Warnings: This blog post deals with thematic elements including, but in no way limited to, alpacas, sex, nuns and the awkward feelings that result when all three are combined.
This is the story of two alpacas. It’s an old story, but a good story. You might have heard it before. Or at the very least, it should sound familiar. It’s got all of the proper elements of a compelling narrative. There’s a beautiful heroine that wants something but another something stands in her way. There’s a love interest. There’s a love triangle. There’s a mentor and a journey. There’s rejection and absolution. Will there be a happy ending? You have to keep reading to find out because that’s what makes it a story.
I first met Dulzura in 2005-2006 where she lived at White Violet Farms, a USDA certified organic farm operated as a ministry by the Sisters of Divine Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. When I made the decision to go forward with raising alpacas, I felt that the most important thing was first finding a good mentor and only then find the alpacas. I’ve never once doubted that decision. Good mentors are important to the story. Ask Luke Skywalker. Having found my Obi Wan Kenobi, I then narrowed down my selection to two bred females who would be the foundation of my herd.
On the surface, they shared many qualities: both were strong in character and will. Both were experienced mothers. Both were healthy and passed those qualities on to their offspring. Both had buttery soft fleece. Both had impressive lineage with known individuals in their pedigree. Both produced beautiful babies.
Both lived up to their names. Sapphire (okay, while not ‘technically’ blue, you got me) was a stunning gem who would draw your eye immediately with her sparkle. Dulzura, as translated quite accurately from Spanish, was sweetness, tenderness, and gentleness. Most of the time.
They were similar. And yet, so very different.
Sapphire was a show champion with many large and impressive ribbons from large and impressive shows. Dulzura was never shown. Sapphire was originally from a large farm. Dulzura was originally from a small farm.
Sapphire’s fleece was a true black, in color. Not necessarily rare, but hard to come by at that quality. Dulzura was a very common brown. Sapphire wasn’t exactly hateful towards me, exactly, but she didn’t make it easy. I mean it. She didn’t make anything easy. And she always seemed angry. I know some of it was her markings that just gave her perpetually angry eyebrows, but with Sapphire I always felt judged. Like I was stepping on her lawn or not measuring up to her expectations.
Dulzura was pure sweetness. Again, most of the time. When she was very very pregnant, you would really really know it. But otherwise, at least to me, she was sweet and calm and had eyes that reminded me of a gentle jersey cow. She’d bat her eyelashes and I’d just melt. While Sapphire waggled her judgy brows. Grumpy girl.
Sapphire was beautiful in every way that anyone could intuitively understand. She was just the kind of animal that you didn’t need to know anything about alpaca characteristics to look at her and whistle and say “that is a fine looking animal.” Dulzura was plain and ordinary with a face that was vaguely coarse and semi horse-like.
And yet she was the most beautiful alpaca in the world.
I felt a connection to her immediately. Maybe it was just the fact that I could get closer to her than I could to Sapphire. Early on, I would come up with all sorts of reasons why I felt more bonded to her than to Sapphire. She was calmer and could be easily caught and managed on herd health days. I could catch and manage Sapphire too, but she made me work for it. She was extra. All the time. Her and her judgy face.
I loved them both dearly and I continued to learn and to study and immerse myself into their world. They both gave birth to healthy beautiful crias. Sapphire birthed Juliet, a stunning true black female just like her mom. Dulzura birthed Bruton (aka Big Baby Burton), a common and non-descript bouncing baby boy with his mama’s beautiful eyes, slightly horsey-face, and plain brown wrapper.
THE REALITY OF FARMING
That first year with two babies on the ground, I did it all. I dipped umbilical cords. I weighed babies every day to make sure they were getting enough milk. I kept logs and records and really thought that I was contributing even when I really wasn’t. That was the whole reason that I chose these two veteran mothers so that they could teach me. And they did. I really felt like I was getting a handle on this whole alpaca-farming thing.
And then it came time for the girls to be re-bred.
You must know that I’m not completely naive. I once worked at a horse farm (which I still consider the best five years of my life) where I attended breedings. I passed high school health class and the requirements for graduation in the State of Illinois. I’ve had several litters of puppies. I raise chickens. Don’t even get me started on what I’ve experienced with the ducks. Dear God in heaven, it’s the stuff of nightmares.
There’s knowing how something works and then there’s the actual implementation of the thing and some of the things that you don’t consider when something seems like a great idea at the time. Believe me, I have a lot of hair-brained ideas that often result in my saying something like “oh yeah…I guess that would happen.”
We’ll get back to that in a second. Humor me while we go back and talk about my mentor farm. My mentor, Sr. Paul Bernadette (affectionally known as Sr. PB) brought their famed herdsire Providence Rennes. Rennes was everything that I wanted as a sire for my foundation herd. He had already sired my Jake and I wanted more of him. His temperament and manners were impeccable and his fiber was even better.
When Sr. PB unloaded Rennes from the trailer, I swear my heart stopped. He was even more beautiful since the last time that I had seen him and I couldn’t wait to get started.
As Sr. PB walked him down the lane towards the entrance to the girls paddock, he started clucking to them in anticipation. They responded with equal excitement to the point of fighting each other to be the first to meet Rennes at the gate. They pushed each other back and forth as they tested each other, looking for an advantage. The energy was not unlike what you would see on old footage of Beatles concerts. Rennes was the rock star and he had screaming fans vying for his attention.
Sapphire won the first round. It wasn’t a coin toss, but she was closer so that’s what we went with.
Round one began with the realization that I had not yet truly prepared for the reality of this moment. I knew what it was going to entail. And I knew that Sr. PB would be the one bringing Rennes. But I didn’t quite put the whole picture together that two specific events would be happening simultaneously.
I would be standing next to a nun.
Watching two animals have sex.
Yes, that part matters. Because you see while Rennes was dutifully doing his job, he did not do his job quietly. And Sapphire responded quite loudly in return. And I just stood there very quietly because, really, what do you even say while standing next to a nun watching two alpacas loudly have sex?
And as I soon learned, this was not a quickie five minute boom-bam-done kind of operation. Nooooooooo, sir. Alpaca breeding takes time. Lots of it. Twenty to thirty minutes of it.
TWENTY TO THIRTY MINUTES!
Twenty to thirty minutes of trying to fill the awkward silence by coming up with conversational topics like “so ummmm” and “I hear it’s going to rain tomorrow”. “Yup, it’s a nice day alright.”
For the record, Sr. PB was a true professional. I’m the one who made it weird. And you can just stop laughing now because I doubt you would have handled it much better. Maybe you would. I don’t know. For all I know there are workshops you can take on how to deal with standing next to nuns while supervising breedings.
SAPPHIRE 1 DULZURA 0
After giving Rennes a short rest, Sister PB and I prepared for round 2. Dulzura had been un-patiently waiting for her turn.
And yet, suddenly Rennes didn’t seem to care. Oh, he was a serious boy with a very strong work ethic so he did his job. But it was truly as if he clocked in and then mentally checked out.
Where he talked so lovingly and adoringly to Sapphire as he nuzzled and caressed and told (yelled) all of the secrets in the world. But Dulzura was just a task. A checkmark to be completed. Much like when I add “eat lunch” to my to-do list just for the sheer joy of checking off a box.
Dulzura was the checked box. A job. A duty.
I no longer felt awkward. Standing there. Next to a nun. Watching two alpacas having sex. Loud alpaca sex.
I felt immensely sad.
My heart hurt for Dulzura. I wondered if she felt the lack of care and attention. A part of me hopes not. Because even though Rennes was physically present for her, he really wasn’t. Even as Dulzura talked to him and showered him with affection, she received no reciprocity. I hope that she was spared from that pain of knowing that she wasn’t as special as Sapphire. As beautiful as Sapphire.
