Julie Taylor-Browne of CamelidSense writes: In the fifteen years I have been training and working with camelids and their owners, I have seen and heard too many heart-breaking stories about ‘beserk’ alpacas who have ended isolated and/or neglected, abused or euthanized. I am contacted about male and female ‘berserk’ alpacas two to three times a month about problems that could have been prevented or ameliorated with the correct advice.
What is a ‘beserk’ alpaca?
I believe that the behaviour we label as ‘beserk’ is on a spectrum caused by inappropriate early imprinting. You may have an ‘over-friendly’ alpaca that runs up to investigate you all over and sniffs, clucks or snorts at you. It might also stand in your way and this can progress to biting your clothes or your hair or kicking at you when you try to move around it. Although they often like to be stroked on their necks they can switch quickly to being difficult to handle when you want to put a halter on or lead it.
At one end of this unwanted behaviour spectrum are bossy alpacas that just want to be in charge of you. At the other end of the spectrum, they can be dangerously aggressive, running along the fence between you, screaming, spitting, rearing up and trying to bite you over the fence. If anyone were to go into their field it will leave the herd and come running over at speed to rear up, chest butt, knock them down, kick them or try and mate them.
Which alpacas are most likely to become beserk? In my experience they often come from very small herds, and/or have owners who have followed bad advice on handling and hand rearing newborns, where lone cria that have been treated as cuddly pets and where ungelded, single males are used as stock guards. Marty McGee Bennett refers to this as Novice Handler Syndrome1. Any of these experiences compromise alpacas’ ability to develop normal herd behaviour, rendering them confused, frustrated and unable to relate appropriately to both humans and other alpacas.
Prevention is key as many problems could easily have been circumvented by encouraging the development of natural herd behaviours, coupled with skilful and appropriate handling and training
There are always warning signs about this behaviour earlier in the animal’s history and this behaviour may have been unwittingly encouraged, rather than positively discouraged. I hear things such as ‘the children liked to play with him’, ‘we thought it was cute’ and ‘I thought he loved me!’. Prevention is key as many of these problems could easily have been circumvented by encouraging the development of natural herd behaviours, coupled with skilful and appropriate handling and training. Even if an alpaca begins to exhibits these behaviours, early intervention can be effective. It is best to seek to ad-vice on training methods that increase the likelihood of desired behaviours and reduce the frequency of unwanted behaviours.
What to do if you have a suspected ‘beserk’ alpaca
- Keep yourself safe.
- Employ behaviour management and reward based training strategies
- Take control, be the leader and teach your animal new skills.