BERSERK or ABERRANT BEHAVIOR SYNDROME
WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
Updated January 2010
By Cathy Spalding
I first recall hearing about a behavior called the Berserk Male Syndrome back in the early 1980’s. Paul Taylor, of Taylor Llamas, used the term/description in an article he wrote about training llamas. Over time, the term “berserk” came to be used rather freely to describe llamas or alpacas that deviate from the expected behavioral norm. More recently, the description of Aberrant Behavior Syndrome (ABS) was coined. Any animal handed this label does, indeed, seem a bit rogue but it is felt they are not any where near berserk. To label them as berserk would be extreme. In fact, there are folks who question if there is actually any llama or alpaca that has truly become berserk placing emphasis on the fact that they have been able to handle and re-train any they have thus far encountered. It seems possible that berserk and aberrant behavior is not the same thing. Berserk is defined as “destructively or frenetically violent.” Aberrant is “deviating from the proper or expected course.” While berserk would surely include aberrant behavior, one exhibiting aberrant behavior would not necessarily be berserk.
Alpaca and llama behavior that deviates from the norm can be measured in degrees. For the sake of discussion, we might imagine a scale of 1 to 10. Normal and usual behavior would begin at 1 increasing in levels of deviation to arrive finally at the ultimate (berserk) level of 10. Any particular ABS animal falls somewhere between 2 and 9. As the deviance becomes higher, the success rate in our ability to reform behaviors tends to lessen. Many ABS animals can be re-trained in the hands of a skilled trainer. Often, these animals are simply not disciplined, are poorly trained or not trained at all, poor halter fit, spoiled and do not understand or respect boundaries. Depending upon the level of inappropriate behavior, some have been re-trained well enough that they become fairly trustworthy in their behavior. A true berserk is another story altogether. They are quite dangerous and seem miserable. They will charge at humans from far across a field. They will pace fence lines, attack, rear up, scream, spit, bite, stomp, body slam and lay on top of you with a seeming clear intent to eliminate you. This behavior is at the end of the scale and to my knowledge; though very skilled trainers have tried, no true berserk has ever been successfully rehabilitated.
While I receive an incredible number of similar calls each year from concerned owners who feel they have an aggressive animal, I have yet to receive a call from someone who describes behavior that would appear truly berserk. Does that mean it does not and they do not exist? No, but it does emphasize that it seems quite rare. There are several breeders who have encountered that rare berserk male over the past 25+ years. Some were kept in strong confines wearing a shock collar but most were euthanized. Even more rare would seem the berserk female.
We received a call from our neighbor who is a veterinarian. It happened that his advertisement in our local yellow pages mentioned “exotic animals.” He’d received a call from an owner who wanted to sell his female llama but knew no one who owned llamas. We went out to take a look and wow… she was a big girl -- sturdy and gorgeous. The owner mentioned that he had been unable to breed her; she spit and “ she didn’t seem to like men.” We accompanied him into her pasture but didn’t notice any signs of aggression. In fact, she seemed totally unimpressed with our presence. We worked out the details for purchase and brought “Madame Currie” home. She seemed healthy and very well behaved. We were becoming quite comfortable with one another and she was getting “the lay of the land.” On about the 5 th day, I was out cleaning paddocks and stopped to hold one of our cats. Madame Currie approached seeming quite curious about the cat. Suddenly, without warning, her eyes rolled back as she reared up on her hind legs and began screaming. I dropped the cat as she side slammed me. For whatever reason, I felt to immediately move to her withers. Though she earnestly tried, she was unable to bite nor seriously slam me in that positioning. We danced around feverishly. If I would slip, she would rear up in an attempt to come crashing down on me all the while drooling, screeching, and screaming. It was not possible for me to escape. I did not have the slightest moment to undo a gate latch without being seriously injured. I began loudly screaming myself… calling for help. Hearing my screams, my husband raced out only to halt at the gate in total disbelief. He wasn’t going in there! As I danced and danced with Madame Currie in circle after circle, he and I yelled back and forth forming a plan. With each circle, I would do my best to move a bit closer to the gate. He would have it unlatched and when the moment could happen, I would slip through and he would slam the gate shut. It worked but the metal gate was heavily damaged as Madame Currie continued to smash and slam into it. We had never seen anything like that before – nor have we since. In fact, it appears most llama and alpaca owners have never truly witnessed anything quite like this.