I knew that she had been snubbed, but did she?
Was it because she didn’t fit the classical beauty standards of the alpaca? Do alpacas even have classical beauty standards or was there something else happening? It just didn’t seem fair and I wanted to prove Dulzura’s worth to the world.
Dulzura was just such an incredible animal and it hurts me to this day that she doesn’t get the credit that she deserved. The world will always gravitate to the Sapphires of the world, while leaving the Dulzura’s behind.
It is entirely possible that by now you are starting to get clued into the fact that we really haven’t been talking about Dulzura this whole time.
See? I knew it and that’s why I like you. You’re smart.
Maybe even smarter than me because you’re picking up on this a lot sooner than I did.
WHY AM I WRITING THIS?
Why are you even writing this, Leslie?
There you go again, asking the really hard and important questions.
I so flippantly want to say ‘I don’t know’. And just leave it at that. But I can’t. As much as I want to and my inner self is screaming at me to shut up and hide in my closet, I can’t. But I want to.
Oh, how I want to.
If you’ve read my previous writings, you may already be suspecting that this has nothing to do with Dulzura and you are very right.
I’ve been on a healing journey for the past 6 months and I’m so very thankful of the progress that I’ve made. My story is still being written and I have hope for a healthy and prosperous future. It’s a good story. It has a heroine and something she wants but something is standing in the way. There are challenges and mentors. There’s no love interest, still, but maybe this will finally be the year. Doubtful, but maybe. But to finish writing that story, there are underlying emotions that also have to be addressed. We’re not separate from our bodies. It’s all connected the emotional affects the physical affects the mental and back to the beginning of the cycle you go.
I wasn’t quite prepared for how deep those emotions ran. Truly, I knew they were deep for I am the one that buried them. And then ignored them. And then stuffed them in a box and kicked the box under the bed and then put more boxes in front so that they couldn’t be seen for decades.
What surprised me the most was that they didn’t just stay there where I put them. Those emotions developed runners and spread like a miasma, infiltrating every secret and hidden part of me.
These feelings have suddenly come alive with remarkable speed and power. The box that I had so neatly used to contain them for over 40 years was no longer adequate to hold captive this angry and vengeful beast. For every tentacle that I shoved back, another popped out to overwhelm me.
It’s been a long month, physically and emotionally and I’m very nearly wrecked.
But I’m reminded that God uses the wrecked, the lonely, and rejected.
That was the feeling which first prompted the memory of Dulzura and the flood of other memories that swiftly followed.
I remember that day hoping that Dulzura didn’t understand that she was rejected. I truly don’t think she did. I think she was happy and living her best little alpaca life as Barry White music played in the background of her little mental soundtrack, whilst I cringed and whistled and tried my best to not think about the fact that I was standing next to a nun watching two alpacas go at it.
For alpacas, true rejection—that act of being forcibly separated from their herd mates, by their herd mates— truly is a traumatic event. It is the separation of self from safety, their one true source of comfort, and stability. A lonely alpaca endures a horrible existence divorced from their identity. While it is true that Dulzura was not rejected from the herd, she was ignored.
Which I wonder if that isn’t just as bad? Maybe not for alpacas, but I felt it for her.
I’ve been feeling it lately, as old memories continue to wash over me. Sometimes they sneak up on me suddenly and without warning. Horrible little creatures, they are.
There I am minding my own business, trying to be moderately productive, and the next instant, I’m fully remembering the trip to The Museum of Science and Industry back in nineteen eighty something.
It was pretty standard as youth group trips often are. I couldn’t tell you much about that trip or the exhibits of the museum. But I remember the foyer where we all gathered for instructions of where to meet up and when. I remember it being hard to pay attention because it was all just so exciting with the noises and the activity and the promise of exploration and adventure. Then it was time for prayer and we respectfully bowed our heads.
In the two microseconds that it took to end the prayer, say “Amen”, and raise my head, all of the other girls were just…gone. And I was alone, left standing with the chaperones and the boys who quickly made their way off to explore.
And I’m not sure, but I think I left a part of my soul in Chicago that day, just hoping that maybe it was an accident and not a coordinated effort with all the hallmarks of a surgical military operation to ditch me. That maybe, just maybe, they would realize that they accidentally forgot me and circle back around to gather me up so that we could enjoy the day.
I wasn’t rejected in the classical sense that day. At least, I wasn’t actively kicked out of the herd. No one said a word. But that’s just it, no one said a word. Being ignored, is maybe, in a way, a bit worse. Being ignored means that you didn’t even rate the effort of being fully rejected.
It wasn’t the last time that Dulzura would be rejected but each instance only made me love her all the more fiercely.
I once shipped the co-op one of her fleeces and they had the unmitigated temerity to send it back to me. How dare they. I was personally offended on Dulzura’s behalf because I knew that their metrics did not accurately reflect her fiber or her fiber’s value. Oh, I get why they did it. I do. But let me tell you that they were wrong. I don’t care that their micron count measured over 30. And I don’t care that most wool and animal fibers that measure over 30 microns tend to be itchy and scratchy. They try and label them positively as “strong” fibers, and that I normally agree that this is a good move because that strength is good and makes for hard-wearing and rugged products like rugs and socks.
But their metrics didn’t accurately value her uniqueness and quality. They didn’t account for the consistency of her blanket. And the fact that because her blanket was so consistent that your fingers didn’t feel the difference between the highest micron fiber and the lowest and that the contrast between those two numbers, that deviation, is what usually makes stronger fibers feel rough or itchy. Her fleece felt to your hand as buttery soft as a younger animals. You could squish it right up close to your face and just melt into it. I know that her fiber had value and worth. And I knew that they weren’t rating her right. They devalued her and I hated them for it.
Just as with us people, the world of alpacas has a different set of beauty standards. Some, like Sapphire, are those classical beauty types. Others like Dulzura aren’t. And likely never will be. Because just like a faceless micrometer can’t accurately measure how an individual fleece feels to a human hand, we are likewise equally as ill-equipped to measure our own worth and often the worth of others.
The standards are increasingly unattainable. Whereas beauty and youth used to be a symbolic placeholder for health, it has transformed into something else. Something artificial and air-brushed. Like the micrometer that rejects perfectly wonderful and useful fleeces, so has an industry rejected health and vibrance for poor photo-edited imitations.
But at least Sapphire would never have to know about any of that because by all that anyone would agree, she was beautiful and that she was beautiful could not be argued. I have her ginormous show ribbons to prove it. She has been independently verified to be worthy. To be beautiful. To be valued.
But who else would agree that Dulzura was also beautiful? Dulzura in her plain brown wrapper. Dulzura who would not draw passersby to stop their cars and sit and stare before slowly driving past once more. Dulzura, whose fleece was rejected by the co-op and whose loving adorations were rejected by Rennes. Dulzura who would mother anything that moved and would bravely challenge anything that dared to harm anything that she mothered.
Dulzura who was so severely loved and beloved by me, if no one else.
Was there anyone else who would look at her and see the most beautiful alpaca in the world?
I really want this. No, I need this, for my own sake.
A part of me wonders if God felt something similar when Samuel almost passed over David in favor of a bigger, more handsome, more kingly candidate, until God had to remind him “Do not consider his appearance or his height for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Or did He feel something similar when He allowed Leah, the unloved older sister, to have children whereas Rachel, the beautiful and therefore loved sister did not?
Was God hurt? Angry? Disappointed? It seems that God was moved. Moved enough to correct Samuel to bestow kingship upon David and bless Leah with children.
