Words are important. The words we use to describe situations and events colors our perceptions of those events. Berserk male syndrome (BMS) is a phrase that has been around for a long time. Although the phrase was originally coined to describe llamas, alpacas are certainly not immune. I have met many human aggressive alpacas. Their smaller size softens the impact a bit however being chest butted by a 100 pound animal is no small event. These animals are unpleasant if not dangerous to have around and are certainly a public relations problem the alpaca community must deal with.
The term BMS was originally used in an article by Paul Taylor in late 1980 or early 1981. Paul wrote an article in the 3L Llama Newsletter in March of 1981 clarifying what he meant by the term. Paul said
"It seems to be the end result of a series of confusing and negative interactions with humans, beginning with the breakdown of the normal standoffishness that herd raised llamas show in their relationship to humans. A male llama that has been bottle fed or constantly petted and fondled as a baby will show no hesitation about initiating contact with humans, as in the mild case of the pushy llama who runs up to be petted or bumps with his chest against people in the pasture with him. Such a llama is apt to be pushed or slapped to keep him away this conflict can escalate over a period of time, possibly with changing owners or eventually the use a whip or club to keep the animal at bay. The final result seems to be a tangled combination of the normal llama behavior for dominance assertion, breeding and defense."
Camelids do not have a monopoly on this particular problem, domestic animals that become aggressive occur in all species. Dairy bulls, bottle raised cats, puppies and foals all are prone to difficulties in their interactions with humans. Today the phrase BMS is used to describe llamas and alpacas that are anything from innocently pushing the bounds of proper behavior to those animals that are completely out of control and dangerously aggressive. It is a confusing state of affairs. I get calls from worried llama and alpaca owners almost on a daily basis who are worried about the potentially aggressive or already aggressive behavior of their animals. I would argue very little with Paul's description or his conclusions regarding animals that exhibit such behaviors. The article advises llama owner/breeders to allow young llamas to be socialized by the herd so that they develop the normal standoffish behavior. I agree that allowing young alpacas to live in a herd is a good idea. What if you like most alpacas owners don't have a herd? Many new owners have one each - male, female and new baby. What about the young alpaca that leaves voluntarily leaves the company of the herd to interact with humans? What about the orphan or youngster who must be treated medically on an ongoing basis? The current advice within the camelid community ranges from a complete hands-off policy until young alpacas (especially males) are six months old to intense handling as a newborn to varying approaches in between.
I think that in order to decide how to prevent aggressive behavior it is important to gain awareness of what causes it. Perhaps more importantly to recognize the early warning signals and act then. Why does it happen to some males and not to others raised in the same circumstances? Can it happen to females? Is gelding aggressive males the magic bullet?
Perhaps it would help if we reorient our thinking about aggressive camelids and put the onus where it belongs - with the humans. My suggestion is that we coin an additional term "The Novice Handler Syndrome." It is my experience that aggressive animals happen because a variety of factors coalesce. Alpacas are born with different personalities and tendencies. Humans have different behavioral styles, levels of confidence and experience. Environmental factors such as multiple owners, age of weaning, herd composition also play a part in the behavior of an alpaca. A precocious animal whose approach to new situations is to control them combined with a new owner lacking in experience= problem. The same new owner with a naturally timid animal =no problem. A young alpaca with early medical problems (even if he is raised in a large herd) who is later sold to a new timid owner=problem. A young male raised alone with no alpaca babies to play with. The owners have young children. The children encourage aggressive play behavior directed at humans. The young male alpaca eventually out weighs the children and reaches puberty when the games get serious=problem. You get the picture. Sets of circumstances are responsible not one factor.
So how do we humans navigate these dangerous behavioral waters. The first step I believe is to own the problem, once we accept that the behavioral change has to happen to the humans in this particular animals environment we can realize the limitations of a "fix" and set about changing what we can. The easiest thing is prevention through awareness. One very important facet of the "Novice Handler Syndrome" is the tendency of the human to misinterpret the beginnings of aggressive behavior for friendliness. Allow me a short description of how the NHS is played out leading to a real problem. Mary Novice has her first alpaca baby. ITS A BOY! The baby lives with two adult females in a small pasture. His instincts tell him to play, wrestle, bite, and bump. We have a couple of immediate problems. First there is not a lot of room to run and not much to do. Second the other animals in his environment don't want to play and in fact they say something like "Get away from me kid you bother me." Young stud is majorly bored. The high point of the day is when Mary comes out and sits with him. This two legged thing is nothing if not interesting and far from being rebuffed he is the star of the show. He starts finding out about this thing in his environment by interacting with it. At first he is a bit timid and walks up with his neck and nose extended for a greeting. Fine so far. At first the baby gets Mary's undivided attention. Everything he does is worthy of putting in the baby book. The reality is that there are other things Mary must do in the barn maybe she is busy mucking out when the baby decides he want to interact with her. he wants her attention so he picks at her clothes, puts his nose in her face and rubs against her while she is working. A week or so later this youngster is now running up to Mary skidding to a stop and putting his nose in her face. I can bet you that by the time this baby is 16 months old - maybe a lot sooner that that - Mary will be calling me, or somebody, to ask why her beautiful, friendly, perfect, baby boy is now rearing up and wrapping his legs around her waist every time she turns her back on him.
