, step gingerly into two feet of sweet straw, then lie down to enjoy the hay waiting for them. Space and fresh air surround them.
Before going to bed, I call L'illette, the rescue coordinator in Colorado. I want to know how the memorial service for Bobra Goldsmith, llama lover extraordinaire, had gone. L'illette tells me about all the people from our local llama community who were there. She tells me that many of them spoke about being new forever homes for some of the Montana 600, about how they're becoming a new support group for each other in nursing the llamas back to health. I think about how Bobra would have loved that. My hope, my strength to care and fight another day, return to me. My wall is behind me.
~ Gayle from Hot Springs, Montana
To name is to commit. When Shawn named Elizabeth, he was naming the depth of commitment not only to her, but to the entire Montana 600. He was naming the extraordinary measures taken over the last two months to be responsible for, to give hope, and sometimes release, to over 1000 animals of many species, all devastated by neglect and abuse.
Saying goodbye to Elizabeth is like reaching the summit of our commitment. At 2:30 thismorning, when I visit her in the frigid dark to replenish her water, clean and deepen her straw bedding, add to her feed, she watches me with the same dark eyes and calm trust she gave Shawn when he first found her down and moved her to a sheltered, safe bed.
Elizabeth will not leave this place alive. There has been no improvement in her health. She shows no desire to stand, even with the help of her sling. She's lost more weight and her appetite is dwindling. We will help her and three others cross over.
This day is clear. No wind, no snow, the cold is more bearable than yesterday. Andy and his drivers pull up at 3:00a.m., just as I'm bringing warm water to Elizabeth and the Blues. The men head to the pool house for a few hours of sleep. This team has learned about the llamas. Andy himself asked that fewer animals to be loaded into his trailers this time. Without shouting, without hitting, with great kindness and efficiency, 56 llamas are loaded quickly at first daylight. Next comes Dick Williams, who has graciously agreed to take more than the 30 he originally committed to, in order to absorb the extras I've refused to cram onto overcrowded trailers. He takes nine more and will find forever homes for them in Montana.
At last, it's time for the Blues to board my trailer. Don lines it with deep hay for bedding, more for eating. Their medicines are packed in the truck. Don, Jeff, Dick, and his helpers gently load the Blues (plus two unplanned geldings who refused to board any other trailer) according to my plan for the three compartments.
Dr. Mike has made time in his overloaded schedule to attend to Elizabeth and three others who will never be well enough to make a trip of any kind. One by one, we cradle heads while death comes softly, quickly. I say goodbye to Elizabeth. Shawn stays with her longer, their goodbyes private ones.
All of us are packed and ready to leave. We exchange hugs. There are no words left. No words necessary. I'm speechless before Karyn, Angie, Shawn, and Jeff. They've made a miracle happen. They've completed a job no one else even tried to start. They launched a thousand other miracles now underway across the country. I don't cry about leaving them, because I know I'll see them again. They, like the Montana 600, have joined my forever family.
I look through the windows of my trailer to check on the Blues one more time. They look calmly back at me, ready and strong enough for the next leg of their journey. I climb into my muddy, idling truck and pull away.
~ Gayle from Hot Springs, Montana