Did it hurt Him as much as it hurt me to take that phone call my Freshman year, when the friends of the football coach’s son called me to tell me that he liked me, but they couldn’t make it all the way through before they cracked up laughing and hung up the phone?
Does it disappoint Him to watch construction workers catcall beautiful women as they pass by? To see his wonderful handiwork vulgarized? Does it also anger him when the catcalling stops when I trail behind and they slap each other on the back and tell each other to get back to work?
Was He angered two years ago in Baltimore, where I spent a few days on a work trip and had the occasion to watch a young man cross an extremely busy multi-lane street for the sole reason of telling me “you are one ugly b****”. Then he crossed back and went about his day, leaving me to think about that moment over and over again years after he disappeared from sight.
Do I anger Him when I think about these things because I am using the very same standards of measure? That I’m giving so much of my self worth and validation to these strangers and not to Him?
Am I any better? Probably not. I think that frightens me too.
I don’t know that I have answers to any of these questions yet, but I’m searching. There’s certainly a lifetime of memories to filter and analyze and file away according to their sparkification of joy. It’s definitely going to take a while, but I guess I’ve got the time. I guess I’ve got to make the time. The way that I’ve been dealing with it clearly has not served me well, so I suppose that a fresh start could just be the thing.
Dulzura could not be measured by conventional means, but she was immeasurably valuable nonetheless. She was absolutely priceless. As a mother, a matriarch, a teacher.
I still think about her on peaceful nights. The nights that are not filled with the screams of fighting alpacas as so often happened those first five years. I miss those screams. Those looks of haughty anger shared between those two. Screams that I’ve always roughly translated in my head as “I HATE YOUR FACE” “I HATE YOUR FACE MORE” I miss getting caught in between their late pregnancy spit fights. Okay, I don’t miss that…
But I miss it when I think about the phone call that I had to make to Dr. Rodawold when Dulzura could no longer stand and 3 days of fighting to help her proved to be fruitless. I think about that morning when I went to check on her before work and that spark, that sense of purpose to mother anything that moved was no longer shining in her eyes and she just looked so very tired. And I felt punched in the stomach because this was finally it.
God bless Dr. Rodawold, who somehow managed to pick out the words “alpaca” “old” “put down” and was able to put two and two together to interpret my hysterical phone call.
He was so gentle with her as he told her in soothing tones and she nuzzled his face, mothering him even with her last few breaths, “you’re an old alpaca, but a good alpaca”. Over and over. And she was. She really, really, was.
My Dulzura. The most beautiful alpaca in the world. An old alpaca, but a good alpaca.
So what is my legacy? How do all of these painful memories benefit me? Other than giving my body a good hard spring cleaning and purging myself of the pain, emotional stagnation, and misery that I’ve been hoarding for decades. The offloading of thoughts that do not serve me. The formation of new ones that do. Thoughts that support physical and emotional healing resulting in life lived freely and without abandon.
Well, I suppose that’s a lot of it. It’s time to Marie Kondo my life. Throw the emotional clutter on my bed and pick up each memory and ask myself if it sparks joy. If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, I’m going to deal with it properly once and for all.
So in that regard, I suppose that Dulzura’s legacy is mine. Or it can be. She did not focus on the rejection, only in living her best alpaca life. An old alpaca but a good alpaca. An alpaca who lived a good story and knew who she was.
Dulzura was sweetness and gentleness. She was devotion and ferocity, in equal measure.
She was matriarch and teacher. Daughter, mother, sister, aunt, grandmother. She was half of my foundation, the bedrock of my herd. Her influence continues even years after her passing and will continue on for generations more in her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
She was the most beautiful alpaca in the world.
Who am I? I’m still working on it but allow me to introduce myself:
I am Leslie.
I am a daughter, a sister, an aunt. I am a friend and a listener. I am a rule challenger and a rule follower. I am a contradiction. I am a contrarian. I love to make complicated things simple and simple things complicated.
I am a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
I am enough (2 Corinthians 3:5)
I am hopeful (Jeremiah 29:11)
I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14)
I am not rejected, but accepted (Romans 15:7)
I am not alone (Isaiah 41:10)
I am beautiful.
And so are you.
You were not rejected. Like Dulzura’s fiber, you were measured with the wrong tool. An industrial-era yardstick that cannot possibly replace the hand of a master artist who knows your purpose and your promise and the masterpiece that He has envisioned for your life.
When I first started writing this post, it was still -10 degrees outside. So naturally, this is the perfect motivation for asking myself why on earth DO I raise alpacas?
Why on earth am I putting myself through this?!
This is as much of a reminder to myself as it is education for you, my friend!
If you ask 100 alpaca farmers why they got into alpacas, I guarantee that you will get 120 different responses and each of them will be completely valid.
When striving for a goal, it is important–whether you are considering bringing alpacas onto your farm or you are looking to go back to school–to follow Simon Sinek’s advice and “know your why”.
Know Your Why
My why goes all the way back to childhood. Simply put, I was always going to raise something. There was never any doubt about that. If you would have asked 5 year old Leslie what that something would have been she would have said “horsies”. And guess what? Forty-something year old Leslie still wants horsies. Really bad.
But forty-something Leslie has just a little more wisdom and restraint than five year old Leslie. And forty-something Leslie has also learned to research.
The Importance of Research
Now that we’ve brought up the subject of research, let’s take a closer look at what drew me to alpacas. In short, I had a list of needs and wants and I was looking for an animal to bring to my farm that would be a good fit for experience level and my property.
I can’t stress the importance of this. You must research your prospective animal partner. It is unfair to expect an animal to mold to your situation. Some are quite adept, and that’s great. But more often than not, it’s a recipe for heartache.
For example, if you’re looking for a canine partner to take on a long run, do not get a heavy-boned, short-faced, bulldog and expect it to be able to keep up. It’s not fair to the dog and, frankly, you’ll get really tired carrying it for 4.5 out of 5 miles. Unless running with a 40 pound weight is your thing, then by all means go for it and enjoy every mile!
Many of these animals have been bred for thousands of years to fulfil a niche. That genetic history is already there and it is a very powerful tool. A good fit not only makes the farmer’s life easier, but your animals’ lives more stress-free. Just as it is not fair to expect a dog selectively bred to strictly be a lap companion to fulfill a role that they are not physically or mentally equipped for, it is also not fair to throw a livestock species into a situation in where it cannot thrive. They don’t get to choose where they live, so you must choose wisely for them. I could rant further, but that will have to be a separate blog post.
Let me explain this a little better. If you decided that you want to raise sheep. Well, there are scores of sheep breeds. All bred for specific purposes, functions, or even to thrive in a particular climate. If you live in an a very humid environment, you might want to look for sheep breeds that thrive in such an environment. It’s your choice, certainly, but working with nature rather than against it just tends to cost less time and effort in the long run. Anything else is an uphill battle.
So back to not expecting an animal to fulfill a physical, geographical, or emotional need that they are not suited to fulfil…
I wanted to make sure that any animal that I brought on to my farm, would fit the farm in order to be fair to the animal. And I’m not going to lie, I also love efficiency like nobody’s business. So if I had to expend 10x the effort to make something work, that’s a pretty big red flag that it’s just not worth the effort. Knowing myself and what I was willing to do, or not do, I came up with a list of non-negotiables.
My List of Needs
Easy on the land (doesn’t tear up pasture)
Can thrive on smaller acreage (I only have 7)
Economical to feed
Can safely keep breeding males without the fear of maiming, injury, or death*. No, really.
In addition to breeding male safety, I also want them to not be disgusting (sorry, goats).
Can produce a sustainable product that generates profit
Can be taken care of safely by my 70 year old mother in my absence.
