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Adjusting to celebrity after the great llama escape

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PHOENIX » Their brush with freedom was over, and now the most notorious llamas in Arizona, if not the nation, were back in their dusty backyard, peeking out of their pen with their long necks and big eyes. They were home, although their lives were anything but the same.

"There are the two jailbirds right there," Bub Bullis, their owner turned warden, said. He looked at Kahkneeta (tall and white, about 5 years old) and Laney (short and dark, about a year old) as yet another visitor leaned against the bars, angling his phone for a selfie. "Yes, I’m talking to you."

The camelid pair captured the attention of the world, or at least much of the Internet, one afternoon in February when they made a break for it after a visit to an assisted-living residence in Sun City.

Instead of politely stepping into their owner’s trailer, the llamas ran, weaved and evaded – Kahkneeta typically in the lead, Laney not far behind – as they were pursued by locals in golf carts and cooks from the residence waving heads of lettuce. Their escape became a spectacle as news helicopters hovered overhead, broadcasting images of the curious creatures looking jaunty and defiant as they turned Sun City, a retirement community west of Phoenix, into a playground for an hourslong game of tag.

"I wanted to get back into running, but that’s not how I planned to do it," said Karen Freund, Bullis’ wife.

This being Arizona, someone pitching in had a rope and the skill to lasso the animals. But the llamadrama (as the Twitterverse tagged it) was just beginning, encasing the llamas, their owners and others in a bubble of viral fame. Bullis and Freund had limousines arriving at 3 a.m. to whisk them to morning-show interviews, crowds swarmed them and the llamas on a visit to a horse-racing track, and a stream of camera crews dragged equipment into their backyard to check out Kahkneeta and Laney as they returned to life in the pen.

"For a while, it was someone here every single day," Freund said.

The situation also caught the attention of officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who contacted the owners about whether they exhibited the llamas in a way that required a license.

Bullis, 51, and Freund, 55, said they had not made a profit for showing their llamas – the appearance at the racetrack, for instance, raised money for wounded soldiers – and did it infrequently.

Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, said that, for the moment, Bullis and Freund did not face any penalties for taking the llamas out in public. "The best thing for us to do is determine whether the business needs to be licensed, and then we can discuss anything else with the owners," she said.

Laney has bounced back from the public ordeal. But Freund said the experience had gone straight to Kahkneeta’s head. Back in the pen, the llama still has a bit of defiance in her system, and she has grown distant. Freund worries she has post-traumatic stress.

"She’s a little harder to handle now," she said. "She knows if she takes off, she can do whatever she wants. She was always my llama, and now she holds me accountable for everything that happened."

The couple, both of whom retired after about 20 years with the Phoenix Police Department, were introduced to llamas about a decade ago on a vacation in Colorado. While hiking, they hired a llama to haul their lunch. They became enamored of the animal, a cousin of the camel and the alpaca. Llamas can grow to almost six feet tall and hundreds of pounds, yet they are cool-tempered, often used as therapy animals and nimble enough to handle an obstacle course, a requirement at llama shows.

Soon after that encounter, the couple got their first llama, DeBeers, who was busy on a recent morning licking a block of salt. Now, they have nine living in their backyard, the animals becoming a hobby for them in retirement.

"They’re like a potato chip," Freund said. "You can’t just have one." Each llama, she said, has a personality of its own. DeBeers, for instance, does not like to be petted, but he is a worker, content to carry a pack all day. And Glam, one of the girls? "She’s just pretty," she said, "and she knows it."

The couple took three of their llamas to the retirement home in Sun City, the Carillons, that day to see a friend, a former llama rancher who had to give up his animals when he moved there. (The third llama, Alejandro, gave up early in the great escape.) Richard Falkenberg, 83, had always loved showing off his own llamas, which he would take to fairs and events in a horse trailer he called his "llamosine." Before his wife died, he would take her favorite llamas to see her in hospice care.

"They’re just gentle and wonderful animals to work with," he said. "The first time people would feel that fiber, they would be amazed, and the llama would just stand there and wouldn’t do anything."

The Carillons has about 80 residents, most of them in their 80s, with the oldest 103. The window looking into the caregivers’ office is lined with fliers for coming events: an 11 a.m. lunch outing to McDonald’s, mah-jongg lessons, candy testing on National Jelly Bean Day. So, in comparison, llamas clopping down the hallway was a sight to behold.

"We were more excited about it than the llamas – they were calm, we were not," said Claire Mevius, 96, who carries a photo of herself with Kahkneeta in her purse. "I don’t like petting dogs and cats. That llama neck felt great. I didn’t object to it at all."

After the llamas escaped, the residents mostly followed the unfolding drama on television, occasionally looking out their window. "Excuse the expression," said Louise Johnston, 88, "but all hell broke loose."

"It was exciting, it was dangerous – not only for them, but for people," she added.

"It was something you don’t expect to see," said her friend Fran Rhudy, also 88.

Residents said that family and friends from all over called to ask about the llamas, and that, among themselves, it was the topic of conversation for weeks, one fueled by the film crews who came to interview them. (Still, some were already over it. "Are we talking about the llamas again?" one woman groaned over an afternoon game of pinochle.)

A member of the community’s writing club, Rhudy was inspired by the llamas to write a poem. A local TV station posted the piece on its website, and her friends boast that she is now a published poet:

Wow Wow Wow
Whatever do I see
A large white animal
Much bigger than me
Looking through my window
Surprising she and me!

Rick Rojas, New York Times

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