Estephania Palacios and her children pose with Caesar the No-Drama Llama outside a fireworks stand in northeast Salem. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
Caesar craned his neck toward a group of children, then bent down for a hug.
The 4-year-old llama was curious but calm on a recent afternoon as dozens of strangers approached him to take photos, touch his neck or simply inquire, “Is that a llama?”
“He knows the pose. He just knows the routine,” said his owner, Larry McCool.
Caesar, also known as Caesar the No-Drama Llama, has been a fixture at Salem-area events since last August, when McCool started taking him out in public regularly.
Since then, Caesar has marched with teachers for a rally at the Capitol, posed for photos during First Wednesday, celebrated Easter at the Deepwood Museum and encouraged people to take public transit at a Cherriots event.
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Many of his appearances have a progressive bent to them, but McCool said his goal is furthering community.
“What we’re trying to do is to give back to as many people, as many causes to benefit as many people as possible,” he said.
Caesar also serves as an ambassador for his species, dispelling the myth that llamas are ill-tempered. McCool said the first question nearly everyone asks: “Does he spit?”
“I tell people all dogs can bite, but all dogs don’t bite. All llamas can spit but they almost never spit on people,” McCool said. That’s especially true of Caesar, who McCool said has never spit on anyone.
McCool began farming llamas on a small farm in Jefferson in 1996, after attending a local event about the South American animals.
“I just fell in love,” McCool said.
Caesar nuzzles owner Larry McCool at an event. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
It was the middle of a llama boom in Oregon, when people were paying tens of thousands of dollars for a single animal, McCool said.
Prices have since gone down, though Oregon remains home to a large population of llamas - at 2,400, it’s behind only Texas, Colorado and California.
Marion County is home to about 175 llamas, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture census, with another 50 in Polk County.
Llamas are primarily used for their fiber, which is lighter and warmer than wool, and they can also work as pack animals and guard livestock.
Raised on a farm near Dallas, McCool was no stranger to agriculture. His parents made a living off their pigs, cattle and sheep, and his brother is a dairy farmer. McCool wanted to raise his kids on a farm, but didn’t have the space for a large operation.
“With five acres you can’t really raise cows,” he said.
He was drawn to llamas because of their temperament. They’re social animals that pay attention to surroundings and interact with humans in a way most farm animals can’t.
“Llamas always have something going on - they’re always attentive, always aware,” McCool said.
He bought Caesar as a breeding llama when the now-famous animal was 18 months old. Caesar’s father is full Argentine, a more rare breed of llama in the U.S., known for abundant, silky fiber and big legs.
Caesar, right, and owner Larry McCool pose for photos with educators at Salem's #RedforEd rally on May 8, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
When McCool first brought him to the state fair, he saw the way 2-year-old Caesar interacted with strangers.
“I’ve never seen a llama that has the temperament that he has,” McCool said. He was calm, even after hours, willing to let people touch him.
McCool began taking him out in public more.
At events, McCool holds Caesar’s lead and introduces him to people, asking if they’d like to take a photo.
His latest engagement was outside the fireworks stand in the parking lot of the Fred Meyer on Lancaster Drive. It’s a fundraiser for Pole Gems, a Salem nonprofit church that reaches out to adult entertainment workers.
McCool and Caesar stood outside the tent to draw people.
Caesar yawned several times (McCool explained he was tired from working the World Beat Festival the previous day), but was otherwise eager to meet curious people who wandered over. They included parents with young children, older teens and at least one senior citizen.
“Is that a llama? I’ve never seen one in real life,” exclaimed one passerby.
Caesar poses for a photo with a passing child at a recent event outside the Pole Gems fireworks stand in northeast Salem. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
Caesar’s foray into politics came after Caesar and McCool met Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess on the sidewalk.
Burgess, who was then running for county commissioner as a Democrat, invited the llama to his campaign kickoff in September.
“He brought more people in the door,” Burgess said. “We continued to use the llama in our campaign because it was just so great.”
At the campaign event, McCool met Ariel Knox, who offered to become Caesar’s social media manager. McCool didn’t know how to create a Facebook page or Twitter account for Caesar, so she set up his accounts and now helps manage Caesar’s events.
Knox takes photos of people meeting Caesar and posts them to his Facebook page, where she styled him “the no-drama llama.”
Caesar’s fame skyrocketed in February after a photo of him riding the MAX in Portland went viral, leading to local and national news coverage and a clarification from TriMet that llamas aren’t allowed on public transit.
A Trimet tweet following Caesar's viral appearance on the MAX in February 2019.
“He’d done it many times before but this one got noticed on Reddit,” McCool said with a shrug.
Since then, he’d had a nearly full schedule of events, with several engagements a week. The team has started turning down some requests for Caesar because they don’t have time.
He thinks people are initially curious because of Caesar’s looks - a pristine white coat that takes two hours of grooming before each event. But many find they like the personality.
“Llamas love interaction,” McCool said. “I think that’s what people are drawn to - the social nature of the llamas.”
Burgess said walks with Caesar during campaign events inevitably went slowly because people would stop and ask to pet or pose with him.
“It’s such a delight just to see little kids and how excited they are,” Burgess said. But his appeal extends beyond children.
“I think he’s just a great symbol of peace, love and harmony that we really need today,” Burgess said. “Something to help bring us all together.”
Owner Larry McCool walks Caesar to greet new friends in the Fred Meyer parking lot on Lancaster Drive Northeast (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
Caesar’s support team is currently planning a birthday party for him Aug. 11 at Willamette Town Center, complete with multilingual story time for kids and an appearance from Princess Perfection Corvallis.
For his birthday, Caesar would like “school supplies for his two-legged friends,” Knox said. They'll collect donations for the Salem-Keizer School District.
In spite of his public life, most of the time, Caesar lives a llama life on the farm, McCool said. He doesn’t do tricks, and McCool won’t dress him in costumes.
And though he’s made his name as a therapy llama, he’s still a sire. McCool bred him several times this year and is hoping to have two or three Caesar babies come next spring.
Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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