While we wait for our first four alpacas to be delivered, we continue to visit alpaca farms and look at their herds. Our goal is to begin with five bred females. One of the largest alpaca farms in the country is fairly close to us. When we visit, I ask about using the fleece and mention that I am a hand spinner. The owner replies, “I think hand crafts are nice, but I’m an alpaca breeder!” This owner, I will call her Breeder B., is physically attractive and clearly smart, but has comically poor people skills. How is she selling anything? Her alpacas are beautiful, but there are so many that they all wear a number around their necks on a plastic chain. Her barn looks brand new, immaculately clean and was obviously built to impress would-be buyers. It’s like something out of “Southern Living.” I try to warm up to her but I can’t get there. I can’t imagine myself calling her for help when I need it. Tom and I decide to go look at some Suri alpaca farms.
Huacaya and Suri alpacas are sometimes referred to as separate breeds. They aren’t. Scientifically, they are more like varieties of the same breed of animal. The Huacaya has a fluffy, wooly coat, while the Suri has long, silky locks with a little bit of wave in them. Those who breed only Suri alpacas are constantly pointing out that their alpacas are more valuable than Huacaya alpacas because the Suri type is more rare. They also go on about how Suri fiber sells for a much higher price than does Huacaya fleece. Both of these claims are true, but these breeders were quoting the prices fetched by the Suri alpaca fleeces in Peru, where there is industrial-scale processing of alpaca fleeces for the fashion industry. We weren’t planning to provide alpaca fleece to some huge international market, and none of the Suri breeders we met had ever sold to the huge international market either. The prices they were quoting were not based on the anything that existed in the U.S. Only one Suri breeder showed me a processed Suri fleece, and it wasn’t one of his own but one he’d bought from a Peruvian mill.
Unlike Suri fleece, Huacaya fleece has crimp and what knitters call “memory”. It can be used to knit a close-fitting garment. Suri fiber is more like silk; better suited to drapey, dressy garments such as shawls or suit cloth; you’re not going to use it to knit warm socks or a crew neck, raglan sweater, two of my favorite things in life. Suri fleece is quite a bit harder to spin than Huacaya as well. Since I’m not a drapey, dressy kind of gal, and the snob appeal of the rarer alpaca type was not appealing to me, I end up deciding that Suri alpacas are not going to be part of our business. We go back to shopping for Huacayas.
In October, we drive up to Alpaca Farms in Pennsylvania. We have come to buy a rose gray female alpaca that we originally saw at the Great Frederick Fair. Her name is Twiggy, and she is the daintiest, most beautifully colored alpaca I have seen so far. Her coat is like soft, smoky lavender. Her owner, Bud Griffith, was one of the first people in the U.S. to own alpacas. He bought his first alpacas from a zoo and established the enviably named “Alpaca Farms” in 1986. In a business with far more new breeders than old, Bud is an old hand. In a business full of slick, misleading salesmanship, Bud radiates honesty and common sense. He is fond of children and had been particularly taken with Casey at the fair, due to her old-fashioned braids and shy manner, but he commented that he preferred to see little girls wearing dresses. He mentions his own daughter, Natalie, and how proud he is of her. She has grown up very smart and very pretty, but Bud does not approve of her boyfriend. In his gruff honesty, Bud kind of reminds me of my dad. Alpaca Farms is situated on rolling Pennsylvania hills with huge Autumn-leaved trees and a long gravel driveway leading up to a very old house. The fencing is nice but not fancy. Instead of one large barn, there are many smaller, cross-fenced fields, each with its own run-in shed. Bud welcomes us like old friends and asks us how our kids are doing. He introduces us to his sister, who happens to be a children’s author. The two regale us with fascinating and sometimes frightening stories such as the time one of Bud’s alpacas gave birth in cold weather and no one was home on the farm. The cria, still wet from the amniotic fluid, nearly froze to death outside. It survived, but the frozen tips of the ears broke off. Bud offers this story as a good reason why farms without staff should not breed for winter. In a few weeks, when we take delivery of the alpacas we bought from Lanark, I will look at the paperwork that accompanies them and realize that Latte is bred for late December. I had not thought to ask her due date; I had assumed that she was bred for spring-like Primrose. The frozen ears story will be haunting me until Latte’s cria is safely born and I have dried her off with a towel and blow dryer. Tom and I will never breed for winter.
We end up buying Twiggy but, after we agree to pay his price, Bud magnanimously lowers it. He says that he likes us and wants to see us do well. He seems to genuinely mean this. We are very moved by his unexpected generosity. Twiggy will stay at Alpaca Farms until spring, when she will be bred to a silver gray male named Allegheny. When I receive Twiggy’s registration papers, I realize that her mother was named Uhura. The fanatical Trekkie in me realizes that Twiggy was meant to be mine all along. We now own three female alpacas!