A generally healthy animal that does not need chemical intervention in order to survive.
When I look at each of these items, the alpaca checks off each and every requirement compared to most other livestock species.
This in no way denigrates the other livestock species. Remember, this is about my specific situation at a specific point in time 15 years ago. Yours will be different and that’s a beautiful thing.
For that matter, my list would also be different if I were to start all over again. Alas, that is also another blog post!
Okay, perfect. Alpacas appear to be awesome on the surface and they appear to meet MY needs. But the next thing that I had to research was if I could meet THEIRS.
Here is what the alpacas need from me
Adequate shelter from the elements –
Whether or not they choose to use it, they have to have the option. A simple 3-sided shelter is perfectly adequate. You do not need a fancy barn.
Alpacas must have alpaca buddies. A herd of three alpacas is the minimum with very few exceptions. So few that we won’t even bother to list them. Do not get a single alpaca and expect it to live happily.
Fresh water available at all times
Suitable hay according to their age, sex, breeding/nursing status.
A soft grass hay is good for most herds, most of the time
Nursing mothers benefit from alfalfa
Don’t feed alfalfa to males
Don’t be surprised if you need to carry more than one hay type to suit all the above
Proper fencing with the goal to keep predators OUT and not so much the alpacas IN
Males housed separately from females
I don’t care if they’re gelded. They still don’t belong with females.
Their fleece MUST be sheared once a year before it gets too hot
A loose mineral mix available free choice year round
Be prepared to put a coat on a young, old, or skinny animal in extreme cold. If it shivers, it needs a cover. If it is not shivering, leave it alone.
Is this an all-inclusive list? Absolutely not. But this will get you a foundation of knowledge on which to build your research. After all, I’m depending on you to research-research-research.
My goal is to do one of two things
Help you realize that alpacas are a lovely and viable addition to a small farm operation.
Help you realize that alpacas are not a fit for you. At least not now.
There is no shame to either of these options. If number two applies to you, then I am proud of you for realizing this early on.
Some additional considerations
Alpacas are incredibly cute and yet they are still livestock.
They still need to be cared for 1-2x per day
Even in blizzards
Especially in blizzards
They make horrible pets***
I am now about ready to wrap up this overly wordy post. In the time that it’s taken to write this, it has finally warmed up to a balmy zero degrees. It only took eight hours to get there.
I’ve made no less than eight trips outside to break water for the chickens and to collect eggs before they freeze. I pulled a sled full of hay to the boys. And, I have once again affirmed to myself that alpacas are pretty awesome and totally worth the effort whether it is -20 or 120 degrees outside.
I’ll be perfectly honest in telling you that my ultra warm alpaca hat and socks do a great deal to convince me of the amazingness of alpacas – even when, especially when, I’m taking care of them in subzero weather.
Now, I just need to convince myself about the chickens.
Oh, I’m just kidding.
But, I’m also a little bit serious.
Then again, the eggs ARE amazing.
Alright, shut up Leslie.
After a long spell (THREE YEARS, LESLIE) of not having a clue of what to write, this one single post has generated a lot of need for follow up. I guess I’m going to be busy this year!
Talk to you again soon!
*I never fully trust my males. This is my personal rule when dealing with all forms of livestock. At the end of the day, my safety is still my responsibility. Sorry boys, I love you all, but you are still ruled by your hormones and I never know when they’re going to kick in. And because I never know when they’re going to kick in, I am always prepared for it at the least opportune moment.
***This topic really requires a full post fully explaining what I define as a “pet”. Let me summarize this quickly: Alpacas make horrible pets as-in “look at my alpaca who lives all alone in my backyard and I am doing my level best to turn it into a dog, isn’t it great?!”
Contrast this with: alpacas make decent pets as-in “look at my five alpacas who I keep according to good livestock management practices and who I like to spend time watching in my pastures, but I’m not forcing them to do anything against their nature. I also don’t expect anything from them economically except for my own pleasure from watching them. Aren’t they great?!” If this is your idea of a “pet” situation, then I agree – alpacas make great pets!
The thing is that I’ve been fighting this post for months. I won’t say that I’ve been busy. I have, but that’s not the most honest reason. Some of the reason could possibly be that I’ve been too tired. A large part of that is technically true and I really have been using the blissful downtime of winter to allow myself to rest and regroup. By “rest” I mean that I’m pretty much asleep as soon as I sit down in the evening. Not a whole lot of writing gets done when that happens.
If I have to give the most honest answer, it’s because I just didn’t want to. Because the most honest answer involves the sharing of feelings, the revealing of my most authentic self, and that is something that I very rarely–if ever–do. For the past week, this story has come to my mind and I can’t shake it. After sleeping (or more accurately not sleeping) and praying on it, I finally accepted that I need to be obedient to God and provide this teeny tiny peek into my messed up mind.
I envy those who can dance like no one’s watching. I am not that person. To fully go into the why and how would involve even more sharing and if it’s taken me fighting for this long just to throw this baby into the world, then prepare for more revelations somewhere around 2035…give or take.
Some of my issues (and there are many) stem back for more than a decade. Aw crap, actually two decades now that I’m really thinking about it. Even more so back when I worked for “a business of caring”.
The most important lesson during that formative time was this: if your manager ever encourages you to open up about yourself because it’s a “safe environment” know that they are lying to your face and that (as in a court of law) your words can, and absolutely will, be used against you.
It was that lesson that i’m trying to un-learn here with your help.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Or, actually, somewhere in the middle. In fact, let’s just pretend that this is Star Wars Episode IV. There’s a prequel and a sequel, but the driving force (heh, see what I did there) happens somewhere in between.
Last spring I decided that 2017 would finally be the year that I focused on selling products made from my alpaca fiber. I had been trying for years but since I work full-time and shortly before that had also been going to school full-time, it’s been tricky, especially when employers don’t want to share.
You see, I’ve always naively cooperated with my employers and respected their wishes. However, their wishes do not coincide nicely with the IRS guidelines that in order to be considered a farm and not a hobby that I must be profitable.
I could no longer put my needs last. I HAD to make a concerted effort for the farm to generate if not a profit then at least a cash flow. Combined with that stress, plus an overall lack of sleep, and then the excitement and anxiety of the unknown at my first farmer’s market, it’s fair to say that my nerves were pretty much shot that first market morning.
That brings us to our story.
I had been preparing all week getting items ready for market, which involved a lot of late nights. All waking moments not spent at my day job were spent feverishly working on spinning or felting fiber.
I promise that I’m getting to it. But I need for you to understand all of the pieces involved.
I had two roosters: Mr. Old Rooster and Yankee Doodle Doo (hatched on the 4th of July, thank you very much).
Yankee Doodle Doo
Mr. Old Rooster is a very good rooster. I have a few criteria that must be met in order to be a very good rooster. A good rooster is brave. A good rooster must be willing to defend his flock even at the expense of his own life. A good rooster is able to discern true danger and act accordingly.. A hawk is a threat. A strange dog is a threat. A plastic bag is not a threat. Any thing or person living on this farm is not a threat. I am absolutely not a threat so please don’t slash my face with your wicked spurs, thank you sir!
Above all, a very good rooster must put his hens first.
Years ago, I had another rooster who was not very good. If I am being generous, he was a mediocre-to-just-below-average rooster. He was brave and defensive and he didn’t attack people so on the surface he seemed very good. At the time, I thought he was very good but that was simply because I had never had a very good rooster for comparison.
You see, old-old rooster was selfish. I learned this years later. When placing fresh food in the coop, he would be the first to run to the food bin and the last to leave. He would crowd out the hens and engorge himself. No biggie, I thought, as all of the hens seemed to compete against themselves in the same manner. Fights among the hens were constant. It was never a peaceful coop.
