November 04, 2017

The Threshold of Fright and Flight: Lessons From An Alpaca

It can be difficult to get up close to an alpaca.

As alluringly friendly as they seem...

...and as genuinely inquisitive as they are...

...they're actually a bit standoffish.

They might come galloping towards you as you walk by their enclosure...

...but it seems to be more of a practice of threat assessment than an overture.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon at Windy Hill, the alpacas would rather stick with their own kind, tussling with each other...

...and keeping humans out of spitting distance.

They may appear to smile...

...but if you offer an outstretched hand...

...they'll back away, almost predictably and programmatically.

Like many other animals—both wild and domesticated—you've got to let them come to you.

If you seem too eager, they'll back away and never come back.

In terms of the study of animal behavior—or the practice of wildlife viewing—the distance between you and the animal at the point at which they turn around (even if calmly, it's a form of fleeing) is called the flight distance.

But there's a moment before that when they actually exhibit fear, even if it's just a fraction of a second. That's the threshold of the "startle response," a.k.a. the fright threshold distance.

And while there's certainly an average measurement of those fright/flight distances among any given species, it's not quite so simple or predictable with alpacas.

After all, there are two main breeds of  them—and, quite frankly, no two individual alpacas are alike, anyway.

Some are calm and serene.

Some are cautiously curious.

But, unlike other camelids like llamas—and, well, camels—alpacas have never been bred to be beasts of burden. (They're really too small to carry much of a load.)

From an evolutionary standpoint, they're genetically predisposed to just hanging out in the herd, grazing and breeding. (They'd prefer to do it naturally, rather than being artificially inseminated at the hands of a human.)

Humans generally only come around to give them food and shear them for their fiber.

Although there are ones that are considered of "pet quality," I wonder how close you could ever actually get to an alpaca, even once you gain its trust? (Llamas, on the other hand, are incredibly friendly and affectionate and well-accustomed to human contact.)

Might it forever turn away from you when you're near, even if it doesn't actually walk away? Might it just tolerate you?

Does its fright threshold distance ever disappear, even if the flight threshold becomes negligible? Maybe the acute nature of "fright" evolves into a chronic condition of "fear"—and, as a result, the alpaca (or any other animal, for that matter) just learns to live with the fear.

It's not that the fear goes away. But maybe the alpaca just acclimates to it enough to anticipate what will make it want to flee, rather than getting so unexpectedly spooked at every turn.

The only way to really know would be to spend a heckuva lot of time with a few alpacas. But who knows? Maybe that would just be a cruel exercise in the scientific method.

And for what? The sake of furthering our own knowledge?

Maybe we can just respect their wishes, give the fluff balls their personal space, and keep our distance without asking so many questions.

After all, not every face out there is ours to smoosh. Not every head is ours to pet. And there are plenty of other animals out there who are starved for human affection and, for whatever reason, don't get it.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: A Ranch of Sweet Alpacas
Stand Like a Tree, and They Will Climb
The Legacy and Legends of California Camels
Photo Essay: The Healing Powers of Highland Springs

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