Category Archives: children

Chapter 10 – Saving Cher

 

girl hugging newborn alpaca
Casey hugging cria Cher

 

January 1st of the year 2000, has come and we still have no alpaca cria born out of our girl Latte. We spend a very quiet day on the farm, checking on the alpacas every hour and recovering from a New Year’s Eve celebration at the house of our neighbors, the Rogers. Just before midnight, their son-in-law, Ed snuck down to the basement, waited until the stroke of midnight and threw the breaker, turning off the electricity. We all gasped, frozen there in the dark, thinking that the cataclysmic Y2K event, constantly predicted by the news outlets, had actually occurred! Then we all realized that it was an excellent practical joke. A quick roll call made clear which smart ass was missing from the gathering. Our laughter was tinged with relief. We had escaped the 20th century without an apocalyptic societal meltdown after all.

 

Tom and I think that Latte is acting funny. She is lying on her side lately and she seems to be humming all the time. She lifts her tail when we come near her like she is showing us something. I spend a good bit of my “free” time sitting in the dirt against the outside wall of the barn, watching the cria kick against the swollen side of Latte’s belly.  At least I know it’s alive inside her and that’s reassuring. On January 3rd I see Latte’s vulva look a little more open. I can see a bit of bright red there when she lifts her tail. Is she cushing a little more? I think she is. The weather is unusually warm for this time of year, so at least I have a break from worrying about the frozen, broken-off ear tips scenario.

 

By January 12th I am not only ogling my alpaca’s vulva but staring at her teats as well. Are they larger than normal? Could her milk be coming in? She is starting to act like standing is a chore for her, poor girl. She begins to eat her grain lying down on the ground with her long neck stretched out and her head just reaching the bowl in a posture that is both sad and comical. The waiting is starting to seem endless! Why can’t she get on with it already?

 

very pregnant alpaca eating lying down
very pregnant Latte eating lying down

 

Meanwhile, Primrose is getting far more aggressive about getting some food when I come out with the bowls for the girls. She dives her head right in and ignores me if pet her on the neck or even between the ears. Her pregnancy is moving along as well, and the desire for food is suddenly outweighing her fears about being touched by people.

 

Polo has grown much taller in the couple months that we have had him, and is now unusually leggy for an alpaca. I will later find out that this legginess is common in male alpacas that were gelded early, at closer to one year old rather than two or two and a half years of age. Polo is still a little skinny, but Lindy, who is getting the same handful of grain as Polo is now a little chubby.   He will never grow to be very tall, but he is amazingly cute, like a little caramel-colored teddy bear with huge dark eyes.

 

On January 13th, Tom runs down from the barn at 9:45 yelling that the cria was coming! He had seen Latte lying down on her side, and her vulva was completely open and very red. Of course I had just taken a shower and was all wet! I dressed and ran up to the dusty barn, wet hair and all, only to find Latte standing up and calmly eating her hay, no sign of any impending birth. I stayed in the barn watching her for another 40 minutes, but nothing thrilling happened. I gave up and returned to the house.

 

I continue checking on the alpaca girls each hour that day, and at about 12:30 p.m., I think, “This is it!” I see Latte cush and then roll over on her left side. She lifts her tail and the skin under it bulges out a few inches like there are feet pressing against it from the inside. She makes a sound like a moan. My heart is racing. I am momentarily happy that the cria will come in broad daylight with the warm sun shining, but nothing further happens.

 

More than an hour later, I am still sitting outside the barn with the alpacas. The winds pick up sharply. There is going to be a storm. The alpacas are all cushed and Sammie, the dog, lies in on the ground near where I sit. The wind turns everything around us alive. Young trees bend over and snap back, and dried leaves skitter across the ground in large clumps looking like bands of brown mice that are running through the field. Miniature tornados made up of dust and small bits of hay whirl around in the air and some of them seem to attack the alpacas. I have to shield my face from the onslaught and Sammie has decided that he’s done with this. He trots back into the barn.   A few minutes later I also give in and the two of us retreat to the house.

 

That evening the temperature begins to drop dramatically, down from the 50s into the 20s, and winds are now gusting up to 40 miles per hour. I still climb up to the barn to check on Latte every hour or so, but now I am bundled up against the bitter cold. So much for the cria birth in warm sunny weather! I lock the alpacas in at nightfall with just a couple of barn windows open for fresh air. I don’t want to find a frozen cria on one of these nocturnal visits! Of course this means extra poop shoveling for me, as the alpacas are forced to poop in their pens all during the night.

 

On January 17th I call the vet and report that Latte is now more than two weeks overdue, and we are freaking out a little bit. The vet feels that this is nothing to worry about and explains that due dates for alpacas are a pretty fluid concept. They consider any birth between 11 months and 13 months of gestation to be in the normal range. Some of this may be due to the difficulty in knowing which breeding took, but some of it is definitely a variation in gestation time between alpaca females. Some girls tend to go early and some tend to go late. The chain of anxious waiting that links me to the barn may not be loosened up any time soon.

 

The last few days have been much colder. Our pond is almost completely frozen over. There is one small, un-frozen area where the underground springs feed it, and the poor ducks are crowded together, frantically paddling around this tiny spot, trying to keep what’s left of their water from freezing. They only desert their post when I bring the corn container out and dump the hard kernels on the ground for them to eat. There were snow flurries last night, but it was too cold for any real accumulation. Around midnight, I lock the alpacas back into the barn and crawl into my warm bed. Latte seemed her usual self, so I will not worry about her until morning.

 

newborn alpaca cria
newborn alpaca cria

 

Tom checks on the alpacas at 5:00 a.m, before driving off to work, and runs down the hill to tell me that the baby has been born in the night! He leaves for work, and I run up though four inches of fresh snow to the barn. The cria is a beautiful, female. She is a rosy fawn color that reminds me of a peach, and her fleece is still damp. There are pieces of partially dried amniotic sac sticking to her face and legs. She is tall and her legs seem spindly, but she is already scampering around and seems very healthy. The broken off stump of her belly button hangs down, reminding me that I need to fill a film canister with Novalsan and dip the stump in it to prevent infection. The cria puts up quite a struggle when I grab her to do this. She’s a little fighter. I dry her off with a towel and velcro a green cria coat on her to keep her warm. She races around the pen when I let her go. I feel a brief spurt of joy. Our first cria is born and she’s strong!

 

Latte seems bewildered though. She is not nudging her cria or even very interested in her. This is bad, as the cria begins to try to nurse, and Latte seems unwilling to let her. Meanwhile, Primrose is acting like the cria is hers. She is nudging her and humming at her. She is more worried about the poor little thing than her own mother is. I am forced to halter Primrose and put her in a pen next door so that she can’t interfere in the bonding between the new mother and baby. The thermometer in the barn reads 17 degrees!

 

At 6:15, I see Latte hold very still and push, and a giant purple bubble begins to emerge slowly out of her. It grows and grows, and finally a large gelatinous mass of placenta splats onto the ground. It looks like a whole, unbroken blob with some white streaks in it. I spend some quality time trying to shove this gooey mass into a plastic trash bag without wearing it all over me. This is one of those parts of alpaca farming that never make it into the glossy ads or television commercials – placenta wrangling. I hang a sling scale onto a rafter, pass the bellyband under the cria, and hoist her up to weigh her. She weighs 17 lbs. which is a good weight for a baby alpaca.

 

I spend a few hours in the barn, only leaving to get my own offspring ready for the school bus. They are very excited about the baby and eager to tell their friends that an alpaca was born on our farm. When I return to the barn I realize that Latte is still not wanting anything to do with her little girl.  The cria tries to duck under and feed every couple of minutes but Latte kicks at her and moves away. At 10:00 a.m. I warm up a bottle of cow colostrum from our neighbor the dairyman, and then I tie Latte up and milk out some of her colostrum into the bottle as well. Neither of us enjoys this process. Latte is pissed and tries hard to kick me, but I am pretty pissed off at this point too. We have a new baby to feed damn it!

 

Alpaca teats are not anything like as big as cow teats, even when full of milk, and the motion required to get the milk to shoot into the bottle is a difficult one to master. I am frustrated because I end up shooting some of the precious colostrum on myself, but I manage to get some of it into the bottle to mix with the cow colostrum. The cria sucks down the warm colostrum as fast as she can. She seems elated to finally be allowed to eat, but in less than twenty minutes, she tries to nurse again and Latte rejects her again. And she keeps rejecting her. What the hell? This is very hard to watch. Two hours later, all three of us go through the same routine again.

 

bottle feeding alpaca cria
bottle feeding alpaca cria

 

Tom comes home early from work and Latte is still being a complete bitch to her daughter. At 3:00 p.m. he holds Latte tight up against the pen gate, I crawl under her with the cria on my lap and hold the cria up to Latte’s teats. She sucks eagerly and I can hear her swallowing. Latte tries hard to kill us both by alternately kicking us and trying to collapse her legs and crush us underneath her, but we manage to get some nursing in for the cria. I keep thinking that Latte will calm down and realize that she must feed her baby, but she is acting like the cria isn’t hers.

