Popularity of alpacas as livestock growing

Teddy bear hair

Posted: Sunday, January 21, 2007

SHAWNEE, Okla. — With a look on their faces that’s somewhere between curious and mischievous, alpacas are darlings of the barnyard.

This immigrant from South America is the latest in livestock, an animal that is prized for its fleece, not its meat.

Alpacas take center stage in Shawnee this weekend with the first Alpaca Blast-Off. Hundreds of furry-faced creatures will strut their stuff in halter competitions and obstacle courses, and products sewn from their fluffy hair known in ancient times as “Fiber of the Gods” will be on display.

The event is the brainchild of area alpaca owners, who wanted a wintertime event to showcase their animals, said Karon Storm, who raises alpacas at her acreage in rural Choctaw.

Storm got her first alpaca in 1995, a pregnant female that started her herd. Alpacas are animals she can take care of herself, she said, and something she could enjoy as she looked toward retirement.

“I thought they were wonderful-looking and so cute. They are a very gentle, nonthreatening animal. They were livestock I could handle,” she said. “You don’t have to kill them to utilize them. You shear them and show them.”

Storm now keeps about 18 alpacas, give or take a few, and they come in a range of colors from white to brown to black and every pattern in between. Storm raises the huacaya (pronounced wah-KI-ya) breed of alpaca, which accounts for 90 percent of all alpacas, she said. They’re known for their teddy bear fluffiness, while the suri breed sports dreadlocks.

The backbone of the alpaca industry is the fleece, which is used to make a variety of products, Storm said. She shears her alpacas every April, garnering 2 to 5 pounds per haircut, and sends most of the fiber to a cooperative that fashions socks, sweaters and more. Alpaca fleece is lighter yet warmer than wool, plus it’s hypo-allergenic because it doesn’t contain lanolin, she said.

“It’s like cashmere but not as itchy,” she said.

Alpacas also are easy to halter train and can learn to master an obstacle course, Storm said. She starts working with her baby alpacas called crias when they’re 3 months old. They’re intelligent animals that can usually become acclimated to a halter in one day, she said. With more training, alpacas can learn to jump hurdles, walk through tires and over a teeter-totter, she said.

To top it off, alpacas have an attitude that’s mostly pleasant.

“They have a personality that’s like a cat. They’re friendly but a little bit aloof,” Storm said. “But the more you work with them, the friendlier they are. They do spit at each other, and if you’re in the line of fire, it’s too bad for you.”

Alpacas are from the camel family and are smaller than their cousin the llama, Storm said. Alpacas are native to the Andes Mountains, particularly Bolivia, Peru and Chile. Besides their unusual appearance, they have other unique characteristics. Alpacas are induced ovulators, which means the female doesn’t release an egg until after breeding, Storm said. This allows the alpaca to be bred anytime. Gestation is 11 1/2 months, and the mother often gives birth in the morning hours. That’s an instinctual carryover from when animals gave birth at high altitude and needed the whole day for the baby to dry off and warm up, she said.

Alpacas are basically a defenseless animal, Storm said, so owners have large dogs to keep the coyotes away. Alpacas also don’t like people to reach straight toward their heads, for another reason rooted in instinct.

“A lot of prey species are like that. Coming at their head startles them because predators like big cats would jump at them from trees,” she said.

And alpacas are small enough to be quite portable. When it’s time to go to the veterinarian, smaller alpacas can be loaded into a van or SUV.

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