Old-old rooster was retired (that’s what I’m calling it) and Mr. Young Rooster graduated to the status of Mr. Old Rooster.
Like old-old rooster, Mr. Old Rooster was the first to the food bin but that is where the similarities ended. He would rush to the bin, peck at a few crumbles to make sure they were safe, and then immediately step back. As he backed away, he would call the girls to the food. If he was excited about the food, you could hear it in his call.
“Ladies, I’ve checked everything out and it’s safe to eat. Hurry up and come and eat. They brought the good stuff!”
As the girls would gather around and eat, Mr. Old Rooster would pace back and forth, keeping a watchful and ever-vigilant eye. For while the hens were eating, they were not watching for danger. They were not worried, however, for Mr. Old Rooster was on duty.
It was Mr. Old Rooster who trained Little Black Kitty that smart kitties don’t even think about breathing in the same direction as the hens. And it only took one lesson because Mr. Old Rooster is a very good teacher.
It was Mr. Old Rooster who eliminated fighting between the hens overnight. The term “pecking order” comes from the hierarchy of chickens. Chickens at the top of the pecking order can peck at any chicken lower than them. And so on and so forth until you get to the the chicken at the very bottom who isn’t allowed to peck on anyone. This low-status chicken can and will be pecked to death. Literally. That is, unless you have a very good rooster.
When young chicks were hatched by broody hens, Mr. Old Rooster kept himself between the new mamas and babies and the rest of the flock in order to protect the littles from overly curious beaks.
Mr. Old Rooster is a very good rooster.
When one of those littles later matured into a beautiful young rooster, Mr. Old Rooster kept him in line and protected the hens from his advances. Mr. Old Rooster was a good mentor, though. He disciplined the young upstart as needed, but backed off immediately as soon as his lesson was learned. He was always fair; never vindictive, petty, or cruel.
And then three days before the farmers market, Yankee Doodle Doo overthrew Mr. Old Rooster.
For the next few days, Mr. Old Rooster seemed to be dealing with the changes as well as could be expected. He stayed back from the hens and seemed to occupy whatever space was on the opposite corner of Yankee Doodle Doo. As long as Mr. Old Rooster didn’t get too close to the hens, they seemed to have an uneasy alliance.
The morning of farmer’s market, it all changed.
Yankee Doodle Doo was no longer content to simply manage the controlling interest in ownership of the coop. He wasn’t going to stop until Mr. Old Rooster was dead.
Thankfully, it was stupid early in the morning and the chickens had just awakened and because it was barely light outside, I was able to intervene right away. I separated the two fighting roos. Sadly for Mr. Old Rooster, I didn’t have time to build him his own separate area within the coop because I had to hurry up and leave for market.
All I could do was to pull Mr. Old Rooster out of the coop and let him roam outside with the ducks until I got back later in the day. It was obvious that Mr. Old Rooster had just received the beating of his life from Yankee Doodle Doo. It was obvious that he was hurting. It killed me that there just wasn’t much that I could do for him.
Mr Old Rooster and Clueless Ducks
I watched him as he hobbled over to join the ducks and then what happened next absolutely broke my soul.
I watched as Mr. Old Rooster desperately tried and failed to gather the ducks.
I watched as he found the pile of sprouts that I had put down for the ducks, pecked at them to make sure they were safe, and stepped back to call the ducks to him.
But the ducks didn’t come because ducks don’t speak chicken.
Frantic, he tried harder. More excitedly, he pecked at the sprouts. He made his movements bigger. More deliberate. Anything to communicate to the ducks that he found food! And it was good food! And he knows because he is a very good rooster!
But the ducks didn’t come because ducks don’t speak chicken.
HIs calls became louder. Faster. Plaintively calling. Begging. He picked up the sprouts in his beak and tried to carry them to the ducks. But the ducks didn’t–couldn’t–understand and ran away instead.
And so he chased them around and around trying to make them see that he had found them food. He was a good provider. He was helping them.
But the ducks didn’t come because ducks don’t speak chicken.
I watched Mr. Old Rooster deflate before my very eyes. This giant specimen of a rooster seemed so very small as he pecked half-heartedly at the sprouts. He took a few steps towards the chicken run. Yankee Doodle Doo was quick to intervene, reminding him that his services were no longer required and that if he valued his life, he would turn away immediately.
And so he did. Mr. Old Rooster returned to the ducks and again tried to get them to understand that he was working in their best interest.
His actions grew less frantic and much more dejected.
I could hear his voice in my head.
I’m a very good rooster. Please, I can still be a very good rooster.
But between Yankee Doodle Doo, who wouldn’t hear of it and the ducks who couldn’t hear of it, no one listened.
And in that moment, I understood that rooster. I was that rooster.
It all came crashing down–completely out of the blue–and I began sobbing uncontrollably.
I cried for the sad rooster.
In truth, I cried for the job of fifteen years that I had lost ten years prior; the job that I had worked when I bought this farm. It was the job where the loss of that income still haunts me to this very day.
It was the job that I was good at.
I cried for the loss of my identity.
I cried for the ten years that I’ve spent falling apart and no one noticed.
I cried for the years of compounded stress of daily wondering “is this day when I finally lose it all? Today? Tomorrow? How do I tell my family that I’ve failed them and that it’s all my fault?”
I cried for all of the wasted years in between where I couldn’t seem to find a place where I could use my skills and fully work to the best of my abilities.
I cried for all the years where I had been a chicken speaking to ducks.
I kept crying even as the ducks began to slowly gather around Mr. Old Rooster and he responded by strutting proudly, happy to once again have a flock where he could be useful.
Nobody here but us ducks
I thought I couldn’t cry any harder, but I was wrong, for I completely lost control when God spoke into my spirit the words “I’m building a new flock for you too.”
Honestly, I’m not much of a crier. I get it; you have no reason to believe me right now. I never really have been a crier unless we’re talking about super-duper-sad tear-jerker movies where crying is the only acceptable response. Movies like Old Yeller or Toy Story 3.
But to be thrown headlong into a midlife crisis because a rooster was sad with a midlife crisis of his own? That’s next-level pathetic stuff right there. I don’t care who you are.
I’m going to fast forward a bit now and let you know that my earlier anxieties were completely unfounded as I had an amazing opening day at the farmer’s market.
The story of Yankee Doodle Doo and Mr. Old Rooster gets better because not even two days later, I had a lovely couple respond to an ad to purchase two-week old chicks from me. While they were picking up their chicks, they noticed how beautiful Yankee Doodle Doo was. And he really was a very handsome rooster. They liked him so much that they offered to purchase him too.
Yankee Doodle Doo found a new home where he could be the top (and only) rooster.
Mr. Old Rooster was returned immediately to his girls where I swear you’ve never seen such a happy face on a chicken in your life.
In the process I got to know Rick and Stephany and they told me about the conservation work they were doing with their property coordinating efforts with the Field Museum in Chicago to restore the very rare and fragile Black Oak Savannah ecosystem. Their story was amazing and I was honored to hear all about it.
And just like that my flock expanded.
You’re reading this blog post and I’m proud to have you as part of my flock too.
I’ve met so many amazing people on this crazy journey and I can’t even begin to express the fullness of my gratitude.
So many people that I’ve only had to meet once for them to become an instant and permanent fixture in my family. I have an amazing new job at Redd Remedies where I’m excited to go to work every day because I get to not only use my skills but I get to develop in ways that I could have never predicted. And they even speak chicken!
