As far as Anne Gobes is concerned, nothing can brighten a day as much as gazing at a herd of alpacas.
“It’s really what pleases and excites me about having alpacas,” Gobes, president of the Maine Alpaca Association, said. “When people come to our farm and take pictures of the alpacas or just stand and look at them, they are just smiling and ecstatic.”
One look at the fuzzy, wide-eyed, mop-topped members of the camelid family and it’s easy to see why they can make people happy by their very presence.
Gobes and her husband Michael Ciccarelli raise 19 alpacas on their Cape Newagen Alpacas farm just outside Boothbay. Two days ago they welcomed the newest member of the herd: a bouncing, fuzzy girl.
According to The National Alpaca Owners Association, alpacas are herd animals native to Andes of Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Bolivia.
Smaller than though often confused with their relative the llama, alpacas were bred for fiber and meat production. Llamas, on the other hand, are used primarily as pack animals.
A full-grown alpaca is between 110 and 190 pounds and can stand up to 3 feet at the shoulders. Despite their South American roots, they are perfectly happy living in Maine and often can be seen romping in or sleeping on the snow.
They are not, Gobes, said, lap animals or cuddle buddies.
“People often want to cuddle and get cozy with them,” Gobes said. “But they are like a beautiful sunset to be observed, and the nature of their beauty is wonderful.”
That is not say, she added, that alpacas can’t be socialized to be around humans and enjoy their company.
Which is exactly what Janice Bouchard of Bouchard Family Farms in Fort Kent is doing with the two new alpacas who arrived just this week.
On Wednesday morning 10-year-old Gus and 5-year-old Haley were getting to know their newly constructed barn and large fenced-in pasture on the Bouchard farm. They are also getting to know Bouchard, who is spending as much time with the pair — her first alpacas — as possible.
“I wanted to get alpacas 10 years ago after we went to visit our cousins in Virginia and they had six or eight of them,” Bouchard said. “They were just the cutest things.”
At the time, a mature alpaca was running around $10,000 and neither she nor her husband Joe could justify the expense.
“It was not hard for Joe to convince me it was not a good idea,” she said with a laugh.
Since the, the prices have fallen and Bouchard was able to acquire Gus and Haley for about a tenth of what they would have cost a decade ago.
The time was right
“They are herd animals and need to be in a herd,” Bouchard said. “I was told never get just one alpaca. Two are OK but three are better.”
By the weekend three more will join Gus and Haley, and one might even be pregnant.
Alpacas, Bouchard said, are relatively easy livestock to manage.
They enjoy grazing in their pasture and require minimal supplemental grain or hay during the summer months.
They keep their indoor and living spaces clean by defecating in only one spot rather than all over the place, she said.
“They are environmentally friendly,” Godes said. “I wanted to raise an animal that could yield fiber. Alpaca fiber has no lanolin like sheep wool, so it’s easier to clean the fiber without using detergents.”
Godes raises her alpacas for the fiber which she ships to Aroostook Fiber Works in Ashland for milling.
“We send out about two-thirds of it to the mill, and I keep a third to spin myself,” she said. “I also keep some raw wool on hand if anyone is looking for some.”
Godes also keeps the alpacas out in the open so tourists and other interested people can come to look at and learn about them.
Bouchard plans to use the animals’ fiber in addition to just enjoying their company.
An unusual pet
“They really are going to be pets,” she said, offering a treat to a curious Gus. “I hope to maybe one day do a petting zoo with them, but only if they are comfortable with people.”
She also plans to collect the fiber to create stuffed animals and hopes to learn how to spin it this winter.
Things slow down a bit on the Bouchard farm in the winter. The family’s main crops are buckwheat and other grains and produce a dry mix for ployes, the traditional Acadian buckwheat flatbread that is a sort of cross between a pancake and a crepe.
“We live on a farm so it’s a good reason to have them,” Bouchard said. “Plus I don’t want to look back and wish I had done this.”
While alpacas can make fine pets when socialized properly, Gobes said they do require special attention to assure they remain at optimal health and comfort. Alpacas can become stressed, Gobes said, and it can be hard to tell when they are getting to that point.
“They are very stoic and don’t always show the stress they are feeling,” she said. “Because of that, they are prone to ulcers.”
Gobes also said it is crucial to keep up a solid de-worming regime as alpacas are very susceptible to worms carried by white-tail deer.
“If they get those worms, it can kill them,” Gobes said. “They need to be wormed year-round.”
Bouchard said her new alpacas have been wormed and their former owner is preparing a list of all worming and other health-related needs they have over a year.
A friendly bunch
Luckily, Bouchard is not on her own as members of the Maine Alpaca Association love to share information, Gobes said.
“I always tell newbies to visit as many alpaca farms as they can,” Gobes said. “Everyone has a different set up that fits their landscape and area.”
Many, she said, will talk about what they wish they had done differently at the start. The two most common things are building a bigger barn and fencing in more pasture from the beginning.
One of the biggest surprises so far for Bouchard was discovering alpacas hum as a form of communication.
She’s also already grown weary of what has to be the most common question coming from people who don’t have experience with alpacas, who will spit at each other if quarreling but not often at people —unless an unfortunate soul gets caught in the crossfire.
“No, they don’t spit at people,” Bouchard said. “If I had a dollar for everytime someone asked me if I was going to get spit on, I’d be rich.”
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