What in the world would have brought her to this behavior? What might bring any llama or alpaca to behave this way? The answer seems much more simple than one might expect and it is up to us – the human part of the equation – to make the difference. It begins at a very young age through improper and abnormal handling and socialization by humans. For some time, bottle-feeding a baby appeared the most common route to the development of ABS or berserk. It is certainly a common path to these unpleasant and often seriously dangerous behaviors but it is not the bottle per se – it is the inappropriate human behavior while feeding with a bottle.
What is inappropriate human behavior in relation to llamas and alpacas? It is important to have a basic understanding of llama and alpaca behavior in order to understand how we influence and encourage their behavior – or not. We must recognize them as prey animals. We must recognize, appreciate and heed the warning signs. Some llamas and alpacas simply “hit the ground” very friendly. Some become head strong in this direction after extensive human contact as the result of needed medical intervention. Both are potential candidates for the development of more serious abnormal behaviors if not handled appropriately. Candidates can be those youngsters who constantly invade your personal space. They are the ones who will nibble at your clothing or shoes. They might run up to you when you enter their area and seem to prefer your company to that of the herd. They tend to enjoy being touched and will place their face right into yours. These behaviors are often accompanied with gurgling, an orgling sound, hums and/or the tail curled up over the back or posturing in a submissive crouch. While certainly cute enough to command our attention, it can be a dangerous prelude. Raising a single baby without the companionship of other llamas or alpacas provides strong potential for the development of ABS or even berserk behaviors. Seriously consider gelding those animals who exhibit these behaviors. While there is a great deal of controversy as to the appropriate age to geld, the question remains: Is it better to look at the potential of them becoming taller or perhaps breaking down in the pasterns in later years or to the potential of becoming difficult or perhaps seriously dangerous around the age of two?
How we respond to their behavior is critical. Set boundaries. Do not allow them to crowd into your personal space, get into your face or bump you. Do not allow them to jump up or rear up at you. Do not allow them to nibble at your clothing or shoes. Do not sell or buy a single young llama or alpaca unless there are other llamas and alpacas where they will live. While there are times when extended human intervention is absolutely necessary, always conduct yourself in a business like manner. Do not spend time holding and coddling and do not bring them into the house to live with you. Do not take babies away from their mothers and bottle feed in attempt to make them “friendly.” There are a number of ways to handle and train them that can provide for a strong and bonding relationship without the potential of such dire consequences. Make sure that anyone who would come in contact with your particularly precocious or aggressive llama or alpaca follows the same training and boundary rules. Be consistent. Young llamas and alpacas that are used for PR – birthday parties, nursing home visitation, petting zoos and/or fair displays – often become “suddenly” difficult around the age of two. It is not as sudden as it might appear. There were behavioral cues all along which simply went unnoticed. Keep the human contact with these particular animals to a minimum. It is often a very good lesson for them to be housed with peers or even older animals that will teach them how to behave as a llama or alpaca. While it is important to be mindful of their safety, this is often a very good choice in behavior modification.