I”m truly excited for the future and what it holds in store. I can’t wait to meet more of my new flock. I bet they’re amazing. How could they not be? If you’re ever in the area or if you ever find yourself at the Kankakee Farmers Market, I hope that you’ll stop by and visit. Even if I haven’t met you in person yet, you’re a part of my flock even if you don’t realize it.
And if there is any part of this story that resonates with you, I want you to know that God has a flock for you too.
Whatever your situation, I promise you that it will work out. It probably won’t play out like you imagined and that is the best part!. Goodness knows that nothing about this farm is how I originally imagined. Not even kinda sorta.
I never would have chosen any of this for myself. I would never have asked for a 72% pay cut. Never in a million years would have I willingly picked that January where my electric bill alone for a single month was $900 but my income for the whole month was only $750. Who in their right mind signs up for that?!
But looking back, I wouldn’t change a bit of it. Because every single thing that has happened up until now has brought me right here, right now. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see how I got here and that twisted path is precious.
I trust Him when He says in Jeremiah “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
And if He tells me that He wants me to share the mortifying story of how I can’t handle being around a sad chicken because sad chickens are sad, well, I trust that there’s a reason for that too.
I can’t be sure of who this story is for. Maybe it’s for you. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s not even for me to know.
All I know is that if God cares enough about a sad little rooster in order to change his situation, He absolutely cares enough about you to change yours.
If you’re like me, you may not be able to see it as it’s happening. I couldn’t see how God was guiding my path, bringing me closer. I couldn’t see how He went before me, preparing a way for me that He had already checked out, ensured that it was safe, and that there was good things waiting. I couldn’t hear Him because He was speaking chicken and I was just a clueless, stupid, duck.
WARNING: This post will deal with semi-graphic events of a farming nature which may include references to animal mating instincts, alpaca-on-alpaca violence, and fantasized violence towards an alpaca by a human. If you find this disturbing, join the club. Now that you are warned, you can decide for yourself whether or not you wish to proceed.
I know. It’s been awhile since my last update and I’m sorry. A lot has happened since my last post. There have been some pretty cool things. Sapphire and Fiona gave birth to a boy and a girl, respectively. Heidelberr Farms has two adorable little alpacas spronking around and causing adorable chaos.
Oh, and then there’s also the little teensie issue where I posted this a few months ago but forgot to change the setting from private to public. Once you finish through to the end, you will see how this is not at all surprising.
(Oh! If you could read this while pretending that it’s still October, I’d appreciate it. Cool, thanks.)
Fiona, Baby, and Auntie Abigail before things got weird
In a rare turn of events, I was present for both births AND I caught both of them on video. Someday when I get some extra time and can figure out the editing software, I will post the videos. Someday.
In between daily chores and random projects, each day is actually fairly predictable and kinda boring. Don’t get me wrong, I actually thrive on it. Now that I think about it, I probably should use the word pastoral instead of boring. Also, it’s peaceful. Yes, that’s it.
You might not believe me, but there are days around here where it is anything but peaceful.
This is the downside of having babies on the farm. It’s one of those pesky things that we just can’t get away from no matter how hard we try. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Stupid consequences.
Pretty little thing
On an alpaca farm this means that the consequence of having females who aren’t pregnant any longer is that there are herdsires on the other end of the property who know it.
As much as I love birthing season, it’s pretty stressful and it feeds my neurosis. There is the constant worry that something might go wrong. It hasn’t yet, and it probably won’t, but there’s always that niggling doubt that comes with “what-if” questions. While these worries do have some basis in reality, they’re really just me needing something to obsess over. So I do.
After the babies are on the ground, I need to continue my obsessing and so the babies must be weighed regularly to ensure they’re getting enough milk. If they’re not getting enough milk, they need supplemental feedings. If the babies are okay, then I need to obsess on the mamas. At the core, these are just regular husbandry items that responsible animal caretakers do. I just feel the need to internalize them to the very edge but-not-quite tipping over the line of unhealthy levels. It’s a thing that I do.
It’s a LOT of energy being expended here, just so you understand.
When I’m finally able to go to bed at night, then another level of obsession comes up since birthing season always seems to coincide with the natural coyote cycles. We won’t have a coyote presence for months until babies arrive and then the coyotes appear like magic.
Now, our coyotes are well fed and not desensitized to the presence of people and so I don’t obsess too much about them just yet. However, when the alpacas sound an alarm call in the middle of the night, I still feel compelled to check on them just in case.
Leading up to this fateful day, it was fairly normal for the alpacas to sound the alarm 2 or 3 times a night every night going on four weeks. Four weeks of interrupted sleep.
In all of this, Abigail has decided that she needs extra attention as well. She was bred last fall and while her breeding initially took, the pregnancy did not sustain. She has resorbed her cria and is once again open and hormonally confused.
The tension in the boys’ paddock has been bad enough with their vying for attention of the newly open Sapphire and Fiona. But Abigail’s flirtations have been absolutely torturous for them.
The Boys on a Peaceful Morning
To be fair to Abigail, she’s had it rough. She put up with a lot of abuse from Sapphire and Fiona while they were pregnant. And now her own hormones are turning against her. It’s a lot to deal with. So while I understand why she feels the need to instigate fights between her potential suitors, her frustrations are starting to take a toll on everyone. It’s especially hard knowing that she’s having such a hard time and knowing that she can’t be bred for a few more weeks yet no matter how bad she thinks she needs it now.
I’m building up to it, I promise. I just need you to understand the weeks prior and how these things contributed to the massive eruption that followed.
This is the story of one of those not-so-peaceful days.
Here’s the timeline:
5:30 PM I start evening chores.
5:37 PMAbigail has decided that she is sick of me not doing anything about her frustrations and has taken matters in her own hands by mounting Fiona. I don’t need this right now. I make a brief attempt at distracting her in hopes that it will get her to stop the behavior. It doesn’t, but I have things to get done before it gets dark so I can’t spend time on this right now.
5:45 PMI resume chores
5:50 PM I once again return to the girls area to chase Abigail away from Fiona. She is ignoring Fiona’s attempts to run away and is getting increasingly assertive with her efforts.
5:55 PM I resume chores
6:18 PM Louder than normal screaming is coming from the girls side. I quickly throw the last of the food to the chickens and walk around the coop. I find a scene that causes me to nearly drop the egg basket. Abigail is not only chasing Fiona around the pasture, but she is actively chasing Fiona’s cria away and preventing her from nursing. This is unacceptable. I quickly make my way into the girl’s pasture and towards their shelter.
6:20 PM As I open the gate to the girl’s shelter, I watch in amazement as Jovie pops off the bottom board of the fence that separates her from the new moms. Before I can take another step, she manages to crawl right underneath the fence. If this weren’t bad enough, she whirled around and–I promise you–gave me the most proud and smug look I have ever seen on a human, let alone an alpaca before trotting off happily to rejoin her family.
6:20:10 PMI run after Jovie to wipe that stupid smirk off her stupid face.
6:22 PMI give up on chasing Jovie back into the weanling pen and return my attention to Abigail who continues to terrorize Fiona.
6:30 PMI am still chasing Abigail chasing the baby chasing Fiona running away from Abigail
6:31 PM I am now torn since Juliet, Remi, Rocketman, and Tink are eyeing the escape route laid out by Jovie. I figure that plugging this hole should be my next priority so that I won’t end up with more alpacas into the mix of alpacas being chased by me later.
6:40 PMI have just finished dragging a cattle panel over to the weanling side of the enclosure and have barely had a chance to prop it up. It is now sunset and it’s getting very difficult to see. The boys are now in an absolute free-for-all and are embroiled in the worst fight ever. I quickly slap on a haystring on the panel so i can assess the situation.
Situational Assessment: Yup. It’s a bad fight.
