First Steps

Just like pots that don’t boil, watched llamas don’t give birth. You can spend hours at a time studying the moment to moment activities of a pregnant llama, searching vainly for any signs of an impending delivery, and then just within the few moments it takes to grab a quick breakfast of coffee and a croissant, out pops a baby.

Having been expecting Elif to give birth any time since August, we have watched and studied and considered her physical appearance and behaviour. We have read all the relevant books and internet articles we could find about llama births. We knew what we were looking for – we’d even had the experience of Fatma and Capucine only 6 months ago. Were Elif’s teats ‘bagging up’? Was her fat belly changing shape as the baby ‘dropped’ prior to birth? Was Elif behaving differently? Taking herself away from the herd? Not eating? Showing signs of discomfort?

Was she hell. Nothing. All we could do was keep checking and watching, and hope we didn’t totally miss the Big Moment.

At least we managed to get there quicker this time. In retrospect, we realise that by the time we noticed that Fatma had given birth, her baby must already have been at least an hour old. This time, the sight of Elif adopting the pooing pose to expel the placenta was the first clue we had that anything was happening/had happened. We wasted no time. We grabbed a bag of llama food, the cameras, some carrier bags (for the placenta) and a kitchen roll (clean towels anyone?) and jumped into the car.

As we arrived at the gate, all the other llamas headed down to greet us as normal. Elif was clearly in two minds about joining them – nothing comes between her and food these days. But we quickly occupied the others with their daily rations in the catch-pen, and headed up towards the field shelter where Elif was standing by the fence with a very bedraggled bundle of fluff and slime at her feet, and a shiny bag of placenta hanging between her back legs.

The bedraggled bundle was wriggling around, all a-tremble, all legs and feet and long neck, struggling pathetically to stand up on its ridiculously concertina-d limbs. Elif had considerately dropped her load on the ever-growing bed of uneaten hay that has collected in front of the field shelter over recent weeks. A nice soft landing for the baby indeed. But also perilously close to the wire netting of the fence, at the sloping bottom of the hill. The wriggling baby thrashed around in a tumult of dry hay, dusty mud and twigs, endlessly defeated in its gallant attempts to stand up on elastic legs by the cruel combination of gravity and the incline of the land.

It was painful to watch. We held our breath each time it managed to get one corner of its tiny body perched in the air atop a strangely bent leg, willing it on in its mammoth endeavour, only to let out exasperated sighs as it toppled over again into a crumpled heap. We watched helplesslessly as its wrigglings pulled it further downhill, closer and closer to the bottom of the wire fence. It was only a matter of time before its tiny head, sliding back and forth on the end of its snaking neck, would find itself on the wrong side of the fence.

Sure enough it did. And although we had been keeping a repectful distance so as not to interfere with mother nature, things were getting nasty. Elif did not take kindly to my approach, as I moved in ready to lift the wire and pull the baby’s head back inside. She stuck her face very close to mine and I could hear the gurgling sounds of semi-digested food making its angry way back up her long throat in readiness for the almighty spit that was sure to come my way if I did not back off. I hastily reconsidered my approach.

Wishing the road-side boundary wasn’t so long, I headed off back down through the two gates and out on to the other side of the fence, making my way carefully (but speedily) back up the fence line, balancing precariously on the thin thorny, stumpy ledge above the road, to where the baby’s head was sticking through. Although aware that the fence would not protect me from a good spitting, I did at least feel safe from a possible trampling-to-death by an over-protective mother.

Aware of our responsibilities to our audience, Simon remained inside the field with the video-camera. Unfortunately however, my life-saving act of heroism was not recorded for posterity. Possibly Simon was overcome with the drama of the moment and allowed his battle-zone camera skills to lapse. Possibly he was busy deleting stuff from the camera’s memory to make space for new footage. Either way, he didn’t capture this bit of excitement for the blog, so you will just have to take my word for it. He did however, have the sensible idea of piling up hay against the fence to prevent a repeat occurrence.

The baby had a little inert rest. Elif eyed us suspiciously. We waited.

The wriggling began again, and eventually, after much lifting of the back end on two legs, followed by headlong flat-on-the-face falls when the front legs wouldn’t stay rigid, the baby managed to get up into a precarious pose with its front feet facing the wrong way. It seemed an impossible position, and for a few moments I was convinced the baby had either broken both ankles, or was seriously deformed.

After a few more face-in-the-mud tumbles, and another head-through-the-wire escapade (this time remedied by a hasty, adrenalin-induced grab-and-pull approach, oblivious to the ominous gurglings of the anxious mother), the baby was up. All four legs out straight. All joints correctly aligned. Swaying….staggering…….and flomp! Down and flat, with it all to do again.

And so passed many happy minutes in the lovely October sunshine. Up….yes?…Yes?……No! The village clock struck eleven. My God! This had been going on for more than an hour already.

Eventually, the length of the Up moments began to exceed the time spent floundering at ground level, and we watched in awe as the baby quickly learnt to adjust its balance to the vagaries of the uneven surface and the precarious slope. A few of the funnier cartoon moments (when the baby’s downhill velocity exceeded its ability to stay in directional control, resulting in full-on collisions with small tree trunks) were missed by the camera-man, who had very responsibly remembered that our poor, long-suffering dog, Max, had been waiting patiently for his morning walk attached to a tree by his lead outside the gate.

By the time Simon returned from walking the dog, the baby had got the whole business of staying upright pretty much cracked, so now we just had to wait for the next important development – suckling.

I recalled Capucine’s early hours on this planet, and remembered that it had taken her a surprisingly long time to get the hang of this apparently instinctive behaviour. We had waitied for at least an hour, while she stumbled around under various non-mother llamas, looking for the milk bar, until she eventually decided to stick with Fatma, and limit her searching to a smaller area. Due to Elif’s highly developed mothering skills, there was little chance of this baby looking in completely the wrong place. Elif was making damn sure that her baby didn’t stray more than a couple of yards from her side, and she wasn’t being exactly welcoming of the attention coming the baby’s way from the rest of the herd. So all this baby had to do was find the right end, the right position and the right sucking action.

How could it take SO LONG? Time ticked by. We watched and waited and watched and waited. The baby stumbled around trying here, then there, then almost there, then somewhere else completely. Elif tried to help. She stood still. She nudged the baby in the right direction. She encouraged the baby back to its feet for another try, whenever it gave up and flopped down. She repositioned herself. Again and again. So close…..but no. Nearly….but no. And then, after about another hour, the unmistakeable sounds of sucking combined with the sign of the baby’s tail in the up-and-connected position, brought to us all the long-awaited sense of relief.

Everything was going to be alright. The weather was good. The baby was healthy and suckling. Elif took a break to wolf down some hay, while keeping a very close eye on the little one, who kushed down exhausted behind the field shelter, to dry off in the sunshine. And we went home for a bit of lunch.

By the afternoon, the baby was cavorting around the field like a crazy thing, finding out just what those strange long legs were capable of, and Elif was bad-temperedly following her around, clearly wishing it was baby bed-time.

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