 

Tom chains a space heater to the side of the pen to keep the cria warm while I frantically re-read my alpaca books. The cria should nurse within six hours of the birth, or it may not receive enough antibodies to fight off infection from common bacteria. Alpacas are born with no natural immunity. They are entirely dependent on getting the antibodies that recognize the bacteria from their mother’s colostrum. The antibodies are absorbed through the cria’s gut, but the receptors that can absorb them begin to close off after six hours, and they disappear completely within 12 – 24 hours after the birth. We don’t know the exact time of our girl’s birth, but she is certainly past the six-hour window now, and I doubt the small amount of milk we have been able to squeeze out of her struggling mother has been adequate. This could turn into a fatal situation for our beautiful little girl.

 

alpaca cria in coat with space heater
alpaca cria in coat with space heater

 

I call Antoinette and tell her what is going on. She says she is going to FedEx us a homeopathic remedy consisting of Bach Flower Essences containing Star of Bethlehem and Violets and that should help, but it won’t arrive until tomorrow morning, and it will take a few days for the dose to build up. She wants to know if we have tried the trick of taking the placenta and rubbing it all over the cria to remind the new mother that the cria is hers. We did not know this trick. The placenta is now gone. It turns out that the shiny, new cria coat might not have been the best idea either. It may have changed the cria’s appearance and smell at a time when her dam was already confused. Of course THAT warning is not on the package or advertising for the cria coat.   Antoinette suggests rubbing a little bit of vanilla on the mother’s nose and the cria’s rump, which I later try to no avail. She also tells me to call the vet and ask them to do an IGG transfer on the cria. On her final point Antoinette is adamant, we should NOT end up bottle-feeding this cria! We HAVE to keep forcing the issue until the mother takes her back and begins to feed her!

 

We have well over 6 inches of snow on the ground now and the temperature will drop again tonight. I am praying that this new little life will survive. I have to think of a name for her. I cannot describe the feeling that I had when I was crouched under Latte with the cria on my lap, holding her little mouth to her dam’s teats. She was so soft and brand new and perfect, and she wanted to live so badly. I wish I could wrap my arms around her and take her to the warm house with me and hold her on my lap, but this is how berserk alpacas are created; someone wanting to treat livestock like a baby.

 

At 7:30 p.m. Tom and I perform our routine. He holds Latte immobile while I scoot under and hold the cria’s mouth to her dam’s teats. It is exhausting work to hold and direct the baby’s head all crouched down under there. My back is beginning to protest. Since her mom is still fighting us and refusing to let her daughter nurse, I put the cria coat back on. The temperature is supposed to get down to 15 degrees tonight. In between forced feedings with her dam, I feed the cria more warmed-up cow colostrum.

 

I feel discouraged that so much has gone wrong with the very first birth on our farm. While the alpaca ads claim that most crias come in the daytime between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., ours came late at night. We failed to figure out that the dam was due for winter when we bought her. Then the dam rejects her own cria and refuses to let her nurse. Where was that chapter in the book? Also, I am sick. My head aches and my throat feels like I have swallowed a burning coal. I take the night off to get some sleep while poor Tom does bottle-feeding duty in the barn.

 

Tom, bottle feeding alpaca cria
Tom, bottle feeding cria

 

The next few days are a blur. Al Rogers plows our driveway one morning because it is covered with more snow. I now have swollen glands so I begin to take a course of antibiotics that we have laying around the house, rather than waste time trying to go to the doctor. Sometimes I trudge down the hill from the farm between cria feeding sessions and don’t bother to take off my snow boots or jacket. I lie on the guest room bed with my feet hanging over the edge and sleep like that for an hour. At one late night feeding, when Latte is particularly adamant that she’d rather squash her cria than let her eat, I lose my temper and yell at her and smack her hard on the side.  Latte’s expression changes from furious to shocked. I am so ashamed of myself for losing my temper. I hate myself, but I hate her a little too.  We are locked together in this battle of cold, dirt, stubbornness and anxiety with this bright little life awaiting the outcome.

 

The vet has located a bag of plasma from a alpaca dam whose cria had been stillborn. The next day we hang it from the barn rafter so it can drip though a tube and needle into the cria’s abdomen. The cria is lying on her side, on a hay bale with a blanket over it and I am practically lying on top of her. Small as she is, it takes all of my strength to hold her down while we do the IGG transfer. This treatment costs a fortune too, but at least she will not become septic and die due to a lack of antibodies – I hope. The vet gives Latte a shot of Banamine and a shot of Lasix, thinking that pain and swelling may be making her unwilling to nurse her cria.

 

Latte has now been tied up and forced to feed her cria several times a day for several days, and I am seeing a slight change in her demeanor. She still fights like hell when she is tied up and when the cria is first scooted under her, but she seems to give up fighting after a minute and stand there looking mad. The cria is fine with this routine, but does not like the bottle as much as she once did. I have to work to get her to suck it. Sometimes I let her suck my finger a moment and then switch the bottle into her mouth quickly to fool her, a trick I learned when trying to get my own children changed over from breast to bottle. I have no idea if she is getting enough, but she is very active.

 

Life goes on. I fit my cria feedings into the rest of our activities. One morning I drive the kids up our long, gravel driveway to meet the school bus, but later, when I try to drive back up to meet their bus in the afternoon, I get the van stuck in a snowdrift halfway up the hill. Continuous use of the driveway for a hundred and some years had caused it to sink a couple of feet below the level of the corn and hay fields on either side of it. Sometime between morning and afternoon, the wind had blown fiercely through the cornfield and pushed the powdery snow from there into the much lower, freshly plowed, driveway. The snowdrift is a couple of feet high.

 

On top of getting the van stuck, I had foolishly brought Sammie along for the ride. I jumped out of the van, holding his little body against me and began to push my way through the snow, desperate to make the school bus drop off at the top of the hill. No bus driver would let two elementary school kids out alone at the top of a long driveway, in the snow, but if the kids were returned to school how would I pick them up with a stuck van? Half jogging through the snow, dog in arms, I made it to the bus stop sweaty yet on time, but there was no sign of the school bus.

 

So Sammie and I wait in the bitter cold wind and boot-chilling snow for the next 35 minutes. I am holding him against me to keep his little paws off of the snow, but he is shivering terribly in my arms. What if the school bus has slid off of the road? It does this with some regularity on the hilly, rural roads here. I can’t just leave when my children could show up any minute, but what if my elderly dog freezes to death? What I would not give to have a regular house with a front door a few feet from the street like a normal person right now! I am about to stomp over to the house down the street, at the next bus stop, and throw both the dog and myself on the unknown homeowner’s mercy when I finally see the bright yellow of the school bus approaching. My kids are home! The driver had to get around some accidents in the slippery snow, causing the delay. I am so relieved to be free of the endless, anxious waiting that I almost don’t’ mind the slog back down the hill. The kids are super-happy with their snow hike adventure, blissfully unaware of their mom’s earlier anguish. I just have time to get them settled in the house before going up the hill to feed the cria again. Farm life is not for people who value personal comfort.

 

January 22nd is a Saturday. Tom and I do the forcible nursing thing at 2:00 a.m. 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. and give the cria her bottle as well. Then I give Latte another treatment of the flower remedy. The cria has gained 1 lb.! Meanwhile I have checked the International Llama Registry for possible names and found that all of the variations of Peach, Peachy and Apricot are taken. Since this plucky little cria has fought so heroically to stay alive, through so many bitter nights, despite her dam’s mistreatment, I decide to name her Scheherazade after the heroine of 1001 Arabian Nights. We will call her “Cher” for short.

 

Desperate for some kind of breakthrough, Tom and I begin to experiment. We let Primrose back into the pen with Cher and Latte to see if it would cheer up Latte to have her friend back, and make her more willing to nurse Cher. It seemed to make no difference during the nursing ordeal, but after we untied Latte and let Cher go, Primrose acted very interested in Cher again. She sniffed and sniffed her and blew on Cher’s behind like she was encouraging her to poop. When Cher peed, Primrose got even more excited and sniffy, but then Cher tried to duck under HER and nurse and Primrose kicked out as her in an all too familiar way. Suddenly, Latte seemed interested in sniffing Cher for the first time, but still didn’t let Cher nurse. I have no idea what this all means, but based on the similarity of Primrose and Latte’s reactions to Cher’s attempt to nurse, it does seem like Latte thinks Cher is not hers.

 

Antoinette calls again and tells us not to do any more experimenting! Keep the same routine and do it quickly, but try to see if I can sneak out from under Latte halfway through and leave  Cher nursing under her dam alone. We try it and it works! It’s not like Latte is not still tied up with Tom holding her, but she is not trying to kick or smash down on Cher anymore. She’s just standing there. We have hope! Antoinette also insists that I give Cher a baby enema. This is done routinely on her farm to make sure crias pass the meconium; otherwise it can make them sick. I’m not sure about this, but I do the enema and Cher does pass a little, dark poop afterwards. I have now milked one alpaca and given an enema to another. I’m living the alpaca lifestyle dream here.

