Final exams are approaching at one of America’s elite universities, and the atmosphere might be tense – if it weren’t for eight hairy campus visitors.
On Friday, students flocked to UC Berkeley’s Memorial Glade for Llamapalooza, a human-llama social occasion on a sunny campus lawn. The eight animals were scattered throughout the crowd, munching grass while the adoring masses petted, fed and photographed them under the supervision of trained student volunteers.
The semesterly event is intended to help Berkeley students relax before the tests. For many, it works.
Grace Park, a junior, had an exam that very day – but her interactions with the animals left her feeling “significantly less stressed”, she said. “It’s very wholesome,” added Mazel Mihardja, also a junior.
Ana Claire Mancia, a business major who graduates this year, launched Llamapalooza a year and a half ago. The Guardian was granted exclusive access to her final event as a student, as she sought to avoid the heavy press presence of previous semesters.
“When you’re around a llama, you become very calm and at peace,” she said. Any reputation the animals have for spitting was undeserved, she noted: such behavior is reserved for inter-llama disputes. When it comes to humans, “you would have to really agitate it and be super in its face and irritate it for a llama to spit at you”.
Indeed, despite being surrounded by throngs of overexcited humans, the llamas themselves remained remarkably calm. Their drooping eyelashes created an impression of utter contentment as they helped themselves to large quantities of campus vegetation. A student volunteer said Lorenzo the llama, known to friends as Zoe, was feeling a little overwhelmed, but it was difficult for this reporter to tell.
Many students took pre-exam solace in the llamas’ fur, lauded as “quite fuzzy” and “surprisingly soft”. “I want to pet them forever,” said Phoebe Kay, a junior from Australia.
But interactions weren’t limited to petting. Mancia taught the Guardian what is known as a “llama greeting”. The trick is to approach the animal nose-to-nose and “breathe the same air”, she said.
Having heard that llamas could be temperamental, the Guardian was initially nervous about engaging closely with the animals. But such fears were unfounded: while this reporter was debating how close to get, a llama named Munay performed the greeting uninvited, blowing hot llama air from his nostrils. It was as soothing as advertised.
That success inspired the Guardian to go further and feed the elder statesman of the bunch, a 14-year-old male called Quinoa for his speckled head. The process was daunting: the feeder provides the carrot directly from their own mouth. But Quinoa nonchalantly plucked it from the Guardian’s teeth and it disappeared in an instant.
This easy rapport is why George Caldwell, who raises the llamas and brings them to campus, believes they are so well-suited to such visits. Thanks to a long history living among humans in South America, “these guys developed social skills that are just amazing,” Caldwell says. “That’s the way they can put up with all these people coming around them and touching them and everything, because they realize their intentions are just social, family: good intentions.”
Caldwell’s dream, he said, would be to facilitate more human-llama hangouts. It would be mutually beneficial: not only would it relieve stress, it would ensure that humans don’t abandon the animals. “The llamas, if they’re gonna be around in the 21st, 22nd century, they need to get jobs.”
Caldwell had been bringing the animals to Berkeley to de-stress the students for several years before Mancia launched Llamapalooza, but the event was somewhat under the radar.
Llamapalooza changed that. Now, the event typically gets 5,000 RSVPs on Facebook, Mancia says, with one to two thousand students actually showing up.
The llamas’ success has inspired many local universities to follow Berkeley’s lead. Quinoa and the gang have made inroads at UC San Francisco, UC Davis, and Stanford. This week, they offered comfort at a high school where a student had recently passed away.
“These llamas allow you to love them … And once you get a big dose of love, that changes whatever mood you’re in,” Caldwell said. “That’s the magic of the llamas.”