The total llama population of the U.S. is around 2,000, almost a third of them in zoos. Their importation has been prohibited for more than 40 years, following the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic in the 1920s. The Pattersons have orders for all the offspring their herd can produce for months ahead. Current prices range from $500 for a baby male to $1,500 for an adult female (though unpaired females are not sold). Patterson says llamas are a terrific investment—they require little in the way of care, are cheap to feed, are extremely disease-resistant, and their wool sells for about $24 a pound (sheep wool goes for 75 cents a pound). "Out of all the 4,000 species of mammals in the entire world that you might own," he asks, "which animal would you think gives you the greatest return on your investment?"
Patterson is not the sort of questioner who gives you a chance to reply. "The answer, of course, is white mice—for research. The second is the rhesus monkey, also for research. And the third is the llama. But who wants to raise white mice? And the rhesus monkey is a rough, dirty animal. But llamas, they're different.... They're clean and they're odor-free. They're lovable. Being lovable is important. Everybody who sees them automatically loves them."
It's no wonder that Richard and Kay Patterson's llamas go around with their noses in the air.