Demystifying the alpaca

Posted Tuesday, Oct. 08, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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They are creatures of mystery, alpacas.

Cousins to the llama, they are beautiful and intelligent animals native to the Andes Mountains in South America, more notably Peru, Bolivia and Chile.

But Americans are still learning about them, even though they were introduced to this country nearly 30 years ago and there are now more than 160,000 of them registered throughout the United States.

For that reason, National Alpaca Farm Days took place the weekend of Sept. 28-29. Alpaca breeders from across the U.S. and Canada invited the public to visit farms and ranches to see the animals up close, learn more about them, and appreciate them.

Locally, McPaca Ranch and DJ's Classic Alpacas participated. Activities included demonstrations of spinning alpaca fiber, feeding, and the chance to pet them and get to know them up close.

"I love the little kids who are not sure they should trust any animal, then they touch one and that sucks them in," said Ray McDonald, owner of McPaca Ranch with wife Laurie. "You see the kids grow right before your eyes."

Spinning wheel demonstrations took place at both ranches. Also, anyone who wanted to could connect with the creatures, even having their photo taken with them.

"We had a wonderful weekend. We brought some of our animals up so people could meet them nose-to-nose," said Jim Conkle, who, along with wife Debbie, owns of DJ's Classic Alpacas. "Alpacas greet nose-to-nose, and that's how some will greet people."

"When you have that nose touch your hand, you find out how soft it is," said McDonald.

There are two types of alpacas in the U.S., and though both are almost identical, what distinguishes them is their fur. The Huacaya is the more common and has a fluffy, extremely fine coat. The Suri is more rare and has silky fiber.

Adult alpacas stand about three feet tall and generally weigh about 150-200 pounds. They have no horns, hooves, claws or incisors. They are social animals, often alert, intelligent, curious and predictable.

"Alpacas love kids. They're about the same size," said Conkle. "I've got twin granddaughters who will be 6 in November. They help with the animals.

"We had a couple of adults who were afraid of animals, but they got up close to the alpacas and were very comfortable. It's impossible not to love these animals."

Along with being cute, alpacas are also "green." They are good for the environment, even eating undesirable vegetation. Their fur actually repels dirt, it is so fine.

"They're soft, small and clean," McDonald said. "There's virtually no smell. We actually sell their manure (it's great fertilizer for growing fruits and vegetables).

"They're like a human in size, not a 1,200-pound cow. Plus, you need seven acres for one cow, but you can have seven alpacas in one acre."

Long ago, alpaca fiber was reserved for royalty, and it is still considered luxurious. They are shorn, without harm, every 12 to 18 months.

Alpaca fiber is sometimes compared to cashmere. It's luster of silk makes it even more coveted, it is just as warm while only a third of the weight of wool - and it comes in 22 natural colors.

It is also hypoallergenic, meaning folks who might be irritated by other fabrics such as wool can wear alpaca without itching. Travelers also prefer it because it is wrinkle-resistant.

"We had some samples of raw fleece so people could see it," Conkle said.

A weaver also was on hand.

There were and many facts shared with visitors.

"It was quite interesting the questions some folks had," McDonald said. "What is that? Why do you do this? Do they bite?

"No, they don't bite.

He saud some people wondered about raising Alpacas themselves with a ranch they owned or awere wanting to buy.

“I can understand why, they are magnificent creatures," McDonald said.

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