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There were tail movements which accompanied the ear activities. A tail just hanging down was normal. If a llama felt the need for self-assertion, the tail would go up. The further up, the more aggressive the stance was becoming–until a curious reversal occurred. If the llama flipped his tail all the way over, so that it was resting on his back, that indicated submission.

Sometimes the llamas didn’t come to a peaceful agreement, and the next escalation could be spitting. The contents of the mouth might be tossed out, or it might be a spray of saliva. Most of the spitting we saw between the two males–and there wasn’t much of it–occurred over food. In the most drastic form of spitting, a llama spat a smelly mess reminiscent of rotten compost. If things became that serious, the llamas would stand around afterwards with their mouths hanging open. We called this bad mouthing.
We had seen enough other llamas to know that ours were typical in being moderate about spitting. People who hadn’t been around llamas often expected more spitting. It seemed that llamas had been given some undeserved bad press.

Sometimes the two would chase each other around for a while, nipping at each other. We heard a new sound: Tumbleweed would sometimes screech. It was almost a whinny. They would fight for a while, and then, with no obvious conclusion, the fight would be over and they were buddies again. They fought almost every day for fifteen or twenty minutes. We wondered if they would become more territorial as they grew up.

How much of their behavior was learned, and how much was innate? We had seen a three-hour-old baby at the Patterson’s ranch, and he was using the ear movements in exactly the same way adults did. That suggested that much of the behavior was inborn. We loved watching the llamas and trying to make sense of their actions.

Bill Franklin, a wildlife ecologist and owner of llamas and guanacos, had written about llama language. He gave names to a variety of body positions and sounds. “Aha, I just saw a HET!” I would exclaim. HET was short for horizontal ear threat, and we noticed it often. The more sensitive we became, the more subtleties we saw. The Aymara Indians of Lake Titicaca called llamas ‘speechless brothers.’ We were realizing how very talkative they were.

We imitated them. “Mmmm,” I said to Kelly.

“Mmmm,” he replied.



We spoke llama now. Not, perhaps, with all the nuances of a native speaker, but we were pretty fluent. We spoke llama, and we adopted some llama traits. The pre-spitting threat was useful. We sniffed gently to express curiosity or greeting.

Beyond our acting out, we experienced the world differently. We had an additional perspective, the view of the llama. Or, at least, our view of the llamas’ view.

When I was nineteen and in Europe for the first time, an old Frenchman told me, “When you are bilingual, then you are twice a person.” As I struggled with French, I understood what he meant. There was something about thinking in a different mode that gave me a fresh outlook on life. I hadn’t used my French in years, but I was again twice a person.

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