Lecompton — A car stopped at the side of the road here Sunday, and a little boy hung his head out the window to gawk at the 60 llamas relaxing in Gary and Cindy Merritt's front yard.
"That happens all the time," Gary Merritt said, waving to the visitors. "We love it when they stop and look."
The brood is a rare sight there are only about five llama farms in Douglas County but it may not be so unusual in a few years, the couple said. They have been raising llamas for five years and sell them locally as pets, protectors, laborers and sources of wool.
And the Merritts are not just selling llamas; they are trying to garner respect for the oft-scorned animal. They'll have an opportunity to further their cause at Douglas County 4-H Free Fair's first llama show, set for 7 p.m. Wednesday.
"We want to spread the good word about llamas," said Cindy Merritt, superintendent of the llama show. "They have a bad reputation, and most of it is not based on facts."
A common myth is that llamas are mean, spitting animals.
"They'll only spit if they are attacked it's a defense mechanism," she said, as her sons, ages 9 and 11, pampered two yearlings.
In fact, llamas are becoming popular pets because of their docile nature. They also are easy and inexpensive to care for, Gary Merritt said. Each of his llamas consumes 6 pounds of hay per day.
"Llamas are by far the best creature, and we've raised everything," he said. "They've got the most unique personality and lowest maintenance."
Care of the llamas has become a family project. During the school year, Cindy Merritt does most of the care-taking, but in the summer, her boys take over many duties.
The most challenging task is to prepare the animals for show, she said. Training begins once the babies are weaned. They must get used to human touch useful when they are adults and have to be sheared and to obey commands.
Eight youngsters, including the two Merritt children, will compete in the 4-H llama show. Contestants will walk through an obstacle course, where llamas must perform tasks such as jumping a bridge, standing outside a circle as their owner walks inside and posing for a picture.
Matt Merritt, 11, said he enjoys training the long-necked creatures.
"They're nice animals," he said. "I like them a lot better than cows."
While Matt doesn't have a favorite, his brother Ethan, 9, favors Peruvian Pizzazz because "it's the only one we have that's full Peruvian."
All 60 llamas are registered and have names, such as My Eye Shadow, an auburn female who will bear children when she matures, and Godspeed, a strong yearling chosen to become a stud upon reaching adulthood.
The Merritts know each one by name.
"Llamas get to be like family," Cindy Merritt said. "They have their own names and their own personalities. You learn how to deal with them as individuals."
Though many people treat them as pets, llamas are highly functional. Farmers purchase them to ward off canines. Others buy the animal for its soft coat, which is free of lanolin, an allergen in sheep's wool.
Area nursing home residents also enjoy petting and learning about the Merritts' llamas on pet days at the homes.
The South American ruminants aren't surging past the bald eagle in popularity, but Kansans are certainly warming up to the beasts of burden, Cindy Merritt said.
People are willing to pay as much as $67,000 for llamas, Gary Merritt added. While some go for as little as $200, the average llama fetches $5,000 to $6,000.
Business has been good for the Merritts this year, but the rewards are more than financial.
"I think raising llamas has helped our marriage a lot," Gary Merritt said. "As a family project, it's something we can share and talk about. We make a great team."