It turns out when The Baby Alpaca store opened up in Shoppingtown Mall sometime while I was in high school, it was part of a coming trend in the United States.
In fact, there was a boom in alpaca ranches in the late 1990s and early 2000s—but not for their fibers, specifically. For breeding.
And then, just as quickly as it came, it went bust.
I never even heard of alpacas until The Baby Alpaca opened. But at that point, my only exposure to farm animals had been at the Great New York State Fair. And I don't recall seeing any alpacas there.
Over the last several months, I've fallen in love with a couple of llamas—a species whose name is often used interchangeably with "alpaca," even though they're quite a bit larger, and used as pack animals as well as for their wool.
I was looking for a llama farm, but I found an alpaca ranch—and one that welcomed visitors, whether they were in the market for buying an alpaca or not.
Some alpaca ranches, like Sweet Water Alpaca Ranch, welcome visitors merely interested in "alpaca culture." Sign me up.
Like llamas, alpacas are incredibly sociable—a herd animal that's curious about and friendly to humans.
At Sweetwater, the females were particularly frisky.
One of the black ones spat at me. Not accidentally. At me, intentionally. I kind of loved it.
It's hard not to think of these alpacas as pets. They're so cute.
But they are a business. They are sheared once a year, their fibers sent out to be spun into yarn.
The ranch's owner, Cecilia, then takes the yarn and knits it into beautiful scarves—the softest you've ever felt.
The main business here, though, is breeding.
Three babies were born this year, from one stud (kept in a separate pen).
Cecilia knows the lineage of every single one...
...who begat whom, who came from whom.
It's an interesting study in genetics, when two black alpacas produce a blonde one, and a blonde and a black one produce a black one. Recessive genes in action.
The new babies can't be separated from their mothers for at least six months...
...so the youngest alpaca anyone would probably purchase here would be a year old, though as long as they're good quality and still of breeding age, they're valuable.
The boys, like Mozart the white one, are kept in a separate pen to keep them calm...
...and to control their breeding behaviors.
But there are two boys who don't get along with the rest of the boys, so they've been separated into their own pen.
As sweet as they look, they don't get along with each other that well, either, but it's easier to deal with two male alpacas fighting each other than two fighting a bunch of other males.
As feisty as they can get, these sweet things would be defenseless against the coyotes and mountain lions that wander through the Santa Clarita Valley hills, if it weren't for Cecilia's big ol' guard dog, who assumes his night watch position and takes his job very seriously—especially when there are new babies. He won't even let the other two dogs near them.
Anyone can visit Cecilia and her sweeties on a Saturday by calling ahead. And when you're there, you can buy some of the softest socks you've ever felt, or a beautiful scarf hand-knit by Cecilia, in the same colors as you see in the coats of her alpacas. (You can also buy them online.)
All in all, it seems like a nice life, living with alpacas. They're fluffy and adorable. Sure, their sharp teeth need to be filed down, and their toenails need to be trimmed. But even when one of them gets a featured guest role on a popular TV show, she doesn't get an inflated sense of ego. She comes right back down to earth, and is happy to frolic about the ranch and eat her daily hay, just like she did before.
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