Wild Things

Llama Llove

Two llamas won the Internet this week. North American Air Defense tweeted about llamas. Sen. John McCain tweeted about llamas. Twitter exploded with more than 250,000 llama tweets. Llamas are hot.

Except when they are not. Despite Thursday’s hapless performance by the scores of people who couldn’t manage to capture two runaway llamas, it turns out that people are better at catching llamas than breeding them. Now that black llama and white llama are Internet celebrities, there may be a big demand for their genetic progeny. Fulfilling orders will not be easy.

Serious llama breeders, like most livestock breeders, prefer to use artificial insemination, but this is even more difficult for llamas than it is for other animals.

The first problem is that the llama reproductive cycle is not like our own. Humans and dogs and cows and many other animals ovulate in predictable cycles. Eggs are released whether or not sperm are nearby to fertilize them. But llamas are “induced ovulators.” This means that female llamas release an egg only after copulation. As one might imagine, this can make artificial insemination tricky.

Male llamas aren’t helping. Llama semen is thick and syrupy, with lethargic sperm at low concentrations. The male also doesn’t produce much volume—llamas are called, embarrassingly, “dribble ejaculators.” Mating tends to last a long time (up to an hour). And the sperm-gathering receptacle has to be kept at a realistic temperature.

Some llama farmers are content to let their animals fraternize naturally, but those devoted to llama breeding need to be able to analyze, freeze, ship, sell, and tinker with the starting material. Previous attempts at semen collection in llamas have included condoms, intravaginal sacs, vaginal sponges, electroejaculation, and fistulation of the penile urethra. There is some debate about the merits of the anesthesia-aided electroejaculation (in which electrodes placed in the animal’s rectum provide low-voltage pulses to stimulate ejaculation). But at least for now, the llama semen collection star is the artificial vagina. 

The artificial llama vagina looks eerily similar to a hollow rubber human penis. It comes with a heating pad or water bottle to simulate the temperature of a real llama vagina and, often, a cuddly, life-size, stuffed-animal female llama (or female llama rear end). Sometimes the male is allowed to mount a real female and the semen is “redirected” into an artificial vagina held nearby as he mounts her.

During mating, the male llama vocalizes with what people call an “orgling” sound. I have never heard it, but I expect it sounds both adorable and disturbing. Unlike horses, which mount in a standing-up position, llamas copulate sitting down. Honestly, it looks much more relaxing.

There are several versions of the llama artificial vagina to choose from. You can order from a catalog if you like, or follow step-by-step DIY instructions. Semen collection has come a long way from the “long, black, used water hose confiscated from a deceased Ford” that pioneer Harold Hill described in a story about collecting semen from bulls in 1949.

In fact there is a bustling field of animal artificial insemination, with researchers, breeders, and professional collectors, and an industry to cater to their needs—though some still make their own vaginas from parts bought at home improvement stores. There are artificial vaginas for just about every animal anyone cares to breed, from tiny little contraptions for rabbits to huge hoses for horses. I found one artificial vagina for sale with attachment threads designed to be fitted to a baby bottle.

The fact that there is a semen collection industry makes sense, because we have been doing this for a long, long time.

According to legend, the first animal artificial insemination was performed by an Arab chieftain who stole semen from the horse of an enemy tribe. The first successful artificial insemination in dogs was recorded in 1784. In the 1880s a scientist documented a single human pregnancy after 55 attempts at artificial insemination, but the literature notes that his failures could have resulted from his erroneous belief that ovulation occurred during menstruation.

Yes, we have been interfering with breeding for centuries, but only recently have we enjoyed real success with llamas. Gathering the semen is difficult. Storing it is problematic. We did not know how to thin it out enough to be injectable. Inducing ovulation is tricky, and so is delivery of the semen goods.

The website of Taylor Llamas, a farm in Montana, details an expensive and painstaking experiment in llama embryo transfer, which, they say, finally produced healthy offspring in 1994. But it seems that few others have enjoyed success.

Research reported in the past year or so has detailed advances in cooling and storing semen, as well as diluting and extending it, both major hurdles that have plagued llama breeders. And within the past couple of months, two publications—one on llamas and alpacas, and one on mice (which are spontaneous ovulators, like humans)—have shown that substances in semen work to control female reproductive responses, and even may affect the health of offspring.

It is a heady time in llama reproduction. It’s amazing that for all we know, we still do not understand the role of seminal fluid, even our own, or how to genetically engineer a llama. But then again, a couple of llamas on the loose can evade our technologically advanced law enforcement, so maybe I am giving us a little too much credit.