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Your Life Calling With Jane Pauley

Alpacas Are Awesome

Here, a dozen reasons why alpacas are a fine choice for people considering a later-in-life agricultural career or hobby.

1. An alpaca is easier (and on an annual basis, cheaper) to care for than a dog: Alpacas don't need much food: A single one typically eats about a bale of hay a month. The approximate yearly cost: $100 a year. Clean hay, water, and fresh grass in a pasture are essentially all this animal needs. Although alpacas require vaccinations and routine parasite preventatives, they are considered to be virtually disease-resistant animals. Veterinary bills are minimal. Another plus: Unlike dogs, alpacas can be left unattended for a few days, such as when their owners are traveling.

2. Alpacas are not llamas: Although both are camelids and share the South American continent as their ancestral home, alpacas are about half the size of llamas. Adult alpacas usually stand about 3 feet from the ground to their shoulders and weigh between 150 and 200 pounds. Llamas were bred as pack and guard animals, but the intended purpose of the alpaca, which was first imported into the United States in 1984, is entirely as a fiber producer. Their fiber—or fleece—is warmer, lighter and less itchy than wool. Huacaya (pronounced wah-KI-ya) alpacas grow short, dense, wooly, or fluffy-looking fiber. The fleece of the less common Suri alpaca is silkier and often hangs like dreadlocks.

3. Alpacas can stand the heat, and the especially the cold: Because they're indigenous to the mountains of Peru, alpacas take snow and freezing temperatures in stride. Their heavy coats protect them in the winter, and so long as they are sheared before summer, they do fine in the heat. (However, on really hot days, alpacas do appreciate being able to cool off in a wading pool.) Alpaca ranches exist in diverse climates throughout the United States. Visit the Alpaca Owners & Breeders Association to find one near you.

4. Alpacas are easy to house: They don't need large parcels of land; up to 10 can live on one acre. As for shelter, although the animals wouldn't refuse a decked-out stable with proper doors, windows, and a roof, all alpacas really need is a three-sided dwelling with a covering to protect them from the wind and rain. They won't jump fences, but alpacas do need to be fenced so they don't wander or become dinner for a coyote or other predator.

5. Alpacas "potty train" themselves: Alpaca herds select a spot—such as in their pasture or barn—and that's where they relieve themselves. (Yes, all of them use the same location.) Hence, cleanup is relatively easy, as is avoiding an unpleasant misstep.

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