 

Over the next few days we see progress. Latte still must be tied up, but now requires a lot less holding during the nursing sessions. I can stand up soon after putting Cher under, and now I talk to Latte and stroke her, and this seems to help. Latte can’t decide what she wants anymore. Sometimes she bites my coat nervously; sometimes she leans into me and hums softly and mournfully. Sometimes she looks angry and makes a gurgley, noise like she is hocking up some chewed cud into her throat so she can’t spit it on me, but she doesn’t actually spit. She just wants me to know she could spit on me. Every now and then she rears up and throws her chest at me, just to remind me that she doesn’t have to put up with this B.S. if she doesn’t want to, and I have to jump backward out of her way. A few weeks ago I would have found this intimidating, but now I see it as an expression of frustration on her part. Latte really does not know that Cher is hers and she does not understand why we are making her feed some other dam’s cria.

 

Midnight and 2:00 a.m. in the barn are pretty weird. I feel like the only person awake in the whole world, walking up the gravel driveway in the snow, the crisp air and the moonlight. I hear animals moving and breathing all around me. Last night, I kept hearing an owl that was so loud I thought he must be very close, but I couldn’t figure out where he was. Still the moon has been so bright, and the snow so reflective, that I can see every tree branch and dark shape in the woods behind the barn. It’s beautiful and exhilarating out here. I feel like I have more in common with the wild animals outside than my neighbors, inside their warm, comfortable houses. Do any of them wonder about the life and death struggles going on outdoors in the midst of this cold, windy night?

 

On Sunday evening we finally have a breakthrough. Tom held Latte by the halter and got Cher under her nursing without having to tie Latte up. As soon as he haltered her, Latte stood still and let Cher under. I try the same thing at midnight and I am able to do it too. Latte has decided to give in and feed Cher – at least while we are there watching. We begin to believe that our feeding ordeal might end.

 

By January 25th, 10 more inches of snow have fallen and we still had not gotten rid of the last snowfall. The new storm came with howling winds and the hard-driven, icy kind of snow that stings your face. Tom drove off to work, of course. Having lived in Rhode Island for years, he refuses, on principle, to consider bad weather a reason to skip work.

 

Sammie would not go out and pee during the storm. I have to physically carry him outside and drop him on a shoveled spot on the driveway. Up in the barn at 9:00 a.m. things are looking very good. I hold Latte lightly while Cher scoots under and gets down to nursing. Latte hardly seems mad or distressed at all anymore, but she does still chew on my coat in a whiny way. Since she was being a good mom, I gave her a bowl of extra grain as a reward. She bent her head down to eat out of the bowl and Cher ducked right under her and began to nurse again. I was about two feet away from them. This is working!

 

Four feedings later I am tired and don’t know what to hope for. We got more snow. I am not sure how much, but it is over a foot, and some forecasters are saying we will get 20 inches total. Getting up to the barn is getting harder. The gravel driveway to the barn has not been pIowed yet. I have to slog my way up the hill through the deep snow. I start pulling one of the kids’ sleds up with me for each nursing session so that I can ride it back down the hill but my sledding skills are questionable. I have to roll off the sled at the end of the hill to avoid hitting our front steps or the propane tank. It’s not a graceful maneuver.

 

Latte seems to be in the holding pattern. She will let Cher nurse if I halter her and talk to her, but she still seems very stressed out. She has progressed from chewing on my clothing to chewing on the walls of her pen now. The poor gal has not been able to go outside in the fresh air for a week and she looks miserable when the other alpacas trot outside. But the snow is too deep for little Cher to walk through. Tom and I rig up, and shovel out, a small pen outside so that Latte and Cher can at least get some fresh air and sunshine.

 

cria and dam enclosure
cria and dam enclosure

 

On January 26th Latte and Cher went into the outside pen. They couldn’t go more than a few feet outside, but they had a great time out there. Cher raced back and forth and tasted the snow every few minutes. Latte just stood in the sun and looked happy for the first time since Cher’s birth. Casey and Nick came up to play, but they had a hard time keeping away from Cher and the feeling was mutual. Cher was thrilled to see these new creatures enter her world. I had to remind them frequently not to touch Cher too much.

 

alpaca cria curious about human boy
Cher curious about Nick

 

That night, at midnight, I trudged dejectedly up the hill to the barn, through the deep snow and bitter wind. When I walked inside and shut the door I saw Latte and Cher cushed together! They both jumped up when they saw me. Cher immediately scooted under Latte to nurse, and Latte stood still as a statue and let her. I can’t believe this. It finally happened! I got some grain for latte, quietly put the bowl down in front of her and left. I hated not giving Cher her usual bottle-feeding, worrying that she might be hungry in the night, but I didn’t dare intrude on the fragile, new bonding between dam and cria. I feel hopeful again.

 

Tom checks the alpacas at 5:00 a.m. the next morning and sees the same behavior, mother and daughter cushed together, then getting to their feet and nursing. I check them every few hours during the day and each time see the same beautiful, gratifying scene.

 

Sometime, during one of those long nights in the barn, I began to wonder why we only thought about buying, young, inexperienced alpaca females. Certainly the maidens are the only females we would have seen at an alpaca show. In addition to a show venue being way too stressful for a pregnant dam, no female ever looks quite so perfect after she has given birth and nursed a cria. The following year she may be gestating a cria while nursing last year’s cria. This process uses up a lot of energy that could have been used to grow a large fleece or store up some extra fat on the dam, making her more attractive.

 

It’s not possible to say with 100% certainty that choosing a dam that had already produced a nice, healthy cria, had plenty of milk for it, and had demonstrated a good mothering instinct, would have spared us the mess we lived through with Latte and Cher. It’s not unheard of for an experienced dam to get confused about whether a cria is hers, if she and her cria get separated somehow, or another female butts in too much, but this confusion is far more common in first time dams. Latte will live to have many more cria, but she will never refuse to nurse the others. In fact, she will one day take on an orphaned cria and successfully nurse it along with her own, a feat that is relatively rare in alpacas.

 

Why are humans inclined to find young, inexperienced animals more beautiful than those who have successfully produced and nurtured their young, even when the purpose of those animals is breeding? Why are we not hardwired to see signs of experience as physically attractive, especially when that experience produced a healthy offspring? It feels like Mother Nature may have gotten this one wrong somehow.

 

In my future life as an alpaca breeder, I will try over and over to convince first time buyers that they ought to choose an experienced dam, with a proven track record, to start their own breeding business, but I will end up convincing no one but myself. The next alpaca I buy will have a female cria at her side.

Chapter 5

Alpaca Research Rant

Suri alpaca with children
Casey and Nick visit a Suri alpaca at The Great Frederick Fair

Mention alpaca farming to a group of random people and several of them will immediately lose their minds and begin to rant about “exotic livestock”, “farming fads”, “pyramid schemes”, “latest market bubble” and also, “emus!” and/or “llamas!” It will be very, very unlikely that these people have experience in livestock farming, any kind of farming, or know what the end product of an alpaca or llama is. This will not stop them from KNOWING that they are right, and you are doomed if you do not heed their advice.

On the other side of the proverbial coin are those who advertise and talk about cute, fluffy “livestock investments” and encourage you to spend your retirement years raising alpacas. You will spend your golden years sitting on your porch watching your adorable, livestock investments frolic through your fields and, also, multiply exponentially causing you to become filthy rich with hardly any effort on your part.

 

Con artists and their naive followers exist in every type of business. If there is good money to be made deceiving others, someone will be willing to do it, but they can’t do it without people who refuse to do their own research. I know there are people who do not enjoy researching a new and exotic subject, but I don’t really understand them. Doing research is one of the great joys and privileges of life. It’s what separates us from the people who bought Windows ME. I’m not saying that people who don’t do their research deserve to be conned, but remember that it is the alpacas that suffer the most due to lack of research and preparation on the part of their owners, and some suffer pretty terribly.

So, while people were lining up to tell me how crazy I was, I was in research commando mode. I ordered the only three books I could find about alpacas, two of which were mainly about llamas with a little alpaca information thrown in. My favorite was The Alpaca Book by Eric Hoffman and Murray E. Fowler, DVM. It was 255 pages and published in 1995. [2] This book cost $70, and offered a great deal of scary information about alpaca diseases, parasites, infections, developmental problems and a list of possible birth defects printed in very small type, and covering one and one half pages. A thorough reading of this book would cure anyone of the idea that alpacas are adorable,

carefree “investments.”   It wasn’t all unpleasant though. The first paragraph offered a lovely, poetic view of the relationship between the Andean people and the Alpaca. I reproduce it here,

 

“Ausangate is a magnificent snow-covered peak south of Cuzco, Peru, and the legendary source of llamas and alpacas. According to legend, Pachamama [mother earth] loaned alpacas and llamas so people of the puna could survive. Since the animals belong to Pachamama, they must be well fed and never be treated cruelly. If they aren’t properly cared for, Pachamama will call them back to Ausangate and people will disappear.”

The above quotation is attributed to an “ancient Quechua legend.” Some people could read this and think only about the thrilling adventure of raising a mystical, magical animal. Others would focus on the idea that, if you don’t take good care of your alpacas, the Goddess takes them away, and you could be disappearing too! Both parts of the paragraph are important. Alpacas are a link to an ancient way of life, and raising them can feel very magical at times, but we must be committed to caring for our animals to the absolute best of our ability. A big part of that is doing the research.

