Arts & Culture

Audacious alpacas

Ivar Vong

When an animal has the audacity to gaze at you straight in the face while it stands split-legged and unashamedly takes a crap, you know you’re dealing with a special one. Alpacas are curious creatures. Their habits are individualized and pretty unpredictable.

Last weekend’s Alpaca Festival of Oregon displayed the animals’ odd natures as they tentatively gazed around the Lane County Fairgrounds arena. Many allowed some human attendees to approach and pet them as they stood on the other side of their enclosures, while others thrashed around like spooked horses. 

The festival is a small one. However, as small as it is, the breeders and alpaca farmers are fervent friends and caretakers of the animals. They love touting the animal’s personalities and the magical qualities of their coats, referred to as fiber post-shear.

“There’s no lanolin in it, so you can wear it next to your body and there’s no itch. It’s hypoallergenic. The World War I flying aces wore alpaca underwear to stay warm,” Steve Fountain, owner of Alpaca Country, said. Fountain’s farm is located just outside of Coburg.

Alpaca fiber is wonderfully soft; some breeders even seem to think that it rivals cashmere. Peruvians and indigenous peoples of the mountainous Andes region have used the fiber for centuries to combat the cold, but also for clothing during the warm summer months. The fiber, when woven into a garment, has the unusual quality of wicking sweat away, somewhat like Under Armour spandex, and ensuring the wearer a pleasant body temperature. 

“Cross country runners have started to wear alpaca socks because there’s no sweat,”
Fountain said.

The festival featured a fiber competition and various seminars put on by alpaca aficionados such Amanda VandenBosch, a breeder out of Bend with extensive judging experience; Patrick Long, a Corvallis veterinarian, over half of whose clientele is either llamas or alpacas; and Eric Hoffman, an camelid author, researcher and breeder. 

Taken out of their standard pastoral setting, alpacas can accomplish wondrous feats. A particularly skittish alpaca at the festival, who had just been inspected by VandenBosch and was frantically darting around the inside of its enclosure, upended the fencing and attempted an escape. Fortunately, multiple experienced alpaca hands were on deck and successfully restrained the troubled ‘paca, but not before he popped off the zip-ties holding the enclosure together. 

“Oh, he’ll be going home tomorrow,” VandenBosch said.

“They’re non-aggressive animals. They don’t bite, but — well, they spit amongst themselves,” Fountain said. 

Fortunately, the spitting was held to a minimum at the festival, but from what Fountain
reports, it’s something to be wary of.

“It stinks. It just smells nasty,” Fountain said, referring to the regurgitated spew that the incensed creatures can dish out. In fact, he has made a point of wearing his brimmed hat low and averting his eyes when feeding or interacting with his alpacas. 

Much of an alpaca’s personality, as with any animals, is contingent upon how they’ve been treated during adolescence. Sidney, a two-year-old of Fountain’s, was one of the most docile and affectionate at the festival, readily accepting a stroke on the neck or a light pat of the head, while most others darted to the other side of the pen when reached for. 

“She was calm as a baby, but I held her every day,” Fountain said. “I’ve got a little one right now that I’m trying to do that with, but she’s just feisty. She doesn’t want anything to do with me.”

Maren Anderson of Evergreen Terrace Farms in Monmouth also noted the odd and idiosyncratic nature of the animals.

“They’re pretty cat-like,” Anderson said. “I have one that wants to be a feral cat.”

Alpaca breeding and ownership has long been a fundamental facet of South American life, and Oregonians seem to be adapting the creatures to their own lifestyle at an alarming rate. With farms sprouting up everywhere and consumers becoming more interested in alternative fibers, be it for an allergy or for a alternative fashion statement, alpacas are here to stay.

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