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Sanctuary provides home for hundreds of the furry, long-necked animals

HOT SPRINGS - Montana's largest large animal sanctuary grew even larger in May, moving from a small acreage near Polson to a full-fledged working ranch near Hot Springs.

The first residents to make the move to the new location of the Montana Large Animal Sanctuary and Rescue Inc. facility were the llamas - all 310 of them.

The llamas currently occupy 360 acres of irrigated pasture along Montana 28 four miles south of Hot Springs. All of them are visible from the highway, and sometimes traffic slows to a snail's pace past the pasture, as local folks and tourists alike gawk at the largest herd of llamas they have ever seen, or probably will ever see.

"We have more llamas than any other sanctuary in the United States - and probably the world," said animal sanctuary president Kathryn Warrington, 49.

Although Hot Springs is traditional cattle-grazing country, locals have welcomed the animals. A volunteer, retired nurse Paula Kjeldahl, showed up to tend for the animals immediately after the move, during the transition period when they were nervous in their new surroundings.

"Others have come forward, too," she said. "The percentage of helpful, kind people in Hot Springs is amazing."

"There's a lot of interest in Hot Springs. A lot of people I don't even know have come up to me and asked if they might spend a night with the llamas," Kjeldahl said.

Not all of the sanctuary's residents have arrived yet at their new home. Brian Warrington, Kathryn's husband, has been busy preparing places for them stay. A new barn must be erected and feeding and watering stations must be prepared. (The sanctuary feeds about 1,500 tons of hay a year to its residents.)

The animal sanctuary the Warringtons stated a few years ago with a few infirm horses has grown to more than 500 animals, and an annual operation s budget of about $240,000 a year, all donated by animals lovers across the United States.

The Warringtons started first in the Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana in the early 1990s, when they acquired two donkeys and a 1,700-pound draft horse from neighbors who no longer wanted them. They moved to a small acreage near Charlo in 1976, and somehow, unwanted animals kept arriving at their door, and they never turned any away.

About that time, they started discussions of formally organizing a nonprofit sanctuary. The next move was in 1977, to a larger acreage near Polson, and they formally incorporated as a nonprofit sanctuary, with all donations tax-deductible. They now are accredited by both The Association of Sanctuaries and American Sanctuary Association, and the sanctuary has kept growing.

"When we moved from Charlo to Polson, we moved 120 large animals. Now we have more than 500 to move," Kathryn Warrington said.

The sanctuary is not a breeding facility, and none of the animals are sold. All males are rendered sterile, for population control.

They do accept pregnant animals, however, which leads to some natural increase in the population.

The llamas are the first of the sanctuary residents to make the move to Hot Springs.

The remainder of the sanctuary's menagerie - 60 goats, 20 sheep, 70 pot-bellied pits, 12 emus, two bison, one deer and one elk, plus assorted dogs, cats and avian household pets will arrive as soon as preparations are made for them.

The sanctuary also has some bovine residents: one cow and three steers, including a longhorn steer trained by its previous owner to pull a cart.

"We nurture each animal with proper veterinary care, individualized diet, shelter and loving attention," Kathryn Warrington said. Ronan veterinarian Leroy Hoversland is on the board as is Wayne Hirst of Libby, an accountant. Susan Rawlings, a health-care executive from the Dallas area, is a founding member, frequent visitor and significant financial contributor to the sanctuary.

Warrington said volunteers are welcome, as are donations. (The sanctuary is a member of Montana Shares, the network of nonprofit organizations that makes it easy to donate through payroll deductions, which employers sometimes will match.)

None of the llamas can be adopted, because of agreements with llama industry organizations.

(The market for llamas is glutted, apparently, and adopting out the sanctuary's llamas might tend to depress prices even more).

But plans are in the works to have the llamas help pay their own way, by shearing them and converting the wool into blankets and other useful items, which will be sold at an interpretive center planned for the sanctuary's new home near Hot Springs.

The sanctuary has begun an equine placement program in which suitable horses, mules or donkeys may be adopted by people who have facilities to care for them.

The location adjacent to the highway gives the sanctuary much needed visibility, Kathryn Warrington said, which will help in the public outreach and education mission.

Reporter John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or jstromnes@missoulian.com.

If you're interested

For information about tours and directions to the sanctuary, inquiries about the equine placement program, or to donate time, materials, equipment or funding, call (406) 883-1823, (the Polson number), or (406) 741-3823 in Hot Springs, or write Montana Large Animal Sanctuary & Rescue Inc., P.O. Box 99, Hot Springs, MT 59845

Equipment and supplies that are needed for their new sanctuary in Hot Springs, include fence posts, corral poles and field fencing, dimension lumber, sweet feed and hay. All material must be in usable condition.

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