Alpacas, the beautiful animals that roam the Andean heights surprised me as I walked this evening. It was a startling sight to see them grazing quietly in a field just a few blocks from my home in Utah. I wondered how they came to be in a pasture so close to my home, making me feel close to Peru as I watched them watching me.
The Alpaca is a member of the camelidae family, along with llamas and dromedaries. What was more surprising was finding the Alpaca and the whale share a common ancestor, as they are both even toed ungulates – or they bear their weight on the even toes like pigs and unlike horses.
Alpaca wool is known for its softness and thermal qualities. Alpaca sweaters and caps are greatly prized by those who work in cold conditions and are allergic to wool, because the fur of the alpaca does not contain lanolin. Lanolin can be a skin irritant to many people.
As I watched the alpacas graze, I wondered at their teeth. Alpaca’s only have bottom teeth, which mean the upper lip. They like to eat the tender stems and leaves of plants but are unable to chew through tough stems. Unlike sheep, when they graze, they do not pull up the plants.
Alpacas have long gestation periods (11.5 months) and give birth to one cria at a time, and also have a low fertility rate. In the Andes, they can have a death rate as high as 50% due to natural predators, parasites and intestinal worms. There were no ch’ukllas (Andean huts) placed around the paddock as there are around herds in the Andes to keep the animals safe, only a small fence.s between the two species, as the llama is much larger than an alpaca. Alpaca can grow to be almost 150 lbs
I noticed that the owners also kept a llama in the pen. I wondered if there were ever crosse, but a llama can get as large as 400 lbs. Because the two animals have the same number of chromosomes, it is possible to cross them. The foal is called a huarizo, with a llama father and an alpaca mother. The fur is longer on the huarizo, but retains the softness of the alpaca.
Asking the owners, they said they had not successfully bred a huarizo, but there is a possibility. I wondered if the huarizo would be sterile like a donkey, but then realized that because of the matched chromosomes, there is a possibility for fertility. Research is being conducted on this possibility at the University of Minnesota Rochester.
They were cute, and they were unique, but what were they doing here in Utah? I had to ask the owners how they came to own over a dozen of these beautiful creatures. They told me that they were raising them instead of sheep for the fur, and also because they were less destructive to the land than sheep. There were also several over factors that made alpaca desirable over sheep, goats or cattle. Alpacas need less care in summer as they need very little water and less care in winter because they are well adapted to the cold. They are domesticated and often can be trained to do tricks or come when they are called. Cattle must be registered with the government and given tuberculosis shots and kept on a national registry. Alpaca do not need to be registered.
My family raised sheep when I was younger. I knew that sheep were smelly and often very stupid. I was surprised at the intelligence these animals displayed. They were also quite clean, with most of the dung in a single area. I asked if the owners kept it shoveled. They told me that alpacas tend to go to a ‘dung heap’. Some alpacas can also be house trained.
There was one more question niggling in the back of my mind. We raised sheep for the wool, but we also would eat them occasionally. Was Alpaca good to eat?
Restaurant Sumaqcha in Cusco sells a lomo saltaldo made with Alpaca meet. Alpaca is eaten in the Andes, but the people who were raising the Alpaca in Utah were a little appalled at the idea of eating these creatures. “Oh, I couldn’t eat them. They are too cute. They are so gentle and have such personality!”, said one of the owners.
As I talked with the alpaca owners, I realized they were living their dream of owning livestock, working the land by raising a large garden, however they also had ‘day jobs’. She was a therapist and he worked for the state of Utah. Having horses or goats was a nightmare because they tended to escape through fences. The alpacas were happy inside their paddock, grazing and watching people, who like me, were watching them.