6:41 PM There’s not much I can do about the boys at the moment, so I resume my energies to chasing Abigail chasing the baby chasing Fiona running away from Abigail. I remember now that this is what I had started out to do in the first place.
6:45 PMI finally manage to get Abigail isolated outside of the shelter. I am feeling a fair amount of guilt in shutting her outside and out of view of her herd mates. Any guilt at leaving her to spend the night alone in the elements is quickly squashed by remembering that I have just spent the better part of an hour chasing her chasing the baby chasing Fiona running away from her.
I no longer feel guilt.
7:00 PMWith mom’s help and assistance from the flashlight app of our iPhones, we manage to get the cattle panel tied in place. Jovie is still a renegade within the mama herd, but at least the yearlings can’t escape. If I have nothing else, I have that.
As it turns out, I have nothing else.
7:05 PMI head over to the boys side. Mom has already gone to the house to get the super secret weapon. Their fight is now going on a half hour with no sign of slowing down. This really is the worst I’ve ever seen them. There are open females on the other side of the field and they KNOW it.
7:10 PMMom has arrived with Bonnke the Newfoundland to try and bring peace to the situation. The dogs are our secret weapon against fighting alpacas. Normally, the boys stop fighting instantly and then run over to greet the dogs. It’s not fear of the dogs that breaks up the fights, it’s curiosity. The alpacas are usually as delighted to see the dogs as the dogs are to see the alpacas.
7:15 PM Still working to separate the boys by chasing Elwood chasing Jake chasing Henri chasing Esteban chasing Baby Burton chasing Elwood. If the situation weren’t so bad and if I still had a sense of humor (it died forever at 5:37 p.m.) I would think the only thing missing from this scene is a musical accompaniment of Yakkity Sax.
7:20 PM FINALLY the boys settle down long enough that between Bonnke, the hose, the iPhone flashlight app, and the really big garden rake, mom and I convince the boys to leave the larger paddock and enter their smaller dry lot. The smaller area reduces their available fighting space and helps to further deflate their egos.
Or something. Whatever. You know what? I don’t even care anymore.
7:30 PM We collapse in the seat of the golf cart. I re-evaluate my life’s choices. I’m not entirely sure where I went wrong, but I feel that I can probably trace it back to Kindergarten.
7:32 PM We drive back to the house when mom gets the fateful call of “what’s for dinner”
7:33 PMAfter much soul searching, we finally rule out alpaca. It’s tempting–but honestly–it’s just too much work at this point.
Thankfully, the rest of the night was peaceful. There was no further screaming and humming, so no one is stressed. Well, the alpacas aren’t stressed.
In a minor miracle, that night I slept deeply for the first time in a month. There are no coyotes on the hunt. There are no 2 a.m. alarm calls.
I wake up refreshed.
7:00 AM Abigail is resting in exile outside of the girl’s shelter. She seems calm and peaceful and still has plenty of hay and water. I leave her be so as not to disturb her.
7:10 AMFiona is doing well. She eats her pellets in peace as we give baby girl her morning bottle. All is well in the kingdom.
7:12 AM Jovie still has that blasted smirk on her face, but since I’ve had a full night’s sleep I am able to resist the urge to throttle her.
7:20 AM At the boy’s shelter, they file in one by one for their morning hay. Elwood first. Jake follows. Henri comes to a skidding stop with Baby Buron hot on his heels. Esteban limps slowly behind.
7:21 AMWait. Esteban limped slowly behind?
7:22 AM Bang head against wall and make a quick call to work explaining that I’m going to be late.
As it turns out, pain did exist in this dojo and Esteban was finally feeling it. Thankfully, the cut he received to his foreleg during last night’s melee was fairly superficial. There are some things that don’t show up when the boys are on an adrenalin high and you’re working by the light of an iPhone. Some things, like the big puddle of blood in the paddock, only come to light, well…in the light.
This, my friends, is the alpaca lifestyle in all it’s glory. I hate to break it to you, but it’s not always as peaceful as the “I Love Alpacas” commercials make it appear. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Oh, I do enjoy looking out my window and watching my alpacas spronk in the pastures. I do enjoy listening to them hum to each other. I enjoy the softness of their fiber and the way it rolls off in a lustery waves on shearing day.
But, please friends, don’t forget that LIFE is part of the lifestyle and the cycle of life will override your style of life every single time.
This is life, the same as yours with different characters. It’s so easy to compare our imperfect lives against carefully edited images on Pinterest and feel that we must be doing something wrong. That somehow we’re less than adequate.
You’re not inadequate. If your life doesn’t look like a Pinterest Fail more often than not, THEN you’re doing something wrong.
The alpaca lifestyle nearly killed me, but it didn’t. At least not until next birthing season.
Now, if you all would do me the favor of reminding me of all of this when September rolls around, I’d appreciate it.
3 Surefire (and 1 Unreliable) Ways to Know if you have Fighting Alpacas
If you have spent any time at all around animals, you understand that all is not always peaceful in the kingdom. You’ve probably heard well meaning people wish that people were more like animals so that the world would be a more peaceful place?
Tripe and lies.
Now alpacas are great. As a species, they are fairly laid-back and peaceful. Alpacas aren’t inclined towards human aggression, although I always espouse caution when working with any animal, alpacas included.
If you work with animals long enough, weird things happen. Occasionally, even the most patient and kind family dog or “bombproof” horse will have a bad day and someone will end up hurt.
Inter-species aggression is common to many creatures and alpacas are no exception. Most cases of aggression occur between intact males. Sorry guys. I’m not hating on anyone here, but a consistent factor across creation is the fact that dudes have a tendency to fight.
Back to alpacas. If you are seriously considering getting into alpacas then you need to make peace with the fact that if you have more than one male, they will probably get into a physical altercation at some point. Know this now and have a plan for how to address fighting when it occurs. If you have two easy-going boys, they may never get into an argument. I suppose it could happen.
Fish gonna swim. Critters gonna fight. Most often fighting occurs between the male of the species, but not always. In my experience, female alpacas do fight although their fighting style differs greatly.
Unlike human girl fights, alpaca females tend not to fight for blood. Most often, fighting is relegated towards the protection of resources. In my herd, the girls are competitive for the prime spot at the sprinkler on a hot day, special treats placed in the feed bins, the shadiest spot in the shelter, or (in the case of pregnant females) the very air that they breathe.
Alpaca girls usually resort to screaming and spitting to voice their displeasure. I have never seen my girls resort to physical brawling. They tend to just hover over whatever they claim as theirs and scream loudly and longly until the other yields. It’s noisy, but harmless.
Not so the boys.
Tell me if growing up you’ve ever heard the words “You’re playing now, but someone’s gonna get hurt.”
Many times boy fights start as innocent play wrestling and then escalates from there.
Male alpacas have a hierarchy that must be settled routinely and on numerous occasions.
If there is a female on the property who is not currently pregnant, the hierarchy must be re-established.
If one of the girls glances too long in the boys’ direction, the hierarchy is scratched and must be re-established.
If one of the boys steals another’s special blade of grass, the hierarchy must be re-established.
If it’s a sunny, rainy, windy, still, cold, or warm day, the hierarchy must be re-established.
So as you would guess (boys being boys) much of the fighting stems around the quest to win reproductive rights but fighting can also take place because your face is annoying and I’m tired of you and also a fly bit me.
The last thing that I want to do is to talk any prospective owner out of getting into alpacas simply on the basis of fighting. As livestock goes, alpaca fights are mild and rarely serious to the point of major injury so long as their wolf teeth are kept trimmed.
