FERGUS FALLS, MINN. -- The llamas grazing on Jan and Gene Wells' farm are lovable and lucrative, two reasons the shaggy creatures are becoming popular pets and prized investments.
"In lots of ways, they're the perfect animal," Jan Wells said. "They don't bite, they don't kick. The only thing they do is spit a foul-smelling cud, and they do that mostly among themselves."
Llamas are one of the hottest investments in the 1980s and have become a status symbol for some, said Brad Smith, an assistant professor of veterinary medicine at Oregon State University.
"The return on investment is remarkable," said Smith, who directs a llama research program.
Llamas, long-necked and humpless cousins of the camel, sell for as much as $80,000 and could break $100,000 soon, he said, adding that the reason for their sudden popularity is a mystery. There are about 20,000 llamas in the United States, mostly in California and Oregon.
"Llamas are incredibly curious, superinquisitive animals," he said. "A lot of people would have a hard time spending $20,000 for a pet, but for others, they're perfect."
A sign reading "Llama Crossing" greets visitors at the Wellses' llama breeding farm, called Horseshoe Valley Llamas, just south of Fergus Falls in north-central Minnesota.
The couple's 25 llamas take shelter in a red barn and can roam over 22 acres just off Interstate 94.
The Wellses' baby llamas pull carts in local parades and make outings to area nursing homes. "They're real social animals. They'll go right up to their face. They just love it," Jan Wells said.
The llama business is becoming increasingly lucrative, the couple said.
"It is our main source of income," Gene Wells said. "There's a good market for them and the profit is very high."
The females start out at about $6,500, but a high-quality female can sell for more than 10 times that, Jan Wells said. The males usually start at about $500, with the females fetching higher prices because they are the producers, she said.
The Wellses spend about $1,500 a year on feed and medical expenses for their herd. "So the expenses are very minimal. Whatever you're taking in for the most part is profit," Gene Wells said.
"The types of people that buy them are someone who's looking for a little extra something to do. Maybe they're going to retire, maybe they've got a few acres and a couple of extra buildings," Jan Wells said.
Minnesota has between 25 and 30 llama breeders, said LouAnne Hanson, president of Llamas of Minnesota, which was organized this fall.
"Some want the novelty of the llama; others want to show them; some want the wool," said Hanson, who operates Lu-Lu's Llamas in Lake Elmo. "Some want them as an investment or to use them for pack animals."
The llamas, whose coats can be black, gray, white, brown or any combination, are natives of South America and were raised to be pack animals and for their wool.
Sweaters, blankets, hat and mittens are some of the items that can be made from a llama's thick, shaggy coat.
Most of the llamas in North America are found in Northern California and Oregon, where they are at home in the mountainous areas, Wells said.
"Backpacking is their most common use in the United States, mostly in the mountains out west. They can carry one-fourth to one-third of their body weight," Jan Wells said. "They're not skittish like horses can be. Llamas are real laid back."