What did I discover about Madame Currie’s history? She was taken from her mother at a very young age, bottle fed and raised up amidst a group of girls living together while going to school at Washington State University. How “cute” and unique was that? She had no contact with any other llamas. She was basically one of the “college girls” and lived with them in the house. But… she grew up and from there she bounced from place to place as a single llama being passed from one “home” to the next until she came to live with us. No one felt to be honest about her behavior. No one felt to say that the next owner should be careful. Just a silent string of human injuries as each new owner got rid of her just as fast as they could. Sad…
There are some interesting “occurrences” to consider regarding whether or not your animal might be ABS. When first arriving in a new home situation, most appear perfectly fine. It can be several days or more before you notice anything unusual in their behavior. This is because it simply takes a few days or more for them to “size up” the situation. Think of the difficult teenager who has been expelled from high school. He enrolls in another high school and, thankfully, over several weeks now things seem to be going great. Just as you begin to feel relief that perhaps we have finally moved through the situation, he begins getting into trouble at the new school. It simply took a while to figure out the situation… to settle some and become somewhat comfortable in the new surroundings. If you acquire a llama or alpaca from someone who says: “He (or she) doesn’t particularly like men,” do not take that lightly. In my own personal experience as well as from the many folks who contact me, that is like a code phrase for ABS. That is the phrase used to describe Madame Currie. It was reported in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Nov 2005) that a Mr. Dale Airsman was seriously attacked by a male llama and received a bite on his bicep that went clear to the bone and a cracked sternum. They, too, had been told when they acquired this llama that “he didn’t like men.” Typically, ABS or berserk tendencies begin to seriously manifest around the age of two – puberty. If your llama or alpaca has behaved more normally and then suddenly at the age of say, 6, begins ABS behavior, it is usually not related to improper handling as a youngster. It could be a medical/physical issue such as a brain tumor or something happening in the animal’s environment. As an example, I received a call from someone in my area who had an 8 year old llama that for no apparent reason, suddenly began to attack and bite people. He particularly went after children. His neighbor received a bite over the fence that pierced an artery in his arm and he nearly died. This was definitely serious but was this ABS as we have come to use the term? Well, it certainly deviated from the norm but why? After watching the llama closely, it seemed clear that he had been teased or in some way abused by humans over time and had simply had enough. Turns out that the school bus stopped each and every day to let off children on the road right next to his pen. His pen ran lengthwise along the road, was long and narrow and he was unable to move out of reach from the children. Each and every day he was subjected to the kids in whatever form that took. Moving him to another area made an incredible change in his behavior towards humans in a remarkably short time. His behavior could have certainly been termed ABS or even berserk in ways. However, this sudden change in behavior at his age made it highly unlikely that it came about from improper handling as youngster.
While I certainly do not claim to be an expert in the area of ABS or berserk llamas and alpacas, I will do my best to explain the thought behind the potential development of these behaviors. These behaviors seem to develop when a llama or alpaca has extended opportunity to bond with humans. It is a behavior brought about by humans through inappropriate interaction. It must begin at a young age and is completely avoidable. This can occur when humans must intervene for medical reasons and tend to inappropriately interact and cuddle them. It can develop when that truly precocious baby arrives and they are just “too cute” to ignore. The result seems to be an abnormal socialization with humans – the inability to distinguish the difference between being llama or alpaca and being human. This confusion results in an inappropriate attitude and behavior towards humans. As the animal enters puberty, they become territorial. They seem to then be unable to distinguish the human from another llama or alpaca thus looking upon the human as a “rival.” Puberty is typically the time when serious aggressive behaviors begin to manifest. Some feel that it has to do with an animal having excessive testosterone or a heightened fear response that clouds judgment. While I do not know what or how that might be a part, it has been my ongoing experience that a llama or alpaca that has had appropriate human interaction, handling and training as a youngster does not attack humans – unprovoked – even as the result of heightened testosterone or fear.
The most important thing we can do in service towards our llamas and alpacas is to interact, handle and treat them in the most appropriate manner possible. It is us, we humans, who have created and continue to create animals that become ABS or the rare berserk. We have a fiduciary responsibility to educate ourselves and do the best we might by those we have invited into our lives. As Joseph Stookey, professor of Animal Behavior for the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada pleads: “Take home the message that newborn orphans” of a number of species including llamas and alpacas “should never be inappropriately bottle raised” and “at the very least should be castrated before reaching sexual maturity in order to avoid a dangerous and potentially lethal future situation. Spread the word.” I take it a step further, a number of species including llamas and alpacas should, simply, never be inappropriately raised. And yes, spread the word!
Gentle Spirit Llamas