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Author: Liz MacEachran
Like most farms, we get our share of visits from small groups cub scouts, school classes, etc. They pet the alpacas, ooh and aah over the crias, and thats about it. When we had a group from an after-school program for middle-schoolers, it went like any other visit, but after they left, I felt dissatisfied with it and wondered if there was something more meaningful we could do.
Two years ago I sat down with two of the program directors and we came up with a plan to have some of the kids come out and help train our youngsters to walk on halters. We decided to run our program during March and April. We hoped most of the snow and ice would be gone, and it wouldnt be too cold. Of course, this is New England, and kids here dont mind the cold much, but we didnt want crias or kids getting hurt on the ice.
Two to three days a week an adult brings four kids to the farm. The staff has to find out ahead of time which kids really want to come. We tell each group of kids that they are alpaca trainers, and their job is to teach the alpacas not to be afraid. We also tell them that they are the bosses, and the alpacas must do what the kids want . We dont harp on the dont run, dont yell thing. We know the staff has stressed that, and we want them to have fun. And lastly, we tell them if their alpaca is going to drag them down the driveway on their face, let go of the lead. The cria will just run back to the barn. Then we grit our teeth and resist the urge to micromanage kids or crias.
Four kids walk four crias (from six months old to almost a year) for ten or so minutes, then we put those crias back, and the kids walk four more. Next session four different, kids, four different crias. Within a week or so, weve met all the kids and the crias have too.
At first they just walk the crias around our driveway. Generally theres too much snow everywhere else. Then we begin to introduce new challenges. Up the steps onto the porch or through the gardens. Sometimes a simple obstacle course. One day we have a pretend show, and the crias must stand quietly for the judge to examine them. For some reason the kids love loading-in-the-trailer day best. One by one, the kids with their crias jump into one end of the trailer and out the other. They do this over and over.
I dont think its important what they do with the alpacas. The crias just learn that walking on a lead and being around kids and noise and strange objects is not a big deal. The kids learn that even though theyre just kids, they can help a young animal learn something new. Were often warned in advance that a certain kid is hyperactive or has behavior problems and must be supervised closely. That kid is often the most patient, conscientious one we see. Noisy kids become quiet, shy kids become talkative, passive kids become assertive. And the cria that flops on its side for us may walk beautifully for a child.
We stop our sessions once we get busy with shows. After the last show of the spring, we go to the program center with all our ribbons and banners and show the kids what the alpacas have won. They feel they participate in our wins, but really, that doesnt seem very important to them. Its a little inconvenient to always be at home and available the days the kids come, but look what we get out of it: its lots of fun and a lot gets accomplished. Look for us at the shows. Were the ones with the bulletproof crias!
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