 

photo of The Alpaca Book by Eric Hoffman and Murray E. Fowler, DVM
The Alpaca Book

 

I already knew that alpacas were one of four members of the South American camel family. The alpaca has traditionally been used for fleece, while the much larger llama was used for packing on steep, mountain trails.   The guanaco is even larger than the llama, and usually allowed to run wild, while the vicuña has the most valuable fleece of the four, but has never been successfully domesticated. All four can interbreed and produce live offspring. I knew that alpacas and llamas in the U.S. were not slaughtered for meat.

I was already a knitter, and a serious lover of natural fibers, both animal and plant. For as long as I can remember, I have had the habit of stroking and admiring the weaves, knitting patterns and textures of my own clothing. Thanks to my Bostonian mother, I grew up wearing wool, mohair, linen, silk, angora, camel hair and goose down.   A lot of my childhood wardrobe consisted of wool sweaters and skirts, especially Fair Isle sweaters, and plaid, wool skirts. Many of these came from thrift shops because we were not rich, and these materials can last almost forever if properly cared for. Some people would call this wardrobe style, “preppy”, but I think it was common to most New Englanders of my mother’s generation.   People who live in cold climates have to know about warm, durable clothing. When it comes to keeping warm while “breathing” and venting sweat, no manmade fiber can do what Mother Nature can do. In my research, I had learned that Huacaya alpacas (one of two varieties of alpaca) produced a fleece that is very similar to sheep wool, but not nearly as itchy as most types of sheep wool. As I had spent an entire childhood warm but itchy, it seemed that alpaca fleece and I might just be made for each other.

 

In addition to reading books, I subscribed to Alpacas Magazine as part of my research. It was mostly advertising, feel-good stories about alpaca breeding, and many photos of high fashion alpaca garments from Peru, but it had a useful article in it now and then. I read everything I could find on the website of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA), as well as the International Llama Registry website (ILR)[3]. From these sources I found out that importation of alpacas to the U.S. began in the mid 1980s, mainly from Peru, but also from Chile and Bolivia, and blood typing for DNA registration in the U.S. began in 1988.

Some alpaca breeders were fighting to close the registry to newly imported alpacas, making the alpaca herds already in the U.S. the only breeding stock available to new buyers. Scarcity of a product is key to keeping the prices high, and alpaca prices were very high in the beginning of the business. They ranged from $18,000 to $40,000 for a bred female, and even more for a beautiful male “herd sire.” Some breeders felt that the size of the U.S. alpaca herd did not contain enough genetic diversity.   Others claimed that it already had too much diversity. I was not qualified to have an opinion on this topic in 1998, but I did see many alpacas that looked more like llamas during my early years of alpaca farming. In any case, the registration of newly imported alpacas would be closed in 1999, effectively ending alpaca importation.

 

Alpaca DNA registration card
Alpaca DNA registration kit with 3 drops of blood

I liked what I had found out so far, so I went to a couple of “Alpaca 101” seminars at nearby alpaca farms. The first was run by “Breeder A.”[4], a female, ex-horse breeder.   I would meet many of these during my alpaca farm years. Horses and alpacas seem to appeal to women far more often than men, and a person who is comfortable controlling 1,000 pounds of horse will find a 140 pound alpaca very easy to handle. Horse breeders usually pay a veterinarian to find out when their mare is about to ovulate.   Alpacas are induced ovulators, meaning an open female should ovulate when she is bred. That is a very useful trait, and not one that is found in most mammals. Compared to horse breeding, alpaca breeding is far easier and much cheaper.

 

Breeder A shows us how alpaca breeders use a male to “test” the females that they want to breed, usually by penning up the female inside the barn, and bringing the male to her on a halter and lead rope. The male will get excited, begin to make a loud noise called “orgling”, and then try to mount the female. If she crouches down, bending all four knees, or “cushes” for him, she is open and ready to breed. If she refuses, she may already be bred. This refusal is not very ladylike. The female spits on the male, and what she spits is not saliva but partially digested cud from one of her stomachs. It’s green, gooey and smells like vomit. Adding insult to injury, many breeders use gelded males to test several females in a row.   Each of the females that cush may be bred to a different male; one that is carefully chosen to compliment the female’s phenotype and genetic background. Stud males should, ideally, have some name recognition from a famous bloodline and/or show ribbons and, of course, not be gelded.   The fact that the unlucky, testing gelding never refuses to try to breed females, even after he is either harshly refused, or yanked off the willing female, every single time, is a powerful testament to the strength of the breeding urge in mammals. This poor guy never gets the memo that he can’t really have the job.

It is at this seminar that I am allowed to give my first worming shot to an alpaca. Nervous about breaking off the needle, I stick it in too hard. People nearby wince and I feel like a monster. I do much better at trimming the toenails, since they are very similar to those of my goats. Breeder A. impresses upon us the absolute importance of monthly worming, especially for the Meningeal Worm. This terrible parasite is adapted to the body of the white-tailed deer. The adult worms live in the lining of the deer’s brains and spinal chords, usually without harming them. The larvae are shed in the deer’s droppings and subsequently take up residence in snails and slugs. If alpacas or llamas accidentally eat these snails or slugs in their pastures, the result is paralysis and a lingering, miserable death. Unfortunately, we had many white tailed deer in our area of Maryland.

 

I tried to pay attention to all of this vital information but the fact that it was my first time being near live alpacas made it very difficult. They are absolutely gorgeous up close. The heads of the tallest ones are still a few inches below my own height of 5’5”. The body seems to be about the size of a female deer’s but the neck is much longer and thinner.   The fluffy Huacayas look like long-legged, long necked Teddy Bears. The Suris have shiny, silky locks rather than the springy fleecy coats of the Huacayas. All have eyes are large and luminous. Their faces range from grave to serene to comical, depending on their temperament and coloring. Many are white, but some are fawn-colored, black, brown or a dappled gray. One is a brown and white pinto.

 

They seem nervous of the crowd of people there, but curious as well. Some let out an alarmed squeak when they are touched. Of course I stick my hand into a couple of alpaca fleeces when I hope no one is looking. They are so soft! There is no lanolin-type oil on the fleece, nothing but a bit of dust. There is a very faint but pleasant smell to their skin. They are nearly irresistible. It’s very hard not to buy one on the spot. Breeder A. knows this of course. That is the point of “educating” would-be alpaca owners, getting them to visit and buy from your alpaca farm first.

 

Surprisingly, a couple of hours of this seminar are dedicated to a talk by our host’s accountant. I learn about pass through entity tax write-offs, limited liability corporations, farm building depreciation, and how not to be labeled a “hobby farm”. The pass through entity was not a dangerous alien life form, but a way to reduce our income tax payments.   As Tom was keeping his job at the FDA, we would be able to write off farm equipment, barn building, fencing and other expenditures against his income, unless we ended up earning the dreaded hobby farm label!

 

If the IRS decides that a person is pretending to have a farm business, but is not really trying to make money, this business is labeled a “hobby farm.” The IRS will refuse any tax write-offs, and levy their usual financial penalties against the owners of the farm. Apparently, many people who want to own horses, cattle, open fields, orchards, grape arbors, alpacas, emus and the like, also feel that they should be subsidized in this lifestyle by having reduced taxes. They want the life of the “gentlemen farmer,” but they would also like to be able to write off some of their expenses and reduce their tax burden as if they were a real farmer. Why not breed that horse once or twice, or sell a couple of cows, and get a big tax break? Answer: because the IRS does not agree that hobby farms are businesses. In fact, the accountant warned us that the IRS is likely to audit any small farm business that does not make a profit in two out of five years, especially those containing “exotic” livestock.

 

The funniest part of the day happens when Breeder A. discusses the size and firmness of the male alpaca’s testicles as indicators of fertility, and demonstrates this by lifting the tail of one of her males and cupping his testicles in her hand. I am in awe of her aplomb. I try imagining myself doing something similar without laughing nervously but I can’t.   Catholic school has ruined my chances of being a serious-minded livestock breeder.

 

Whilst I read, visit, and read some more, Tom is doing his own research about fencing, pasture-seeding and management, barn building, livestock trailers, tractor accessories and vaccination shots. If you have to vaccinate livestock, it is very helpful to have a pharmacist in the family so he can figure out the dosages. Tom invites the county agricultural extension agent to our farm to test and discuss our soil. He later takes some soil management classes from the Agricultural Extension Office. He talks to anyone who might know something about farming, our neighbors, random guys at the Southern States Co-op, the veterinarian who cares for the goats, and the dairy farmer who rents one of our fields for a dollar per year.

 

Of course our farm research included our local agricultural fair. Since moving to Frederick County, we had always attended the Great Frederick Fair. And this fair was great in every sense. It was not a county fair, but a huge regional fair lasting almost two weeks, and including participants from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Delaware, as well as Maryland. In 1998 the fair was in its 136th year, and a new llama and alpaca show had been added to the multitude of livestock shows offered. We were eager to attend. Llamas having gained popularity in the U.S. before alpacas, there were four classes of llama handling and only one class of alpaca handling that year.

 

The alpaca class turned out to contain only one entry. We didn’t learn much about alpaca handling, but this indicated that the local market was not yet saturated, and also that this large fair was willing to change with the times and add livestock that some other farmers dismissively called “exotic” to their fair schedule. In fact, we were doubly blessed in our location because, not only did we live very near to one of the largest and most important agricultural fairs in the U.S., we also lived 30 minutes away from the largest fleece and wool show in North America, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Frederick County and Mount Airy seemed like a perfect spot for would-be alpaca breeders and fleece sellers.

