Anesthesiologist plays llama mama

Dr. Melanie McMurry admits having "a thing" for llamas since childhood. Growing up in Colorado, she remembers begging her dad to pull over every time they drove by a house or farm where she spied one of the wooly animals.

Today, the successful anesthesiologist breeds, trains, sells and shows her own llamas - 27 of them to be exact. And if Salsa's Red Hot Chili Pepper, Empress Zoe, Collage or Ella Belle strut their stuff well enough, she and her husband, Michael Brooks, could bring home a grand national champion from the country's top llama competition in Lincoln, Neb., this month.

A 1990 graduate of Southwestern Medical School, Dr. McMurry squeezes in time with her llamas - as well as assorted horses, goats, chickens, turkeys, ducks and soon-to-arrive pregnant alpacas - between her regular responsibilities at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. As an assistant professor and director of regional anesthesiology, Dr. McMurry teaches residents and medical students, supervises nurse anesthetists and anesthesia assistants, and provides anesthesia for patients.

Kokopelli, the couple's 10-acre farm 35 miles outside of Albuquerque, provides a welcome retreat.
"Even after I've been working all day at the university, to come home and throw out hay for the animals is heaven," Dr. McMurry said. "It's very relaxing."

Dr. McMurry and her husband moved to Albuquerque for the "mountains, snowboarding and skiing." They bought their first four llamas in 1997 and eventually decided to start a business, offering llama hikes.

"When I first went to work for the University of New Mexico, there was a critical-care specialist in my department who had llamas," Dr. McMurry said. "He hiked with them - which became my excuse to purchase them. Instead of backpacking, you llama pack. The llamas are on a lead and carry packs with your gear, so you don't have to carry the weight. It's a lot more enjoyable.

"Now we also do commercial hikes for customers - usually going about three or four miles to a scenic area in the middle of nowhere and having lunch."

The couple also provides llamas for public relations activities at schools and special events, as well as trains them to show around the country. In October, five of their llamas qualified for the nationals based on regional scores awarded in Denver.

"There are two categories we can enter when we show them," Dr. McMurry said. "One is like a beauty contest, which is what our llamas will be in. The other is a performance contest, which is extremely competitive and includes going through an obstacle course."

One of the most difficult things about raising llamas, surprisingly, is coming up with a name for them, Dr. McMurry said. If they are registered llamas, as hers are, their names cannot duplicate any other llama in the registry.

"You have to search the database to make sure your name is different or at least spelled differently," she said. "I like to research the background of names and give my llamas names that fit them. But sometimes it's hard."
Salsa's Red Hot Chili Pepper has a red coat and his father's name was Salsa. Ella Belle was named after Dr. McMurry's grandmother. And Empress Zoe's name came from a Babylonian ruler.

Do the llamas know their names?

"A lot of them do," Dr. McMurry said. "But they don't always come when you call. Llamas are like cats. They come to you if they feel like it; but most of the time they don't feel like it.

"They're not affectionate like dogs and horses. They're more aloof and stand-offish," she said. "But they're also very curious. And once you halter them, they are very intelligent and easily trained."

In addition to her duties on the farm and at the university, Dr. McMurry is working on a master's degree in agriculture education.

"I wanted to learn more about agriculture issues, as I've become the unofficial agriculture expert in my department (at the university) because I have a farm," she said.

In the meantime, she and Mr. Brooks continue to enjoy the eccentricity that often accompanies raising llamas.

"We usually transport our llamas in a stock trailer," Dr. McMurry said. "But if we're only taking one or two, we often load them in our mini-van. It's great fun to drive through towns and see people go nuts when they see the llamas looking out the windows at them. I can't even count how many times we've watched people in our rearview mirror dialing their cell phones. I can only imagine their conversations!"