Do They Spit?
Article Written by:  Tracy Otterness

"Do they spit?"

Almost every time I have a conversation with someone new to alpacas, that is the first sentence out of their mouth.  Often, it isn't even a question.  Sometimes it is more of a statement of fact such as, "Theyíll spit on you!"  To answer the question simply, it is a factual, "Yes".  Alpacas can spit very well and have great distance and accuracy.  If they gave Olympic medals for spitting, they would surely get one.  However, I believe the answer is much more complex than a one word answer.  It deserves a little discussion.

First, lets consider why I always hear this question.  The reason as I see it is that the vast majority of the public has limited interaction with alpacas.  This exposure most likely took place at a petting zoo, a drive-through safari or maybe even a regular zoo.  Alpacas in these environments are on display for the public and are therefore subject to the pokes, pulls, jeers and taunts of who-knows-how-many people each day.  I like to refer to alpacas as "arms-length" animals.  By this I mean that most seem to enjoy being near people, but they donít care to be mauled.  

After only a very short time under these circumstances, an alpaca will resort to any defense mechanism at his disposal.  His only natural defenses are to run away, or to spit.  In the confines of a petting zoo, he soon learns that running away is futile.  He will only be pursued.  Therefore, he spits.  Even if people have not seen or experienced this scene in person, there are several home video programs on television that seem to play clips of these confrontations continually.

I remember hearing a wise man refer to this particular alpaca behavior in this way:  He said, "I have dogs and I have alpacas.  I donít mistreat my dogs and they donít bite me.  I donít mistreat my alpacas and they donít spit at me."  I find this to be a very accurate comparison.  While some alpacas who have been ill-handled may always have the tendency to spit at people they are afraid of, I have heard of many that were reconditioned to be comfortable enough around humans that they no longer spit without provocation.

I must concede that I find humorous the sight of someone who deserves it, wearing some green "accessories" courtesy of an annoyed alpaca.  The problem with this is the bad image and reputation the alpaca gets with all the witnesses of the incident.  They are quick to forget (or not even realize) the transgressions of the human involved, but the thought of being spit on is burned into their memories.  

While the following example is about a llama, it relates directly to alpacas.  Once, I had some llamas at a festival to promote public awareness of camelids.  At the time, they were tied to stakes on a baseball outfield.  My wife noticed that a man about thirty-five years old had grabbed one of the llamas by the halter and was handling him (not too gently) all around the head and also around the rump area.  I made my way to the two of them as quickly as possible and warned the man that if he continued to treat the llama in that manner, he would surely be spat upon.  He was completely amazed and indicated that he thought he wasnít doing anything wrong.  I explained a little bit about llamas and their body language and the man went along his merry way.  

Less than an hour later, he was back.  This time, he was taunting, challenging and jumping at the same llama.  When I noticed him, I wanted to let nature take its course.  My wife (who typically has better judgment than me in these situations) reminded me of the publicity implications.  This time as I approached, I asked the man if he truly wanted to be spit on.  I told him if that was his desire, he should go back to what he was doing before, and the results would come quickly.  I coaxed him to do it as an educational experience for the people who had gathered so that they could see the consequences of mistreating a llama, but he declined.  In this case, it wasnít just his lack of education concerning llamas that was the problem.  Many times, that is the case.

Pictured above:  Alpacas are very curious and gentle animals.

While it takes special circumstances for an alpaca to spit at a human, it is a normal and common behavior for them to spit at each other.  There seem to be three different intensities of spitting that they employ in their daily interactions with one another.

1.      Mostly air and a little bit of moisture.

2.      Mostly moisture and a little bit of air.

3.      A big, green glob of half digested goo.

These seem to correspond to the level of agitation being experienced by the alpaca that decides to deliver.  One reason for spitting is to show dominance in establishing a pecking order between herd members.  It is a very common occurrence at feeding stations so be careful not to put yourself in a position to catch some blow-by or be caught in a crossfire.

Another common instance where spitting is seen is in mating.  The pregnant female uses this as a method to indicate to any approaching male that she is not receptive.  She will "spit him off" if he makes any type of attempts at breeding with her.  Many breeders use this behavior as a form of pregnancy test.  While it is not as definitive or as accurate as some other methods, it is a fairly reliable test.

SoÖ there you have it!  Yes, alpacas spit.  However, they are not the malicious spitting machines they are portrayed to be and they are not going to hunt you down to try to spit on you for no reason.  Treat them reasonably.  Respect their personal space.  Study and learn their individual signals and body languages.  These are gentle and curious creatures.  Consider all the circumstances if you do happen to find yourself on the receiving end of one of these encounters and donít be too quick to blame the alpaca.  Above all, rememberÖÖÖ.






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