Finally it’s the first week in November and our agreed upon delivery date comes. Milt drives the livestock trailer up from Virginia to deliver Latte, Primrose, Lindy and Polo. We have alpacas on our farm! Never having imagined our lives beyond the point where the alpacas are actually in the barn, I’m not sure what to do next and I become an over-cautious, neurotic mess. The temperature is predicted to be in the 40s on this night so, fearing that the cold wind here in Mount Airy will be too much for our Virginia-bred alpacas, Tom and I lock the them in the barn with all of the Dutch doors tightly closed. My karmic reward for this silliness will involve some serious spit.
When I climb up the hill to the barn the next morning, I am unaware that Lindy and Polo have been rough housing and spitting at each other inside their pen. I happily open the top of their Dutch door, excited to see my precious boys, just in time for Lindy to duck out of the way so that Polo’s can shoot a huge wad of greenish, foul smelling goo directly into my face. My first spit! My God but it smells awful! Imagine an animal that can vomit up a bunch of half-digested grass, mixed with stomach acid and a little bit of fermented grain and turn it into a weaponized puke projectile! That will mitigate the cute and cuddly factor pretty quickly. I am close to losing the contents of my own stomach at this point, and some of this filth has gotten in one of my eyes and it burns, but I hold my breath and quickly let all four alpacas out of the barn. Then I race down the hill to the house stinking, half-blind and desperate for a shower.
“Do alpacas spit?” This is a question that I will be asked literally hundreds of times in the next ten years and it’s a very frustrating one. Yes, they spit, and yes, it’s nasty, smelly stuff but, as soon as I try to explain WHY they spit, most people become visibly disinterested. They don’t want to know the reason for the behavior. They want to write off the animals as “bad” and be done with it. Dogs bite, cats spray piss and horses kick, but most people never ask themselves why. Trying to understand the behavior from the animal’s point of view ruins the fantasy of owning a cute, fuzzy pet in the first place. I realize that I sound bitter, but it’s hard think about all the misery and suffering that animals go through to pay for our ignorance.
Locking up the alpacas inside an unfamiliar barn with new pen mates, little room to move about, and no window to even look through, was a very dumb move on our parts and guaranteed to cause anxiety. Spitting in alpacas is usually caused by anxiety, but it can also be a tactic to express dominance over a herd mate. Herd animals always have dominance issues that must be resolved and re-resolved each time the roster of personalities is shuffled. Every member of the herd must know their status in the dominance order. In addition to feeling anxious, Lindy and Polo needed to work out which one of them would be the top guy in their herd of two. Some spitting was almost a given in this situation. Alpacas should not spit at people, but they will do so if you make them feel anxious and trapped. It is also possible to get in the middle of a dominance fight. I did both of those dumb things.
There is a third, more heartbreaking reason that alpacas will sometimes spit at people, accidental imprinting. We humans insist that the key to having a docile, loving animal companion is to cuddle and handle it from the time it is very small so that it “gets used to” people. Alpacas that are over-handled at a very young age will become very friendly with people and thus very attractive to buyers, at least until the alpaca reaches sexual maturity. When these too cuddled alpacas mature, they will exhibit aberrant, over-familiar behavior towards humans. Females will usually become prone to spitting (a dominance behavior) and difficult to handle. They may invade the personal space of people or refuse to walk on a lead. Over-handled males will usually become aggressive towards humans in the same way that they show aggression to one another. They may spit, bite or ram into humans with their chests. If these males are not gelded before they reach maturity, they will usually have to be destroyed. They are dangerous to people because they no longer see people as something different than alpacas. This used to be called “berserk llama syndrome” but it should have been called stupid owner syndrome.
By the time winter arrives, we will have gotten over our ridiculous over-protective behavior, and routinely be welcomed in the early morning by the sight of our entire herd of alpacas happily cushed on the icy ground in temperatures below 20 degrees. They will only seek out the shelter of the barn in heavy rain or very hot weather. They will come to view the barn as a place to get shade and the relief provided by our huge, industrial fans.
Two days after the alpacas arrive, I get freaked out by a greenish discharge from Polo’s nose and call Milt back at Lanark for advice. Milt patiently tells me it’s fine, Polo probably has a cold, but I can take his temperature if I want to make sure he has no fever. Of course, Milt doesn’t mean that I should stick a thermometer in Polo’s mouth but … elsewhere. I have the proper thermometer, new, still in its shrink-wrapped box, but I am not ready for this step into livestock owner reality. Under the arm, the thermometer trick won’t work for this either. I make the cowardly decision to wait and see if Polo recovers on his own.