Click here to see a video example of a mild fight between Elwood and Baby Burton. Notice how it started off as an attempt by Baby Burton to play and escalated quickly from there. This fight was over almost as soon as it began. Thankfully, this is a typical “fight” and as such does not cause much concern nor does it warrant interference.
I may delve further into this topic at a later point, but for now I want to focus on teaching you how to tell if your alpacas have been fighting. You may have a herd composed of low-key individuals who never fight a day in their life. Most of the time, this is exactly the case.
However, you may be like many of us alpaca owners who also have to hold down day jobs. How can you tell if you have a peaceful herd or if your guys have been rumbling like the Sharks and the Jets behind Officer Krupcke’s back?
Thankfully, I have 3 easy ways (and one difficult way) to tell if your alpaca is a Greaser or a Soc.
EASY WAY #1: LOOK TO THE DIRT
I will admit to you that for this method to be effective, you need the proper terrain. A dry lot works best. You will need a bare patch of earth or other substrate which will provide a means to view disturbances in the covering.
Alpacas are classified as light livestock weighing between 120-200 pounds. Their feet are padded and they tread very lightly. Usually, these treads are visible and create only light disturbances in loose dirt. Such tracks are shallow and clear defined with little outlining.
As they peacefully walk along, each footfall is lifted up and placed directly onto the soil.
However, when two (or more) alpacas are involved in a fight, everything changes. They have a lower center of gravity not unlike two sumo wrestlers trying to push each other out of the ring.
You may see a variety of track patterns, but here are some of the most common.
Ex A: Deep tracks with a large outline.
Shallow tracks are normal tracks. They’re peaceful tracks.
No drama here. This is a regular track.
Deep tracks are war tracks. Deep tracks indicate the lowered center of gravity combined with shifting and twisting as the alpaca tries to deepen his grip for traction. The shifting creates depth and piles dirt around the outline as you can see here. If you see a large grouping of deep tracks in a concentrated area, you probably have fighting alpacas.
Deep track with evidence of shifting. Notice the twist and the depth of the track.
Ex B: Tracks with runners
When you see a track with running lines leading up to it or behind it, you can be assured that your alpacas have been fighting. These types of tracks also correspond with the sumo-esque wrestling that typifies an alpaca fight. One alpaca pushes another and either drags his feet as he pushes or drags his feet as he is being pushed.
A.) Track with runner
B.) Track with runner
Learn to read the language of alpaca tracks. Tracks will spill the secrets of sneaky alpacas.
(You could probably taste them like they used to do in old western movies, but it’s probably not necessary.)
EASY WAY #2: HAIR IN INAPPROPRIATE PLACES
Alpacas are not a bitey species by nature. You really don’t have to worry about being bitten when working with an alpaca. Granted, I never say never, but it just doesn’t seem to occur to them to use teeth as a weapon against humans.
When boys fight amongst themselves, they bite. Alpacas don’t have upper teeth, just a hard upper palate with dull lower teeth used to pinch off blades of grass.
However, the boys do grow very sharp canines (called wolf teeth) further back in their mouth that they use almost exclusively to eliminate rivals.
And when they bite, they play for keeps. Each alpaca will attempt to cripple the other by severing a tendon in his leg. More seriously, they will attempt to eliminate their rival’s genetic impact within the herd by castrating him. Y’ouch!
I told you it’s serious business.
I digress–back to hair. Like reading the tracks, reading the hair can reveal a wealth of information.
If you find hair floating in the water bucket, you can be assured that your boys have been fighting. Since they are trying to cripple and/or castrate, they are also ripping out fiber in the process. This fiber is going to stick in and around their mouth until they rinse or rub it off.
Waiter, there’s a hair in my bucket.
Since fighting takes a lot of energy, an alpaca will want to refresh himself with a cool drink of water. The fiber rinses off his face. You are left with the evidence.
I have even narrowed down the offending parties by matching the fiber colors back to the original owners.
Eat your heart out C.S.I.
EASY WAY #3: LEARN THE WAY OF THE POOP
One thing that you must learn about alpaca boys (or 12 year old human boys) is that poop is a central part of their very identity. Poop is important stuff.
Poop is worth defending. Poop is worthing fighting for. Poop is worth fighting over.
Most days, the boys are very good about sharing their communal poop pile.
Just because they share well most days does not mean that once in a while, one alpaca will want to initiate an exclusivity contract.
As you know, poop is a territory marker for many species. If the females venture close enough to the males and there happen to be open (not pregnant) females around, this can trigger a cascade of testosterone in the boys’ herd and upset the hierarchy.
When this happens, the boys can get just a bit tetchy when it comes to poop and the ownership thereof.
When fighting breaks out over and around the poop pile, it will get buried in dirt during the scuffle. Remember that the poop pile is treasured ground in the alpaca world. As a habit, they tend to not mess with their piles.
When poop gets in the way
So when you see a buried poop pile, you can be assured that the boys had a momentary loss of judgement and forgot where they were when someone declared IT’S ON!
THE UNRELIABLE AND DIFFICULT WAY: FACIAL PROFILING
I have gone back and forth whether or not to even mention this method. It’s not only difficult to master, but it’s unreliable as well.
I recommend using it in conjunction with the previously mentioned methods and not as a stand alone.
Now once you get alpacas of your own and once you learn each individual’s personality, you may start to master this method.
Keep in mind to give yourself plenty of patience and time. There will be frustration, but I know that you can do this. If you start your herd with one of my animals, know that this is not a one-time only transaction. I am available to you as a mentor so that you can advance in the learning curve.
Just because this process isn’t easy does not mean that it’s not worth doing.
Alright. Here we go.
On rare occasions, you can pick up very minute differences in expressions that will tell you if your alpaca has been fighting.
Again, this method is not reliable and it is not easy to pick up the very subtle clues that alpacas will send to each other. As humans, we simply do not operate on this wavelength.
Here are two examples. I know that Elwood and Esteban were fighting because I witnessed them in action. That is how I can show these pictures to you in full confidence. Use these as a template for your own animals.
Example 1: Elwood
Look carefully toward’s Elwood’s right ear. It is angled ever so slightly turned away from me in this picture. Notice also his slightly softened eye on the same side.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t see these differences right away. It took me a long time. Keep practicing and I promise you that these things will start to pop out at you.
Example 2: Esteban
I’m saving the hardest for last since Esteban’s example is very difficult to interpret.
It wasn’t me
You will see with Esteban’s very handsome face that he is even more subtle with his facial expressions. Notice his drooped ear and ever-so-slight angling of his head and a near 45 degree angle. These are classic signs of an alpaca after a fight.
You can see from the subtlety of these pictures that it is not at all easy to identify fighting alpacas solely based on their facial features. Alpacas certainly don’t give us much to go on when looking only at their faces to see what they might be thinking.
I would be tempted to say that it’s practically impossible. But since I never say never, then I will instead wish you the best of luck if you think that you can pull it off.
Now that you have learned a few surefire (and one unreliable) way to tell if you have fighting alpacas, you may be wondering what to do with this information.
In a future post, I will outline what you can do when your alpacas fight as well as my surefire method to get them to stop practically immediately.
Thankfully, serious fights are rare. As a word of precaution, I will warn anyone who works around alpacas to not attempt to physically break up an alpaca fight. As with fighting dogs, getting into the middle of two fighting alpacas is a horrible idea.
Alpacas are remarkable and gentle animals. However, 150 pounds of normally gentle animal is not going to pay attention to your safety when he has more important concerns on his mind and you just happen to be in his way.
Wait, what? What do you mean you can tell they’ve been fighting because their mouths are hanging down and dripping with green goo? That’s just crazy talk.
Have you found this guide helpful? Do you have a fight story to share? I’d love to hear it in the comments below.