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Donkey vs. Llama for Pack Animal

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In addition to being the hot new animal in the rural and suburban pet parade, the llama is a comer on the backwoods trails. Touted as more eco-friendly than traditional pack animals such as donkeys, horses and mules, llamas are gaining popularity with backcountry day-trippers, hunters, forest rangers and even the Special Forces.

On the Trail

Donkeys have hard hooves that cut into the earth and make noise when they walk. Llamas have soft, padded feet that do less damage and are virtually silent. They are less vocal than donkeys and make only low humming sounds. Llamas are calmer than donkeys and frequently have better manners. Highly people-oriented, llamas seem to actively participate in the wilderness experience and can alert trippers to the presence of wild animals, including potentially dangerous ones like cougars and bears.

The Scoop on Poop

What goes in must come out, and llamas are thrifty in both directions. They can browse in the wilderness or eat food they have packed in, but they need less of either than donkeys. Their digestive acids sterilize weed seeds, which means less potential contamination with non-native plants. Llama leavings are small pellets similar to deer droppings rather than the larger "road apples" donkeys deposit, but poop is poop and should be policed and buried or scattered. Llamas have a tendency to "make" in or near water, but alert management can minimize this.

Lay My Burden Down

Donkeys outdo llamas in sheer weight packed. A trained pack llama can carry about a third of his body weight, which usually means 50 to 100 pounds of well-balanced load, including pack saddle and panniers. A donkey can carry about 30 percent of his body weight, so the size of the donkey determines its maximum load. A big donkey can carry a small human, but no llama can carry a rider bigger than a small child. Overload a llama and he'll quit on you, refusing to budge or even lie down until the excess comes off.

Taking a Ride

Moving donkeys long distances requires at least a pickup truck or even a trailer. Llamas, on the other hand, can be coaxed into almost any vehicle, from a convertible to a minivan. U.S. Special Forces using pack llamas discovered that they could be trained to "cush" -- lie down -- or take a sitting position and ride in a Humvee, where a donkey couldn't possibly go.