Young alpacas babies that rub, lean stand closely, walk right up and put their nose in your face or crotch and a fail to yield space when you move toward them are not being friendly. These behaviors are really the beginnings of aggression. Your alpaca is exploring his environment and checking out the boundaries of what is allowed. He or she is asking you very important questions. The conventional wisdom of ignoring youngsters who behave this way is, in my experience, not the answer. If you do nothing to discourage this seemingly "friendly" behavior it usually escalates.
What is Mary to do now and when did she give the impression to young perfect baby boy that he could practice breeding her? Should she slap him, push him away every time he comes near her and yell NO BAD ALPACA!? I wouldn't recommend that course of action. It surely would have been better if Mary knew to discourage this young suitor earlier on. There is certainly nothing wrong with a young alpaca soliciting a nose greeting with neck and nose extended and then waiting politely for Mary to lean forward to participate in the greeting. Sticking his nose in Mary's face any time he felt like it is crossing the line of allowable behavior. I believe if Mary had flicked him on the nose with her fingers (like she was flicking a piece of lint off her sweater) the first couple of times this youngster entered her personal space without permission the problem would have ended before it got going. I don't mean to suggest that Mary needs to scare him away only that she needs to be clear about the fact that she has personal space and he is not allowed in it. A foot and a half is my personal space. A human need only stop an animal from entering this space; we do not need to chase him away. In my opinion Mary would be making a big mistake to push this young guy away when he approaches or to yell. Yelling gets everybody's blood going, escalates the situation and indicates that you are afraid. Speak like you mean it firmly and powerfully and tell the alpaca what you want him to do STAY BACK not what you don't want him to do. The unspoken thought after you say NO is DON'T JUMP ON ME. Better not to even think it!
If you are currently dealing with a young alpaca who has headed down this road and is already at the point of rubbing pushing you may need more than your fingers to back these little guys up. A racket ball racket is a good tool. The large screen makes it easy to connect with the nose and the handle is short enough (a tennis racket is too unwieldy) that it is handy to carry with you AT ALL TIMES until the youngster gets the idea. remember when you use it no follow through- use a very short staccato bip on the nose along with a firm STAY BACK. You are creating a force field around you. It is important that every human in your young llamas life behave consistently. If you have children keep them away from this young alpaca until he is understands how to behave. If you have farm visitors put this guy on a halter, if he is halter trained, or put him away. It is not a bad idea to geld him. Gelding uncomplicates the problem but doesn't solve it. You must still learn to behave differently and set limits. Female alpacas can become disrespectful and difficult too. Clucking ear threats and spitting are the more likely outcome but I have met females who were physically intimidating. My policy is to treat males and females babies no differently. I insist on respectful behavior from both sexes.
Babies do best if they have other babies to play with. With other babies around in many cases, the whole problem becomes a non-issue. If you are going to have a single baby, think about forming a baby alpaca play group. Contact other breeders that are going to have single babies. Make arrangements to board your female and baby at their farm for a month or two and then move both mothers and babies to your place for two months. The hassle is well worth it and you will both benefit from the enjoyment of watching the babies play together.
Overcompensation is a major facet of the "Novice Handler Syndrome." the old I will show this animal who is the boss attitude. I prefer to think of myself as the teacher rather than the boss. If you prefer the boss analogy that's fine - how about being a boss of the 90's instead of the 40's. Enlightened managers, teachers and bosses know that coming on like Attilla the Hun creates major difficulties. Many trainers use the word dominance to describe how to behave around an animal. The issue of dominance is a tricky one. Humans come into an animals life as being entirely different from them and very powerful-omnipotent actually. We control everything about an alpacas environment no-question. I don't think it is a good idea to participate in dominance contests with animals. Assume you are in charge, don't feel like you have to prove it and by all means don't give away your place of preeminence by encouraging animals to behave disrespectfully towards you. Setting consistent limits, being respectful of the animal and being careful about asking too much too soon are all good ways of avoiding confrontation. Using training methods that do not rely on force or intimidation are important when training alpacas particularly the ones that are testing the water. Tying an alpaca and forcing him to submit to excessive grooming, dragging him to teach him to lead, physically holding him to put a halter on or to pick up his feet will all provoke the young animal that has decided to be physical with humans.
One last difficult issue... what about the alpaca who has already gotten dangerously aggressive. What now? Sell him to someone who doesn't know any better? Auction? Petting zoo? Keep him behind a chain link fence for the rest of his life? Once an animal learns that aggression works to make him/her feel more secure it is very hard to convince him to give it up. There are some TTEAM techniques that I share individually with people that are determined to give these animals another chance. Techniques that rely on force or reciprocal aggression usually escalate the behavior. When treated this way most alpacas will become selectively obedient to those humans that have dominated them and of whom they are afraid. Dominance is not a static thing. Just because you were dominant on Tuesday doesn't mean you get to be top dog forever, so if your approach is to dominate these guys, it would be best not to turn your back. The irony of the situation is that most people who have the emotional constitution to deal with these guys don't want to and the people who cant stand to see any animal euthanized and decide to "save" these animals don't have the inner ballast to deal with them successfully. If you have helped to produce or maybe just ended up with an alpaca who has become dangerously aggressive it might be best to take the responsibility and have him put down. In many cases this is a kindness. A quick painless end is highly preferable to a severely limited, confusing, lonely long existence.