When Colleen Weaver wants to relax, she pays a visit to four close friends.
Or rather, they pay her a visit.
All Weaver has to do is walk down the hill from her rural Douglas County house to a small pasture and take a seat in an old wooden swing. Moments later she is likely to be surrounded by four llamas, Desi, Sable, Boots and Domino.
"When I'm by myself, they'll just come up and hover around me," Weaver said during a recent interview.
"Domino used to walk up and put her nose right up against mine," Weaver said.
Weaver and her husband, Jim, who is deputy fire chief with the Topeka Fire Department, live about a mile west of Big Springs near U.S. Highway 40. They are among a growing number of llama owners in this area and nationwide.
Although it is unclear how many owners are in the Douglas County area, there are several, Weaver thinks. She bought her first ones Desi and a male named Ricky about three years ago after attending a llama show in Topeka.
"I just loved them and wanted some," Weaver said. "They just have such great personalities."
Cindy Merritt couldn't agree more. She and her husband, Gary, raise about 30 llamas on a farm near Lecompton. They breed llamas and sell them.
"We got interested in them because they are the type of animals you can raise on small acreage," Cindy Merritt said. The Merritts own 10 acres. "They are very easy animals to train, and they are so gentle. They are great with children."
Though no information is readily available about the number of people who own llamas, there are an estimated 1,800 of the animals in Kansas and 100,000 of them nationwide, said Susan Peterson, president of the Golden Plains Llama Assn.
Peterson, who has her own llama farm near Easton, said the Golden Plains Assn. has about 70 members in Kansas and other states.
Some llama owners sell the wool from their animals, which is used much like a sheep's wool. People who are allergic to a sheep's wool can usually wear the wool from a llama.
Yet neither the Weavers nor the Merritts have their llamas sheared for the wool.
"We just keep them as pets," Weaver said.
The Merritts sell their llamas but always keep enough on hand to replenish their herd. Cindy Merritt described the llama market as "steady."
"We've always been able to sell what we wanted," she said. "We've never had to take any to an auction. We also know what type of people we are selling them to."
Llamas, which are related to the camel, are mainly high-altitude mountain animals often used as pack animals in South America. Because of their curiosity, they are likely to approach anything or anybody near them and thus can be good security guards, owners say.
In captivity, llamas generally live to be about 20 years old and on average an adult weighs about 250 pounds, owners say. The animals are fed brome, alfalfa and certain special feeds.
Known for their gentleness, llamas will emit a slight hum, when happy and content, similar to a cat's purr. But they also can be fierce and nasty if so moved and can attack an enemy by giving it a good pounding with their hooves.
But that didn't help Weaver's favorite llama, Ricky. In mid-March, Ricky was attacked and killed by two boxer dogs. Jim Weaver used a big stick to drive the dogs away but it was too late, Colleen Weaver said.
The dogs, covered in blood, fled north across U.S. 40 from the Weavers' farm before disappearing. Searches by the Weavers and the neighbors along with Douglas County Sheriff's deputies proved futile. The dogs appeared well-taken care of, and the Weavers don't believe they were strays.
Ricky already had one close call with death. In the summer of 2000, he became sick because of the constant, triple-digit temperatures that hit the area. The Weavers, along with help from neighbors, were able to nurse the llama back to health.
"That made it doubly hard to accept," Colleen Weaver said of Ricky's death. "Ricky was my pet."
Those wanting to buy a llama can spend just about as much as they want, depending on what they want to use them for, Peterson said.
A llama used for a pet could be as cheap as $500. A show llama could cost anywhere from $6,500 to as high as $35,000, Peterson said. Prices also vary depending on breeds and a particular animal's looks, stature and disposition.