 

Children showing llamas at The Great Frederick Fair 1998
Llama Show at The Great Frederick Fair 1998

Even if you do research your plans thoroughly, and have a good idea of how you can succeed, you will still have the doomsayers trying to drag you down. People buy into the idea that only those who follow the socially accepted paths to success will be rewarded, and all others will be a failure. If people refused to work endless overtime, drive in 2 or more hours of traffic per day, and rarely see their own children, all while doing a job they didn’t even love, what would happen to our society?   It’s an interesting question.

In Washington D.C. and its environs, these were just the kind of working conditions that most “professionals” put up with throughout their working lives. I wanted out of that system. I think a lot of other people did too, but it’s frightening to take the risk. If I do it, if I am allowed to give up a well-paying career to go and play with fluffy animals and keep my kids home with me, instead of at daycare, AND it turns out that I make good money, and my family has a fun adventure together, that wouldn’t seem fair to all those who stayed on the corporate treadmill. But life isn’t fair. Taking a chance sometimes pays off in a whole lot more than just money.

[2] Later editions of this book would have a much higher page count as our knowledge of alpacas grew.

[3] The ILR maintained the alpaca registration database before the existence of the Alpaca Registry.

[4] I have mostly avoided naming other alpaca breeders and, in some cases, have even changed inconsequential facts so as to hide their true identity due to the tendency of some breeders to be litigious.

Chapter 4

The Storm Comes

watercolor painting of Lewes Delaware by Tom Benson
watercolor painting of Lewes Delaware by Tom Benson

“Why?”  This is the question on everyone’s mind when they find out that you will have, do have, or have had an alpaca farm.  How do a pharmacist and a computer programmer, neither of whom have ever lived on a farm, both of whom work for the Federal Government, decide to start an alpaca breeding farm?

I was currently living on a farm, with livestock,  and a husband who wanted to start a farm business.  Tom had been researching farm options even as I planned to go back to my safe, predictable life as a computer programmer.  He briefly researched vineyards, but we were already surrounded by boutique vineyards.  He looked into aquaculture, otherwise known as fish farming, but I couldn’t share his excitement about fish.  Finally he started mentioning alpacas.  I found the idea of fluffy, pretty alpacas very tempting, but way too risky.  Investing hard-earned money and years of work while taking a chance on wasting it all?  I couldn’t see myself doing something crazy like that!  I didn’t know then that I was about to be hit with the cosmic two-by-four.

For the last few years I had been increasingly concerned about my father, Tom.  Since his name is the same as my husband’s I’ll call him Col. Tom.  He and my mother, Ruth, had retired to Lewes Delaware after a 30+ year military career.  Lewes was then an adorable little beach town with many Victorian houses, one main road, a few shops and restaurants, and a ferry terminal from which the ferries sailed to Cape May, New Jersey.  It was about two and a half hours from our farm, and I visited often with the kids.

Both of my parents grew up in the 1920’s,  during the Great Depression.  My dad had been working on the loading docks in Boston when World War II began.  He signed up to fight and was sent to Algiers in North Africa.  He sometimes remarked that, upon joining the Army, he had the experience of being able to eat as much as he wanted for the first time in his life.  

Despite being poor, my dad was an excellent student and very, very smart.  He was great at math, but he loved history, poetry and literature as well.  He was crazy about art, and dreamed of being a painter one day. He was excited to see the exotic scenery of Algeria and Tunisia, ride camels, and study the customs of the Arabs.  It was during the winding down of this campaign that my dad’s commanding officer informed him that he was nominating him to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  My dad was sent to Amherst College in Massachusetts to prepare.  The rest of his company moved on to Italy.  Most of them would die there.

No one in Col. Tom’s family had entertained the idea of going to college.  For these grandchildren of tough Irish immigrants, college was something only rich people did.  The war, and one commanding officer, changed the course of my father’s life.  He graduated from West Point with honors, and a degree in engineering.  The Army sent him to several more schools including the  famous Defense Language Institute in Monterey California.  Col. Tom ended up a PH.d.

He stayed in the Army and lived all over the world.  In addition to WWII, Col. Tom  served multiple tours in Vietnam. He had a messy dresser drawer full of commendation medals and award certificates.  During his long career he had been a paratrooper, a commanding officer, a professor at West Point, and a base commander.  He had lived in Germany, Morocco, Vietnam, Korea, Alaska, Michigan, Texas, San Francisco, Virginia, Brazil and New York.  He had traveled all over Europe, Asia, South America and other exotic locales, plunking down his easel in spare moments and painting whatever took his fancy.  He had painted canvases in Rome, Portugal, Paris and Madrid, often sporting a corny, Picasso-style beret.

Man in beret black and white
Col Tom with his corny beret looking dashing in postwar Germany

Now my dad was starting to seem confused, agitated, annoyed; a different person than the one I knew.  Both of my parents prided themselves on being proper New Englanders.  They controlled themselves in all situations, and outward shows of annoyance by either of them had been extremely rare.  Maybe most people get more cranky when they are old, but the change in my father was more dramatic.  

On my latest visit my dad had asked me several times how to work his own camera.  Each time I answered, he seemed satisfied, but later he asked the same question again.  He had recently bought his first computer but could not work it, even after I explained it to him.  This purchase especially frightened me.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that my father’s sudden desire to own a computer was because he thought it could be used to make sense of the information that his brain no longer processed correctly.  

Col. Tom’s mother had probably died of Alzheimer’s Disease in the early 1970s. We did not witness her last years or her death. We were living in Asia then.   I’m not sure her type of dementia was ever officially diagnosed, but  we knew of erratic, confused behavior that required her to have a live in caretaker for several years.    By the time of my dad’s illness we knew that the tendency for Alzheimer’s Disease is partly inherited .  I hated the idea of being the one to bring up my father’s declining mental abilities.  I didn’t want to face what might be coming, but I couldn’t live with myself if I did nothing either.  I felt that there must be some treatment that could help him.  On the first week in January of 1996, I went to Delaware to pick up my parents and bring them back to stay at our farm.  

I had spent several months trying to get my father a neurology appointment at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.  The Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, near my parents’ house, no longer offered any medical treatment for retired military personnel.  Bethesda still offered care, but it took multiple phone calls, and weeks or months of waiting, to secure one appointment and only those who lived in the area were eligible.  We had to claim my parents as  dependents of my husband, who was then active duty U.S. Public Health Service.  This stuck in the craw of my parents, who had seen their country through two wars and had been promised health care by the government they trusted, but there was no way around it. 

 My father was not yet clear on the true reason for this appointment, I had let him think it was a follow-up from a previous urology appointment, but my mother knew what it was about, and she was angry and resentful.  She had loved and admired this man for so long that she couldn’t allow herself to acknowledge what might be happening.  I wasn’t sure I could stand to know the truth either.  I felt like Pandora with my hand on the lid of the box.

We arrived back in Mt. Airy on Friday afternoon.  The fateful appointment was set for Monday morning.  The Weather Service was forecasting a few inches of snow that weekend, but nothing our 4-wheel drive van couldn’t handle.  The atmosphere in the house was tense, but the kids were thrilled to see Grandma and Grandpa. 

The snow began falling hard on Saturday morning and kept on falling.  The storm began to look more and more serious.  The weather predictions about inches of snow became a foot and then more like two feet.  Tom climbed on his tractor and started to clear the driveway.  In a few hours the snow was too deep to push and he had to lift it up in the bucket of the tractor’s front loader and throw it off of the driveway.  Hours kept passing and snow kept falling.

Tom on the tractor in the snow
Tom on the tractor in the snow

I was starting to panic.  I had exhausted most of my personal courage in bullying my parents into coming home with me to attend an appointment where we might find out that what we most dreaded had come to pass.  What if we couldn’t make the appointment now?  Would I start the months of waiting and phone calls over again?  And, what if I couldn’t convince my parents to come home with me the next time?  Was the Universe just screwing with me now?   

I worried about my poor husband, out in the freezing wind and falling snow for what would turn out to be more than eight hours on the tractor.  He had never worked a marathon tractoring session like this before.  When I had spare worrying time, I worried about the goats.  How would they get to the brook to drink if there were two feet of snow in their paddock?  Who knew when we could get around to clearing a path to their barn to check on them?

This last fear turned out to be unfounded.  While my mother played with the children, Tom tractored snow, and my father and I shoveled pathways from the house to the garage, the goats were calmly engaging in their own survival plan.  They single-mindedly walked back and forth from the goat palace to the brook, over an over, all during the storm.  They would end up doing this for two full days.  In this way, they kept a snowy corridor to their drinking water open.  Once again, the goats had proven their superiority as a species. 

Tom finally came in, half-frozen and exhausted, just as night began to fall.  The tractor was out of diesel fuel.  The Weather Service informed us that another snowstorm was approaching rapidly.  Our situation was looking hopeless.  This was turning out to be a record-breaking storm and now we had no fuel for the tractor.