Since I have Milt on the phone, I quiz him about the feed. I am sure that I am either feeding the alpacas way too much or way too little. Milt hems and haws a bit on this one until I begin to see that he wants me to understand something without his coming right out and saying it. Large farms usually feed all of their animals the same amount because it takes too much time to figure out an exact amount of feed for each individual member of the herd, but that’s not the best way to feed the alpacas. This is not a critique of large farms, but it is an advantage that small farms have over large ones. Some animals will seem to get fat on air alone; farmers call these “easy keepers”. Others can be fed larger amounts and stay thin. Small farm owners can make adjustments in feed according to which animals have more trouble gaining weight, which is pregnant, are still growing, or just fat. They can also spend more time watching their alpacas eat. It is important to notice if one alpaca is getting bullied and is not allowed to eat its share of hay or grain. It’s also important to know if an alpaca cannot chew well and drops grain out of its mouth as this may indicate a tooth infection or other problem.
Another thing that is much easier for small farms to do is to halter train all of their alpacas. I go to the barn every day and halter up each alpaca in turn, and then walk it around the field on a lead rope. Polo is a little bit of a hysteric at first. While he dislikes the halter, he is more worried about some of the stuff that I try to walk him near. He’s terrified of the yellow tape that we use to mark the wire fence at intervals to prevent deer from not seeing the fence and running through it. Later on, I will realize that most of the alpacas are afraid of my yellow raincoat as well. Shiny yellow is not a common sight in nature; it’s weird and scary. The alpacas also hate all of my wool sweaters. They sniff them loudly and dramatically and comically shake their heads as though trying to figure out what animal I am wearing. Real wool has a distinctly sheepy smell when wet, but I did not realize that the smell could be detected by animals even when the wool is dry.
My caramel-colored Lindy seems resigned to life as a fluffy toy. He obligingly lets me halter him and he walks around on the lead. He allows me to touch his neck, lift his feet, and look in his ears for ticks. He is the smallest of the herd but he seems to have taken the top spot over his pen mate, Polo. He is less fearful by nature than Polo and he is older by a few months as well. He gazes at me with his huge brown eyes and I feel as though I want to throw my arms around him and hug him but I don’t. I try to respect his adorable, manly little self.
Primrose is a delicate, frightened flower. She squeaks when I try to put the halter on her and lifts her head skyward making it hard for me to slip the halter on. She does not walk on the lead as much as hop from here to there skittishly. Having her feet or legs touched is also very frightening for her. She requires a good deal of patience and calm on the part of her handler.
Latte is the queen of the herd. The same regal bearing that made her stand out in Lanark’s large herd of females is making her a pain in the butt at our place. She is not afraid of any tape, any halter or any thing. She is large for a female and uses her muscle to resist anything she doesn’t want to do. She will move her head sideways to avoid being haltered and, if that doesn’t work, she will turn her whole body around. She is also willing to kick if you piss her off. An alpaca’s kick doesn’t hurt like a horse’s kick, but it does sting if you get it in the thigh or the knee. The queen bee routine will turn out to be highly heritable. Latte will produce three daughters for us and all will become Queen bees of their herds. Years later other breeders will tell us humorous tales of queen bee behavior from Latte’s granddaughters.
While training alpacas to walk on a lead and allow their feet and bodies to be touched sometimes feels like a bad comedy show, it is very important for their health. If you cannot lead your alpaca back into the barn, you cannot worm it or shear it. If you cannot touch its feet, how can you trim the toenails? Like horses, goats, and cows, alpacas can become lame if their toenails get overgrown. An un-wormed alpaca can easily become a dead alpaca. If an animal is super difficult to handle, it will be too tempting for the owner to avoid performing routine care for it. Training an alpaca to tolerate handling also makes it far easier to sell. It’s pretty hard to keep a buyer interested after they have seen you run all over your own field like a rodeo clown trying to catch the alpaca they were interested in.
In a few weeks, the alpacas have begun to lose their fear of me. If I stand very still in one of their fields, they will walk near me to see what I’m doing. If they are crushed, I can usually sit down near them and hang out without them jumping to their feet to flee. When I come out holding their grain, they are more than willing to shove their faces in the bowl before I can put it down. I struggle to place their bowls far enough apart so that they cannot steal food from each other. Their dominance issues now settled, the alpacas have begun to act very friendly with each other. They will sometimes walk alongside their pen mates when I am walking them on the halter and lead. They don’t want to be separated. They even get used to my elderly Papillion dog, Sammie. At first, the alpacas screeched and fled from him, recognizing him as a predator, but they have begun to understand that he is no threat to them. They will sniff him and then ignore him.
Casey and Nick also take part in some of the alpaca feeding and training, and the alpacas treat them very differently than Tom or me. They somehow realize that these two are not adults. They will walk up and sniff the children and try to taste their sneakers or their hair. They will allow them to put their arms around their necks for a hug, something they do not want me to do. They will eat grain out of the kids’ hands but I don’t encourage this as I worry about spilled grain attracting rats to the barn.
Another question I have been asked countless times over the years about alpacas is, “Are they friendly?” and this one is also frustrating. A herd animal is not meant to be friendly to people the way a dog might. They should not beg to be petted by us or want to lie down at our feet. They will learn to trust us if we feed them and spend time with them. They will let us take care of them when they need it. We can love them on their own terms. Isn’t that enough?