I had decided that my stargazing, herding culture would herd alpacas instead of sheep. Just to be different and because I’d read they were very intelligent and social. Sounds like a nice group for my very philosophical, regretful culture who are looking forward to the day they can redeem themselves from a genocide and get rid of the resulting curse.
Why just read about things when I can go and see them for real? So I looked up Alpacas in my area and found Blue Moon Ranch and made an appointment to visit.
Being mid April, I ran out with just my jacket at first, but decided to throw my coat into the car as well. It was, after all, a good 45 minutes into the mountains. And sure enough, the further I got into the mountains the snowier it got. When I got there, Linda, the owner, met me with “Welcome to Winter.” Apparently, there are only a couple of months up there when it never snows.
The Utah high altitude environment is excellent for the Alpacas, who come from the Andes in Peru. They are hardy creatures, used to deserts and mountains but still able to live well in more temperate and humid zones. So they’re tough, but they’re also timid.
As soon as Linda lead me into the barn where they were hanging out, the animals scattered away from us. They are very intelligent, but are also pretty much defenseless. In the animal world, they’re the small but clever kid that is always being bullied by the bigger kids. They’ve learned to avoid situations where they might get eaten. But they didn’t run away entirely. They knew Linda, the guard dogs clearly liked me, and I was being careful not to be threatening.
And that’s kind of hard because as soon as you seen an alpaca, the first thing you want to do is run up and cuddle it. They have large, soulful eyes and teddy bear faces on graceful, slender necks. Their soft fleece comes in lots of colors. Every face is different and recognizable. Each one of Linda’s herd of about 70 alpacas responds to their own name.
Linda had treats. But even so, calling their names and offering her hand, it took them awhile to approach. But they did, and soon I was also feeding them. The whole snuggling business is still out of the question though. Unlike our cats and dogs, which are predators, these creatures mostly interpret touch from anything they don’t see as another alpaca as threatening. And you don’t want them to see you as another alpaca because they do have their own social system which simply isn’t workable with us.
For instance, they like to chest butt. And if they think you’re an alpaca, they’ll want to play this game with you, and you’ll always lose. They may also try to chase you, and are more likely to spit at you. So if a young one starts snuggling, it’s the owners job to never snuggle them back and even push them away. If they see you as not an alpaca, but as someone who is familiar and a provider to them, they’ll still be friendly but not agressive. And it will be a lot easier to get them to do the hard things in life like getting into a halter and being sheared.
Their fleece is the primary reason to keep alpacas. Once they were more okay with me being in there, Linda split apart the top layer to reveal the beautiful, clean fleece underneath. They don’t shed, and it is spring so there was a nice amount of it. The lovely golden fibers were soft with finely waved, making it fluffier than wool, which in practical terms means it can keep you warmer. The natural traits of the protein fiber tend to repel water as well. And it is lanolin free so you don’t have to wash that out before spinning it.
This makes raising alpacas a very practical thing to do. Especially if you already love the fiber arts. But it’s also a very peaceful labor. These animals, though not snuggly, are very affectionate and friendly creatures. They make incredible, very attentive mothers. And they have a wonderful memory. Linda told me a story of one mother who, after being seperated from a daughter for several years, happened to be back together on Blue Moon Ranch for breeding. They ran to each other immediately in a grand family reunion. They’ll do the same with humans they’ve befriended too. As Linda said, we can learn a lot by watching them.
Even if you’re too far away for a visit, you can still watch. Linda has a cam set up at the barn, pointing either out towards pasture or near the overhang where they like to be.