Sunday morning came.  Snow was falling again, but a small miracle had also happened.  The diesel fuel fairy had visited.  One of the Rogers, our wonderful, generous neighbors, had tied a large container of diesel fuel to an old-fashioned, runner sled and sent it sledding down our driveway.  We had not called them, they guessed that we had probably run out.  We had fuel!

Tom and I decided to move our van up to the top of the long, winding driveway, a few feet from the main road.   This is something we had learned to do when the driveway might be impassable for a while.  It is far easier to trudge up a snowy or icy driveway on foot than manage to drive most vehicles up it.  Tom attaches the van to the tractor with a chain and pulls it up while I nervously steer from inside the van, trying to keep it from sliding off the driveway.  

With the van parked safely at the top, I hike down through the lumpy snow and chilly air to the house where my parents and children wait.  Tom goes back to his lonely, cold, snow removal job.  He moves a few feet forward, lowers the bucket of the front loader, scoops up snow, lifts the bucket in the air, backs the tractor at an angle to one of the snowy walls on either side of him and dumps the snow over.  He does this for almost another full day.    Sometime in the afternoon he trudges back down the driveway to the house with more bad news.  The tractor’s axle has broken.  

We now have close to four feet of snow on the ground, but the storm is finally stopping, and most of the driveway is cleared.  We might be able to shovel the rest by hand.   Tom and I climb back up, lugging our snow shovels to the spot near the end of our driveway that is not yet cleared, and begin to dig.  It is miserable work.  I am sweaty and cold at the same time and my arms are aching from the effort of lifting the snow chest high to throw it high enough to clear the walls.  Sometimes I do it wrong and some of the snow plops back down on my head or slides down the neck of my parka.  Sometimes the wind blows it back into our faces.  We make progress, but soon the sun is setting and the cold is growing.  We are not going to make it.  We head back down before the dark overtakes us.  I try to be thankful that we have not lost our electricity or our roof.  Others have not been that lucky.  The news is full of stories of roofs caved in from the heavy snow.

Our driveway after snow removal
Our driveway after snow removal

Something makes us climb back up the hill early Monday morning to assess our hopeless situation.  Another miracle has occurred.  Someone has cleared the last part of our driveway of most of the snow, then hooked a chain to our van and yanked it out, adjacent to the road.  This time our guardian angel will turn out to be the Rogers’ son-in-law Ed, owner  of the auto repair garage in town.  Tom and I slip and slide excitedly down the driveway to the house to get my father.  We are going to keep our appointment!

We will reach the Naval Hospital an hour and a half later only to find it is officially closed.  The entire government has been shut down due to the record snowfall.  Only some of the lights are on inside, and there are hardly any people around.  The huge hospital feels like a ghost town, but we find out that there is a skeleton crew of doctors on duty.    Most of them have no patients to care for.  This results in my father getting all of the necessary tests in one day.  He is seen by the neurologist, X-rays are taken.  A CAT scan is performed.  Blood is drawn, tested and the results explained to us.  The tests last for almost 7 hours.  This seems like a very lucky break for us as these tests would normally be spread out over half a dozen appointments,  but the marathon of unfamiliar testing begins to seem sinister to my father.  He becomes paranoid and agitated as the day wears on. 

By the end of the day we have confirmation that Col. Tom has dementia and the neurologist does not think it is in the beginning stages either, but the middle.  My dad has been hiding it well, but now that he is exhausted and disoriented from the long hours of testing, it is all too obvious.  We have to talk him into going home with us.  He does not trust us, especially me.  He will later come to believe that his mental problems are my fault; that it began this day when I took him to people who experimented on his brain.  He will begin to hate and fear me, even as I continue to make him appointments and take him back to the same hospital, hoping for a treatment that can stop the progress of his disease.  Eventually, he will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease but they will not find a treatment that can slow it.  

My father’s descent into madness was not caused by the terrible storm, but the two things  are forever connected in my brain.  The feeling of being trapped, cold, helpless, while the snow keeps falling and falling merges with the dread of endless waiting in the empty, dark hospital for the confirmation of something I don’t want to know.  My dad, the brilliant, brave, artistic Colonel is gone.  

It feels unfair that all this effort will lead to nothing except him hating me and believing that I betrayed him.  During the next few years I will often hope for a  magical, T.V.-movie ending where my father has a moment of lucidity and tells me, “I know this wasn’t your fault.”  This being real life, that moment won’t come.

Slowly I will begin to understand certain things.  We do our best, but we are not in control, not of the weather, not of our own fate.  Playing it safe does not make us safe.  We are never really safe.  I knew these things on some level, but since the storm, I really know them.  I am ready to take a crazy chance.  I’m ready to live a braver life.  I am ready to breed alpacas for a living.

Man and child in snow storm
Col. Tom and his granddaughter brave the storm

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Goatterdammerung!

goat on playset
Heidi goat queen of Mount Airy

Judging by the frequency with which one sees their image represented on cozy, “country” décor, ducks and chickens can be seen as charming.  So cute in wallpaper motifs and ceramic kitchenware!  Goats are another story.  Once you have gone goat, there is no going back. Nothing screams “hillbilly” quite like owning a goat.  And, if you own a goat, don’t choose a billy!

 

Our goat came as a cast off from an NRA-hat-topped, tobacco pipe smoking, rodeo belt buckle-wearing neighbor.  He informed me that he had a goat he planned to shoot, if no one wanted her, because she was jealous of his kids and kept trying to kill them.  I know he planned this statement happily anticipating my confusion and resulting horror.  Good old boys are like that; they like to get a rise out of the “city folk.”

 

Of course the “kids” in question were of the newborn goat variety.  I realized that in time to avoid an embarrassing verbal outburst, but he did get the satisfaction of my momentarily horrified facial expression.  He also got the satisfaction of unloading an unwanted goat from the back of his pickup truck into our paddock and driving off into the proverbial sunset.

 

Heidi the goat was our first four-legged livestock acquisition.  A goat is neither dumb like a chicken, nor meek like a Pekin duck.  They are technically domesticated, but in no way are they lacking in wildness.  They will obey when they feel like it because they are very sociable.  If they don’t feel like it, good luck doing anything about it!

 

Heidi was white with large, irregular, brown spots on her fur, and she weighed about 60 pounds.  Her cutesy name turned out to be the only thing girly about her.  Heidi was no demure little lass. She had a beard and horns and a big, big attitude.  She was like a small, but powerful tornado, and she loved her new family very much.

 

Casey and Nick were anxious to play with Heidi, and she was equally excited about playing with them.  She trotted right over to them, lowered her head, and quickly butted each of them in turn.  She moved so fast that it was like watching a badly edited movie.  One minute the child was standing in one spot and a second later the child appeared a foot behind the previous spot.  No actual movement seemed to occur.

 

Heidi was not trying to hurt the children, she didn’t even knock them down; she just wanted them to understand that they were lower than her.  Goats have a simplified social order based on the fact that the animal who is higher up – literally – is the one in charge.

 

This was the last time that my kids would consent to be around Heidi if she was not on a leash.  They still liked her; they just didn’t trust her.  I, being considerably taller than Heidi, had no trouble with her unless I let her climb up something and get higher than me.  In fact, Heidi accepted me as her mother immediately, and would follow me around with or without a leash whenever I allowed her to.  She often rubbed the side of her face on my thigh, scent marking me as hers.    If I sat on the ground, she would plop down beside me and allow me to scratch her between the horns.

 

pet goat with children
Heidi with her family

While we set out to build a goat barn in the paddock previously occupied by the cow, I read two books on goat care from the local library.  Both books advised that goats must never be kept alone.  They are herd animals and suffer terribly when they have no herd. Poor Heidi was living alone in a large “dogloo” dog house with only the intermittent company of her human family.  We would need another goat.

 

Tom laid a foundation for the small barn and moved an old shack onto it with the help of my brother Kevin.  He then walled off half of the shack for hay and grain storage and added a hinged goat door that Heidi could walk through on her own.  We christened it “the goat palace.”

 

A few weeks later, I waltzed into the show goat barn at the Great Frederick Agricultural Fair and stupidly announced to the teenaged girls present that I wanted to purchase a goat as a companion animal.  Never do this!

 

I knew these goats were usually sold after the goat show, but failed to realize that they were being sold for meat.  What DID I think they were raised for?  Milk?  Fancy soap? Pulling a cart with granny in it like in a Heidi movie?  I don’t know.  I am a stupid person.

 

The typical goat here has been raised by a young girl as if it were a pet.  It is bottle fed, trained to walk on a lead, groomed and fussed over.  Many have fancy collars.  All have cute names.  They are loved as pets but sold as meat.

 

A crowd of desperately hopeful little girls rushes toward me.  Apparently goats are not perceived as livestock for guys, because there are none here, just sweet little girls and the goats they adore.  I feel like I am choosing who gets a reprieve from the gas chamber at Auschwitz, but I pick one goat, refusing all others, even if those with teary owners.    I am a terrible person.

 

Our new goat has markings that make him look like a miniature Holstein cow but he is reddish in some spots.  He is wearing a pink, rhinestone collar.  His name is Cinnamax, but we  will end up calling him Max.  He is sweet and hornless and does not butt the children, but he does butt Heidi right back when she goes after him.  They race around together joyfully.  They smack their foreheads together alarmingly.  We now have goats – plural.

goats with human family
Heidi and Max

 

The goat paddock is quite large, and it was mostly made up of very large weeds.  Its fence line encompassed part of our brook, so there was plenty of clean water to drink, but very little grass.  Looking at it closely, I wondered if the cow might have been a prop used by the wily former owners of this place to make it seem more bucolic.  One cow with very little grass and no shelter?

