The Alpaca

The rare Alpaca is a charming and valuable member of the camelid family, first found in recorded history in the high mountain regions of South America. For thousands of years, Alpacas have co-existed with humans. The Incan civilization of the Andes mountains gave the animal a central place in their society, using Alpacas in religious ceremonies and clothing themselves from their fleece.

For several thousand years, the Incas domesticated and selectively bred Alpacas to produce a surprisingly large array of colors and a very fine, dense fiber. During this time, Alpaca fiber was virtually a secret from the rest of the world. Garments made from Alpaca fiber were reserved for royalty. Peasants caught wearing Alpaca clothing were punished, sometimes even killed.

In the 1600's, when the Spanish conquistadors invaded South America, Alpacas were pushed to higher elevations because Spaniards wanted available grazing lands for their beloved merino sheep. However, in the mid-1800's, Alpaca fiber was "discovered" by Europeans when an English textile merchant, Sir Titus, realized its marvelous qualities. Some of these qualities continue to make Alpaca fiber sought after by today's high fashion industry. It is also prized by spinners and weavers all over the world.

Alpaca fiber is stronger and several times warmer than wool, with an incredibly soft, supple touch and a wonderful fineness which crafters desire. The fiber is semi-hollow, making it very lightweight while possessing a thermal warmth unlike other natural fibers. Alpacas come in 22 distinct colors so that the fleece can be blended to produce an infinite array of earth tones. It also can be dyed to produce the marvelous bright or soft colors valued by current fashion trends.

Today, 98% of the Alpacas in the world live in South America, mostly in Peru, Argentina and Chile. The first import of alpacas to the U.S. was in 1983. In spite of two recent importations of Alpacas from Peru, they remain a rather rare animal with just about 5000 in the U.S. and about 7000 in Australia. Canada, New Zealand, England, France and Japan also have small numbers of Alpacas.

Alpacas live to be between 15-25 years old. They are smaller than Llamas, standing about 3 feet tall at the withers with a long, graceful neck and thick, woolly fiber all over. They typically weigh 100-175 pounds and give birth once per year to one baby, called a cria. Crias can usually stand and nurse within the first hour after birth and often frolic around the mother's side that soon. Infant mortality is very low with a gestation period of 11 months.

The U.S. market includes an excellent array of livestock with bloodlines from stock from several countries. Young males of superior quality begin to breed around age two and one-half. Females may be bred as early as 15-18 months old.. Alpacas are not aggressive animals. They warn each other if they feel crowded and will even spit at another animal if their space is violated. They rarely act aggressive with humans and are not known to spit as frequently as do many of their camelid cousins. Foot stamping and kicking are other aggressive signals but generally Alpacas are quite peaceful and easy to handle.

There are two types of Alpacas: huacaya and suri. The huacaya survives at impossibly high altitudes in the Andes mountains of South America. Their fiber is crimped and fine, giving these animals a woolly appearance. Their 22 shades of color delight spinners and weavers the world over. In Peru, animals have been selectively bred for about 50 years to select for white color and very dense fiber coverage with strong conformation. These huacaya are somewhat distinctive looking and are referred to as "the Peruvians".

 

Suri are the other type of Alpaca. They are usually white and are different from the huacaya in that their fiber has no crimp, giving them a very fine, silky fleece. Some say they look like they have dreadlocks. In talking with different ranchers, one will say that Suri are more affectionate and loving toward their caretakers once they are settled in, while another rancher will discuss with great fondness his or her preference for huacaya. Buyers shopping for their first animals should pay attention to their own emerging likes and taste.

There are few natural health problems and diseases. This is largely due to the stringent importation requirements which have been maintained by the U.S. and to the closed registry of animals in this country. The registry of Alpacas is unique to this breed, in that every animal born in the U.S. is registered and its genealogy can be traced. By specific blood typing, it can be determined with a high level of certainty which herdsire is a cria's father. The American Alpaca community of breeders has worked to maintain high standards to encourage diverse breeding programs which maintain high quality animals with increasing fineness and density of fiber while working to eliminate poor genetic flaws, such as weak legs or protruding teeth.

A number of veterinarians have specialized in Alpaca health care. Major research on Alpacas is being done at the University of California at Davis, CA., at Oregon State University and Colorado State University. Veterinarians are often owners themselves once they discover the joy people experience in caring for these delightful animals.

In spite of the Alpaca's delicate appearance and gentle disposition, they are hardy animals which adapt to nearly any climate and require very little special care. They are earth friendly animals with clean habits and a wonderful natural curiosity. Alpacas make a variety of sounds such as clicks and snorts but are best known and loved for their humming. They make this humming sound in a variety of situations such as when separated from their herd, when one female gives birth, the other pregnant mothers may hum to the delivering mother and new cria, and when grazing, they hum in different tones. If you are thinking of owning an Alpaca, you may find that it could be an excellent financial investment as well as opening a door to wonderful pets. But do not plan on just getting one. They are social animals and may stress if isolated from their species mates.

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