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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 an 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.
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.
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.