 

I needn’t have worried because it turned out that Heidi and Max did not like grass, but loved to eat weeds.  It is not true that goats will eat tin cans as they sometimes do in cartoons, but they will eat huge multiflora bushes with inch long thorns, and they will eat these right to the ground, killing them completely.  They will eat bull thistle, poison ivy and tree bark.

 

Goats are often used to clear underbrush and weedy lots, and they will do this better than a bush hog or any other machine.  As they will only eat grass as a last option and their manure is a very good fertilizer, the paddock would wind up looking like it was maintained by a high-end lawn service.

 

Heidi, and Max could often be seen perfectly balanced on the branches of the apple trees in their paddock, happily stripping the bark off with their teeth.  We lost two nice apple trees in this fashion.

 

When Heidi escaped from her enclosure, which she did regularly, she had several favorite pursuits.  One was to climb the steps of the children’s play set and slide down the slide standing up.  Another was to jump on top of any available car, truck or tractor and do a little tap dance of glee, gaily scratching the paint.  Then she would eat any available roses, race around the pond over and over as if she were a demented track star, and end up on the back porch looking into the sliding glass door trying to find her family.

 

If you have not seen a goat in action, it would be hard for you to believe just how well-coordinated and agile they are.  I have seen Heidi race through her paddock at top speed, leap into the air with all four hooves apart like a Kung Fu master and come to a dead stop on top of her slippery dogloo. I would not have believed this to be possible if I had not seen it more than once.

 

A friend told me about a goat of hers that would race across her lawn and leap onto the outside ledge of her living room window  to tease her dogs and make them bark frantically.  And the goat would do this over and over again, landing on a 4 inch ledge, next to a large glass window without ever touching the window itself, until the dogs were mad with frustration and rage.

 

Max was equally good at escaping.  He eventually taught himself to jump a five foot stock fence by ricocheting at an upward angle off of a nearby tree.  We saw him do this.  He grew to be larger than Heidi, but he remained her second in command.  His genteel upbringing and his gelding may have accounted for his slightly calmer behavior.  He was every bit as funny as Heidi, but far less manic.

 

Owning a goat will not only make you question the laws of physics, but also your Judeo-Christian upbringing. Goats are scary smart, while sheep are famously dumb.  Sheep are easily frightened and seem unable to act independently.   Goats are exuberant, funny, brave, and very independent.  They have big personalities.  Sheep can literally get stuck if they fall over and then die within hours because they cannot right themselves.  This is called being “cast.”  Goats are survivors.

 

Why are sheep the ideal biblical metaphor for God’s people while goats are so often portrayed as demonic or devilish?  Goats express a fierce joy in daily living and a will to survive that is incredibly inspiring.  They make us laugh and they love us .  Are they sometimes a little devilish?  Well, yes.  But I’d still rather be a goat than a sheep.

 

With the goats came worming, never-ending fence repairs and trips to the farm store for straw bales and sweet feed in 50 lb. bags.  The goat barn had to be mucked out and fresh straw put down.  The goats had to have their toenails trimmed.  Our lives were getting ever more farmy.  Our friends begin to include “They have goats!” as part of our introduction to other people.  We pose with the children and the goats for a Christmas card photo but find it too hard to control two excitable toddlers, two excited goats and one remote camera.  We use a photo of ourselves on the tractor instead.

 

 

Farm family on tractor
Christmas card

 

Chapter 2

The incredible duck caper

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that persons possessing a small farm must be in want of free livestock.

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If you recognize the paraphrased first line of a famous novel above, please thank your English teacher.  (Thanks Dr. Ruth Sharp!)   Aside from the fact that I have always wanted to paraphrase that particular bit of genius, I feel it is rather fitting for our small farm situation.

There really are loads of people who feel that anyone with a cute farm will be thrilled to have their cast off ducklings, their child’s incubated chicks/science project, their unwanted cats, and even a goat or two.  We ended up with all of the above.

By 1996, we not only have the two children, but we also have an abandoned, white cat named Caspar, and a perpetually revolving cast of unwanted chickens and ducks.  I say, “revolving” because it turns out that chickens and ducks are quite difficult to keep alive on the farm.

Most of our ducks have come to us from the Southern States farm store, by way of my own sister, Beth, who suffered from a lifelong duck obsession.  Beth had moved from New Jersey to the town of Mount Airy a few years after Tom and I moved to our farm.  As she had recently divorced, and was raising three children alone, it made sense for her to move nearer to her family.

Our mother was a duck feeder.  She often took us children, to various ponds or parks to feed the ducks stale bread, but Beth was the only one of the 5 kids who would try to grab and hold the ducks.  She was often duck bill-pinched, but remained undeterred by these painful rejections of her adoration.

Having never lived in a rural setting – yet, years would pass before Beth realized that one could buy live ducklings.  After moving to Mount Airy, she began to do just that.  Beth would raise these in her bathtub, in her house in town, and dump them in our pond when they outgrew her place.

She did not ask permission for these duck relocation projects.  In fact, she was wont to show up when we were not at home so that her ducks could just appear in the pond, as if they had flown down for a stopover during their yearly migration.  This might have been credible if the ducks had not been Pekin Ducks.  Domesticated ducks do not migrate without the help of irresponsible, former duckling owners – with bathtubs that need a good scrubbing.

Pekin ducks are quite tame, and they will follow your children around nipping at their fingers and ankles on a regular basis.   I can say, from personal experience, that once human-fed – they will allow little girls to hold them and carry them about without too much fuss.  They will happily swim with your toddlers in their kiddie pool.

ducks3

However, they will also want to breed. Ducks are loud and rambunctious breeders.  The male flaps across the surface of the pond, loudly honking, in pursuit of the female.  She, is either completely unwilling, or really playing hard to get.  This behavior can go on for half an hour or more, several times per day, for many days.    This will occasion uncomfortable questions from your small children.  It is also advisable to caution your small children not to discuss this duck behavior in public.

Sadly, where there is breeding, there will, inevitably, be brooding.  The female duck will want to make a nest in which to lay her eggs and care for them.  Will she make this nest in a place where she can easily escape from predators?  No, she will not.  Duck after duck chose the same spot under the back porch.  This is a spot that makes sense only to a duck’s brain.  It is far easier for a fox or a raccoon to crawl under a porch quickly than it is for a duck.  This point was proven time and again and punctuated with the tears and sobs of small children.

By the time she is in first grade, Casey will write a memorable school essay that ends with the bitter, misspelled sentence,

 

“The fox alredy ate my duck.”[1]

 

Tom will try to build a floating raft for the ducks to take refuge upon when nighttime predators threaten them.  The ducks will, of course, shun this alien contraption.  One thing they will not shun is the overflow  drain at the far end of the pond.

Our pond was filled on one side by 3 underground springs, and it drained into a creek on the other side.  The drain was an overflow pipe that protruded slightly from the surface of the pond, and went straight down for a few feet.  It then made a right angle turn and continued about 12 feet underground before emptying into a nearby stream.

One chilly morning, I am walking down by the pond.  I have just put the children on the school bus.  The air is crisp, and I enjoy the peaceful sound of my boots crunching on the frosty grass until I hear a faint “quack quack.”  Where is this sound coming from?  All of the ducks are paddling around at the other end of the pond.

The quack quack sound repeats. It is surely coming from much closer to me than any of those ducks on the other side of the pond, but still I see no duck nearby.  At this point, its source seems almost next to me.  What else is next to me?  No!  I refuse to entertain my next thought.  “Quack quack!” Is the sound a little more urgent now?  It is coming from inside the overflow pipe a few feet away.

The pipe is too long for me to reach down into it.  It is too narrow for the duck to raise its wings and fly out of.  Is it likely that the duck brain will say, “The only way out of here is to walk down this long, dark tunnel and see what is at the end?”  No, it is not.  Will I be able to sleep at night, knowing that the duck is slowly dying in the pond drain?  Could I shoot the duck?

I run up the hill to my house and phone my sister Beth.  Soon after, I am standing hip-deep in my pond, frantically pouring bucketfuls of water through the drain while Beth waits near the spot where the pond drains into the stream.  We will attempt to fire hose the duck out of the drain.  The duck quacks louder than ever, not wanting to be washed into the dark unknown.

I pour and frantically refill my bucket and pour again.  I am cold and wet and cranky.  I keep pouring but the quack quack noise is as close as ever.  I am about to give up when the duck finally loses its footing.  It flies out of the pipe and plops into the creek with an undignified splash.  Beth is jubilant.  We have rescued her duck!  I am still cold and wet, but amazed that our Wile E. Coyote-style solution actually worked.

The lucky duck doesn’t seem aware of its dramatic salvation.  It waddles off as though nothing unusual happened.  When Tom comes home, he covers the pond drain with a small tire from a discarded wheelbarrow.

Ducks will continue to die, but some will not die before Tom and I get to doctor them a few times.  This is important to my narrative as – I feel – it reawakens a long-dormant desire in Tom to play veterinarian.

