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David Templeton's Seldom Seen: A literate lover of llamas runs a library about their care

Sunday, August 15, 1999

By David Templeton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When you watch Cynthia Rossi lead a 325-pound llama named Bandit through her sun room and kitchen, then down a few steps into her laundry room, you wonder whether this lady is crazed or just an out-of-control llama llover.

 
   

Seldom Seem, David Templeton's whimsical perspective on life and times in and around Washington County, appears weekly in PG Washington.

 
 

But let her resolve that issue.

"If I had room, I'd have all the llamas in the world just come and live with me," she said. "I hug and kiss my llamas all the time and take very good care of them."

That's to say, she's an out-of-control llama llover.

But don't think this story is about llamas. This episode is about books.

Ever since reading "The Secret of the Andes" as a child, Rossi has loved llamas and books about the South American pack animals. "That book literally changed my life," she said. "When I read it, I just went wild."

She reads the children's classic every year, and keeps a copy in her office. And she still goes loopy over llamas.

The self-described "llama mama" owns 23 of the crane-necked critters with eyebrows bushier than Andy Rooney's, eyelashes more fluttering than a Mascara model's, and a smile slier than Cat in the Hat's.

Rossi calls them "aloof."

Add up all the characteristics and they resemble Kramer on "Seinfeld." Give them a poodle-cut and these South American pack-animals are happening.

Rossi calls them "new-age."

Which makes her 30-acre South Strabane farm a llama-polooza where she's fashioned a lifestyle devoted to caring for her two dozen llamas, three horses, seven cats and two "bad" dogs.

Rossi calls it "llama heaven."

But, forgive the digression. This story is about books.

For years, Rossi has devoted time and effort to help others raise llamas. She's become expert on how to raise the animals and cuts no corners in their care. Realizing the need to provide llama owners with information, she has become an official llama llibrarian.

Lliterally.

In a volunteer effort, Rossi operates the Greater Appalachian Llama and Alpaca Association's library from her home, where books, videos, magazines and other publications are mailed to GALA members on a regular basis.

Understand that the library isn't exactly housed in a facility like the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh or even Citizens Library in Washington.

"It's located five feet from my washer and eight feet from my dryer in a laundry room closet," she said. "But it's not a Philistine's laundry room. It is a literary laundry room that's tastefully appointed.

"My dogs are the only regular visitors."

That's to say her two "bad" dogs -- Mr. Patrick, the deaf sheep dog who understands sign language, and Oreo, a reporter-sniffing, tri-colored adopted collie.

"This is not your typical library," she said as if that point wasn't clear. "And I am not your typical librarian."

Duly noted.

Rossi has taken refuge in the library project after spending years battling coal companies over longwall mining beneath her farm that's left her house and barns wrenched and cracked. She said she's gladly shifted her life emphasis from longwall to llamas.

The GALA library has 134 volumes of books, videos and magazines about llamas, alpacas and other South American members of the camelid family. The library also includes back issues of Llamas Magazine, Llama Life and Llama Banner.

If you want to know how to treat, feed, raise, show, condition or enjoy llamas, Rossi's closet provides it. She has everything from a book on llama humor to technical veterinary journals full of big medical words and academic pronouncements.

"There is really dynamic information on health care, feeding, medical care, birthing and reproduction, and a collection of the best material available," she said. "I think the library is one of the greatest assets of the GALA organization."

GALA Vice President Pat Fiocchetta praised Rossi for the energy she devotes to running the library.

"I have used the library and it is excellent," she said. "It has a wide variety of books, videos and publications and the only expense is the return postage. It's great. A lot of people join GALA just so they have free access to the library."

The GALA membership is $25 a year. Rossi has cataloged the information, with help from a real librarian -- Susan Priest, director of Citizens Library. Rossi lauded her postal carriers, David Jones and Diane McNary, who have helped her develop an efficient method of sending and receiving materials.

"They've done such a superb job of supplying rural service," she said. "This is really geared for efficiency."

She provides return tabs and boxes to ship the material back to the library. Last year, she mailed 130 shipments of 338 publications and videos to GALA members. Requests that come by mail, e-mail and the telephone are shipped Priority Mail within 48 hours, and usually within 24 hours.

She said the library provides her an ideal way to keep in contact with serious llama owners. She also reads every publication so she can make recommendations to members, and advance her expertise on the animals.

Rossi, who operates a small advertising and public relations company from her home, bought her farm on May 1, 1992 with the expressed intention of raising llamas -- regal, highly intelligent and very peaceable animals.

Rossi says they are more like big cats than big dogs because they are so aloof. She said Bandit, for example, "is not humble."

She plays only classical music in her barn because the animals are sensitive to stress. They are exquisite music critics who enjoy Mozart more than Bartok. "No rock or jazz-fusion," Rossi insists.

Llamas, she said, are good therapy animals because they aren't aggressive and people enjoy working with them. They serve as pack animals, and their wool is valued by spinners and weavers. Adults weigh up to 450 pounds and sell for $100 to $20,000, depending on bloodlines.

"They are great animals to watch and very graceful, but they aren't for everyone," Rossi said. Bandit, back in the field after his visit to the library, had his ears back, which meant he was ready to spit in the eye of this cowering reporter.

But Rossi stressed that people own llamas because "they fall in love with the animals.

"They are gorgeous," she said. "People who love llamas love beautiful things."

It's all a matter of perspective. To the cultured llama librarian, the llama is a regal, intelligent, beautiful and aloof animal. To the Philistine reporter, it is a long-necked, banana-eared Kramer in a snowsuit.

But maybe I just need a few more visits to the llama library.


David Templeton can be reached by e-mail at dtempleton@post-gazette.com.



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