BOONSBORO -- It is cold and rainy outside. Inside it is surreal. We are somewhere in Western Maryland, standing in an old shopping mall being bumped and nuzzled by a group of 15 or so llamas.
They look like large, woolly Tinker Toys with huge, cylindrical trunks, stick legs, and proud, erect heads. They are in the middle of something called "the llama parade", in which they will exhibit themselves to their potential buyers in the llama auction that will shortly begin.
They have names like Jumpin' Jack Flash, Mamie Eisenhower Regal, and Sinatra SI07. In the program notes, one is described as "a pretty, tri-colored young lady." Another is said to be a "very petite young lady with all black wool and a white face" (being ladylike is a valuable characteristic in a llama). The notes promise that the buyer of still another will have "the opportunity to enhance your life."
Occasionally, one of the owners plants a kiss on the snout of one of the sleepy-eyed animals. To say the least, llamas and their owners enjoy an affectionate relationship.
"We have three llamas, and we'd like a hundred more," said Virginia Koser, who lives near Breezewood, Pa., and whose husband, Paris Koser, was running yesterday's auction.
"They are the most wonderful animals. They're quiet, they don't talk back to you. They're very easy to take care of financially. They don't eat much. They like the attention.They don't bite. They're gentle, they love children and they're beautiful in the pasture."
Polly Schofield agreed wholeheartedly. With her husband Jack, she owns a herd of 18 llamas on their farm in nearby Braddock Heights. Frequently, she said, she allows one of the males into the house to nibble on Wheat Thins.
"They are much easier to take care of than other livestock and a RTC lot more rewarding," she said. "They are so serene. When you come home from work all stressed out, it's great to spend time in the llama barn with them. It's a lot better than spending an hour with your therapist, a lot healthier than mixing yourself a martini."
Years ago, Mr. and Mrs. Schofield raised horses on their farm. They acquired a couple of llamas, hoping to use them as novelty to attract horse buyers. When they realized there was a market for llamas and that they were cheap to care for -- about a tenth of the cost of horses -- they decided to get out of the horse business and raise llamas exclusively. They haven't had cause to regret their decision.
"Since we phased out horses, we found out that we do not spend a lot of time fixing fences or renovating pastures," said Mrs. Schofield. "They don't get sick nearly as much as horses and cattle, and they're so gentle that they rarely get in any trouble. In comparison, they just don't require nearly as much attention."
Although llama auctions are frequently held in the West, Mrs. Schofield said yesterday's auction was only the third held east of the Mississippi. Buyers and sellers came from all over the eastern United States.
Fifty one llamas and three baby camels were scheduled for auction yesterday. If it is successful, the sponsors are hoping to make it an annual event in Boonsboro.
Plentiful in their native habitat in South America, llamas have been pets in the United States since the 1930s, when publisher William Randolph Hearst imported some. The interest in owning the animals strengthened in the 1970s.
Today, Mrs. Schofield said, American owners have registered 30,000 llamas with the International Llama Association. Another 10,000 are believed to be unregistered.
The growing interest has spawned all the support apparatus of any serious hobby. In addition to the ILA, there is another American llama organization known as the Greater Appalachian Llama Association (GALA). There are also three publications devoted exclusively to llamas -- one is called "Llama Life" -- and a number of llama conventions every year.
Still, llamas remain an oddity to most Americans. ("Do llamas lay eggs?" one of the uninitiated asked.) A steady crowd stopped by the pens yesterday to ogle and stroke the animals.
Paul Lotke, an orthopedic surgeon from outside Philadelphia, was selling two of his seven llamas yesterday. "Everyone should have a llama in their backyard," he said as he led Christie's Girl of M&M to the parade. "They are beautiful, docile, trainable, unique and remarkably intelligent."
They also, he said, have practical uses, particularly as pack animals. They can carry over 100 pounds on their backs, and because their hooves are like fluffy, bedroom slippers, they do not tear up trails like horses, making them popular with the U.S. Park Service.
Llamas are also popular for their wool, which is warmer and softer than that of sheep and more valuable. Increasingly, llamas are also seen as good investments, and auctions are advertised to banking and investment institutions. Two years ago, in Oklahoma, a male stud named Catman sold for $175,000 and a female called Mirabella fetched $170,000.
Yesterday's auction drew considerably less, with females generally going for between $10,000 and $16,000 and males for less than half those amounts. The most valuable llamas are those with pretty, fluffy coats and strong bloodlines.
Francis and Herman Harrison of Church Road, Va., came to the auction to buy a female to go with their male, Leroy, at home. Although they wanted a female for Leroy, they couldn't resist a brown and white male when he appeared on the platform. He became theirs for $2,900.
"I don't know what Leroy is going to think of this," Mrs. Harrison fretted.