Dr. Tom always gets to clean the duck wounds and suture them.  I, nurse Kate, am supposed to hold the duck as still as possible.  This is often difficult due to the maggots that will crawl out of the wound and over my arms.  I KNOW they are not dangerous, but my brain cannot accept this without silently shrieking.  Maggots!

This could be an inspiring story of duckly devotion, but none of these ducks will end up surviving long, sutures or no.  That fox or raccoon will be back to finish the job.  Cute as they may be, animals that have been bred for food are not really smart enough to survive on their own.  Real farmers know this, and faux farmers learn it the hard way.

Will this keep us from taking on more discarded livestock? Of course it won’t.  The ducks were merely a gateway drug in the acquisition of livestock.  Next we will agree to take on a troubled goat named Heidi. Our slide down the slippery livestock slope begins to accelerate.

A few years later, my sister Beth will find herself trapped in a dark hole of sorts.  She will not be able to see the exit.  No amount of pouring on my part will be sufficient to wash her out into the sunlit, fresh air. This will turn out to be one of my last happy adventures with Beth. She will soon descend into a desperate depression and slowly, inch by dreadful inch, kill herself with alcohol. She will drink until her brain is damaged and her life is ruined. She will lose her job, the love of her children, her ability to walk and yet she will keep drinking until her heart just stops.

Think about Beth and the duck if you ever find yourself in a similar situation. The exit was there for both of them, but the choice to walk through the darkness into the unknown felt more terrifying than staying trapped in the hole. The duck was lucky enough to be forced to move through the darkness, enter the terrifying unknown, and find a miracle on the other side. Forcing another person to do the same is pretty close to impossible.

ducks1



[1] This situation will only be complicated by repeated readings of the Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.  

Chapter 1

photo spring house on farm
spring house with vine

Be careful what you wish for

 

It began with the farm. A lot of us dream of moving out to the country to live in a more picturesque, slower-paced setting, with cows and trees, and fields of corn blowing gracefully in the wind. We hunger for a place where our kids can run free with their friends and their dogs, far from any traffic or dangerous people. I was one of those dreamers. Having been raised in large cities, military bases and one “planned community”, I wasn’t sure the places of my dreams still existed.

When I was expecting my second child, my husband Tom and I began to look for a new house. I have to admit, it was my idea. We had a nice house in a very urban neighborhood, close to both Washington D.C. and Baltimore. The restaurants and shopping were good, the traffic and schools were not. So far, my tale is boringly normal. You can dismissively call it “cocooning”, label it a “white picket fence fantasy”, or blame it for the evils of suburban sprawl, but so many of us want it just the same. And, what we can’t always justify for ourselves, we want even more for our children.

We had no particular town in mind, but we thought we would look further North and West from D.C. Tom began checking the Want Ads in the Washington Post for houses we could look at. I began to look at the places my friends lived, and evaluate each one in turn. One of my friends lived in Mount Airy, Maryland. It was quite far from Tom’s work at the FDA in Rockville, Maryland and even farther from my former employer in Bethesda, but it had a uniquely charming feel to it without the price tag of the charming locales closer to D.C.

Everyone knows someone who bought a strange, questionable house because they fell in love with it. Turns out we WERE those people, the ones other people use as a cautionary tale. And it would only get weirder as the story went on.

We cluelessly told our friends, “Were not ready to move, we’re just going to start looking.” We planned to look at many different houses and neighborhoods, and comparison shop. We planned to have lists and maps and pros and cons. We would do this methodically, logically. As John Lennon once wrote: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I think some of our friends might still be laughing at us.

The first house we looked at was the one listed in the Washington Post. It had four bedrooms, was all brick, and was located in Mount Airy, Maryland. The size of the lot was not mentioned in this advertisement. The F-word (farm) was certainly not mentioned in this advertisement. One can only admire the cunning of a person who would list a 25-acre farm with a 100+ year-old house as, simply, “all brick house” in a real estate ad. He knows the land all around the house is lovely. There is a cute pond with overhanging trees, a bouncy brook full of small fish and bright stones, fields of golden hay, apple trees, and a paddock with a real cow in it. It’s like a postcard from Amish country. Why not make people drive out and see it before they cross it off their list?

While I was the one who wanted this quieter life for the children, I was not looking for a place like this. As I was imagining getting up the long, curving, steep driveway in winter, Tom was imagining the tractor he would “have to” buy. While I tried to drive thoughts of small children floating face down in ponds from my head, Tom was entertaining thoughts of the monstrous garden he could have in the spring. As I walked here and there, shaking my head at the thought of a well, Tom was asking the owner how many “outbuildings” were allowed. I was pregnant with child number 2, warily looking at a house with no closets, air conditioning, dryer or nearby neighbors. Tom was falling in love. We moved in the weekend before Halloween in 1993.

Living on a beautiful property in the country was more amazing than I could have imagined, but a lot harder as well.

Picture us a few years later. We now have two children, a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. We have added a clothing dryer to the house and an air conditioning system that kind of works. We still have no closets. We realized AFTER we moved into this old farmhouse that there was no trash pickup. I am driving with two small children to the dump once a week. It makes me feel guilty to see that huge mountain of trash at the landfill and know that I am contaminating the earth with my trash. It was easier when the trash magically disappeared in a truck from the end of my driveway.

Our television receives one channel, and only if it is not windy. This explains the tall, ugly, metal towers that loom over so many pretty, white farmhouses. A regular antenna is not going to do the job way out here. We have dial-up Internet, but the speed is so slow that it almost doesn’t feel worth it. There is no cable out this far from town, and Satellite Dish Internet is prohibitively expensive.

Move a plant and you can usually expect it to suffer and struggle to grow again, sometimes for a couple of years. That is often the case with people too. It’s silly to expect to feel “at home” when you change homes, even if you have moved many times before. It gets harder as the years go on. I know I am lucky to have a solid roof over my head and a lovely place where my children can be free to run, play, yell, throw rocks, pick dandelions and splash in the creek, but living in the country is an adjustment.

Tom still goes to work at the same job he had before he had children. I am the one whose life is now lived out on this farm, in this town, where everyone else seems to have friends and family nearby. I believe that living here, in this quaint town, on this pretty farm, is right for my children, but it doesn’t always feel right for me. I miss having a job with a salary and a title. I felt smart and important then. When we signed the contract on the farm, I had to write “housewife” on the documents; “mother” is not a job title as far as our legal system is concerned. I’m terrified that I will be unemployable when I finally try to return to work. I’m terrified that my marriage will break up and I will have to work at Burger King for the rest of my life. My children will be embarrassed by me and ask me why I didn’t “work” like their friends’ mothers.

These fears are something I cannot share with others. I will only sound spoiled to those who had no choice, or judgmental of those who made a different choice. So I share this only for the sake of those who chose the same path as me. Doing what is right for yourself and doing what is right for your children are two different things. If no one else in your whole world appreciates the sacrifice you made, just know that one other person does.

Casey and Nick are thriving here though. They can run and play as much as they want. They nap when they are tired, eat when they are hungry, talk when they want to, even yell and scream – outside. They are not yet trapped in a schedule where outside time is doled out in tiny increments called “recess.” They have no interest in watching television or going to the mall.

We are surrounded by wildflowers. I have a wildflower guide that I can use to identify some of them, but others are more mysterious. I quickly learn not to ask the locals, “What flower is this?” The answer is, invariably, “That’s a weed.” Apparently real farmers do not believe in the concept of wildflowers. That only leads to Disney-like naiveté regarding nature. Next comes the Bambification of deer, which are like large, furry rodents to real farmers. They eat your corn. Enough said. Wildflower guides are for yuppies.

In any case, my children are in love with wildflowers. They pick them for hours a day, often to bring to their appreciative mother. How nice it is to have an endless supply of beautiful gifts all around us! Of course this leads to problems when we visit people who have proper gardens. It is hard to understand why those flowers cannot be picked at will. A few years later I will attend a pasture lecture at the Agricultural Extension’s demonstration farm site. When no one is looking, I will take small pieces of two plants marked “WEEDS” on signs with angry red lettering. I will re-plant these on purpose when I get home. One is a Japanese Honeysuckle vine; I planted it along the fence line for its divine fragrance. The other is a Trumpet Vine. It will grow right up the brick face of the house to Casey’s room on the second floor, and, from her bedroom window, she will see the hummingbirds feed from the red flowers.

But, for now, Casey and Nick are still outside, picking flowers, throwing rocks and whacking things with sticks. This last behavior will elicit shocked outcries from other mothers when my kids are invited for a party or sleepover. People whose children are allowed to watch violent movies and television shows will wonder at my terrible mothering choices. Sticks and rocks! Why can I not see how dangerous they are? Remarkably, no living creature is ever harmed by this lapse in judgment on my part; or, almost none. Nick and his cousin Tommy will decide, a few years later, to see what happens when they whack the nest of some paper wasps with a stick. Nick will then learn that older cousins, even adored ones, are not necessarily smarter than paper wasps.

As of yet, we had no plans to go into the alpaca business. We had no plans to have a real farm at all. (See John Lennon quotation above.) I blame this change of plans on two things. One of these I call “the slippery livestock slope.” The other was a personal tragedy.