THE first thing you might want to know about llamas is that there is no such thing as a wild one. So just in case you were thinking of inviting one of these strange and elegant animals in through your front door, you have no need to be worried. A llama would stroll quietly down your hall and sit down carefully next to your fire. And you can be quite sure it would have no interest in eating you.
Llamas prefer leaves and grass for dinner. But it's true that some of them also like chocolate and newspapers. So if you think there is good chance of a llama visit, it might be best to keep M&Ms and the New York Times stored safely on a very high shelf. Llamas have long necks. They have good up-reach. They have special, unusually divided upper lips that are rather clever at discovering and grabbing edible things that appeal to them.
If you do not live in the high mountains of South America - in countries like Peru or Bolivia - you are more likely to come across such domesticated animals as German shepherds or Siamese cats than real live llamas. Horses and goats are much more common in most of the world.
Large numbers of llamas live in the Andes, a high mountain range in South America. Llamas like to be in herds. For hundreds of years, and maybe even thousands, they have been used as pack animals, or ``beasts of burden,'' up there in the Andean peaks, somewhere between 11,000 and 17,000 feet above sea level. They are also valued for their meat, wool, leather, tallow (for candles), and hair. They even provide fuel in the form of dried dung!
Llamas are as tame as cows, and some are much tamer. They like humans to make friends with them. It is not at all unknown for llamas to live happily indoors when people who want a ``different'' kind of pet decide to be llama owners. They take to the idea of house training quite easily. But they are larger than goats in size, so a big house might be a good idea.
Here's a surprise: Llamas are related to camels. Mostly camels are thought of as galumphing great creatures with humps that live in the desert. The humps are made of fatty tissues used for storing a reserve of water and food.
But llamas are better at climbing over rocks than proceeding slowly across miles and miles of hot sand. And the llama, alpaca, vicuna, and guanaco, which are the four related kinds of South American camels or lamoids, do not have humps. They have two agile toes with soft leathery soles on each foot, long legs and necks, tails about a foot long, and large pointed ears that one llama owner has compared to bananas.
THOUGH on the whole there are few domesticated animals calmer than a llama, these brown, black, white, or mottled animals have one effective but not dangerous defensive weapon. If they don't approve of something, they put their ears back and without any word of apology first, they spit. The best thing is to duck.
One person who has had a pet llama, Ruth Janette Ruck, was told by a zoo curator that llamas are mute. But, she writes in her book ``Along Came a Llama,'' she soon found out that her llama ``made a little mmm sound, neither a bleat nor a moo, but a quiet musical note.'' Once they became friends, her llama used to carry on ``mmmming'' conversations with her, close to her ear. She and her family even gave their llama a nickname because of the sound it made. They called it Um. Its proper name was Nusta, which is a Peruvian Indian word meaning ``princess.'' I like Um better. `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.