People look at our alpacas, reach out to touch them, and ask questions. Are they smart? What are they like? Do they have definite personalities? Do they know their names?
My husband, Peter, and I took Nancy, a young alpaca who grew up on our farm, to the Western Slope to be bred in August 2002. When we left her in Grand Junction, Peter had a mustache. Two months later when we picked her up, Peter sported a mustache AND a full beard. I stood at the fence calling Nancy and she ran toward me. Peter walked up behind me and when Nancy was about twenty feet from the fence, he called her name. She stopped and looked, then reared, whirled around and cautiously approached us, staring at Peter. She stood at the fence for a moment, then reached out and nibbled his beard. It was as if she was saying, “You can’t fool me. I know you.” A year later, she still playfully reached out and nibbled his beard!
Pam was older, pregnant, standoffish, and suspicious of people when we bought her, and she needed dental work. She was lightly anesthetized and her head lay in my lap as she woke up. I stroked her neck and talked to her. After that, she stayed closer when I was in the pen than she had before. The day after her cria was born, she was standing sideways in front of me when suddenly she collapsed on my feet. Thinking something was wrong with her, I reached down to touch her. Her head was up. She didn’t move. I stroked her again………and again………and again.
She liked it! I knelt down and scratched her neck for a while. For the next few weeks, Pam followed me around as I did my barn chores, pushing her way in to be petted. When she became pregnant again, she became a bit more standoffish. After the new cria arrived, Pam was my best friend again. With the next pregnancy, the she wasn’t quite as unfriendly as she had been during her previous pregnancies. Now she is always with me, pregnant or not, always there in case I need someone to pet. Not all alpacas are like that: most of ours are curious about people but tend to stay just out of reach, especially when strangers are around.
Pam is a serious chowhound. She’s small. She’s fast. She’s always the first to the grain bucket. One summer there were three other alpacas in the pasture with her. Her cria had been born one afternoon in the far corner of the pasture, several hundred feet from the shed. The baby was just two or three hours old, had been on her feet, nursed and was napping when I brought the evening grain into the pasture. “Paca, paca, paca,” I called. Four heads looked up. Four alpacas stampeded toward me, Pam in the lead as usual! She had almost reached the grain bucket, when she shrieked and screeched to a halt. She had forgotten her cria! She spun around and raced back to her sleeping baby and nosed her awake. The cria struggled to her feet and wobbled toward the shed as Pam walked slowly and sedately next to the baby as befitted her new-mother status.
Pam is black. Her mother is black. Her five crias had all been black. Two summers ago, Pam gave birth to a little fawn cria. She swung her head around toward him in a grand gesture, humming loudly and proudly, as she always had done. Then she saw him. The humming stopped. She stared. She turned her head back. This couldn’t be hers. She turned toward the baby again. It was still there. It was still fawn. She just stood and looked at him. Then, she slowly, reluctantly reached out her nose. He smelled right even though he looked all wrong. She let him nurse but she never warmed up to him like she did her others.
Like cattle, our alpacas babysit for each other. One mother grazes somewhat apart from the others and all the crias stay by her side. They pronk and play, graze and nap in the vicinity of the babysitter. They go to their moms to nurse and then return to the babysitter of the day. Babysitting duty rotates through the moms in the herd. Occasionally, even maiden females take a turn. There is one exception. The herd matriarch does NOT baby sit. She has other duties. However, her baby is always in the cria nursery under the watchful eye of the babysitter.
The herd thunders toward the barn when we call them in the evening. The herd matriarch stands at the gate as the animals pass her. She seems to be counting. If one isn’t there after the herd has passed by her, she goes out into the pasture and brings the laggard in.
Diamond Dave, Nancy’s cria, was trying to nurse while Nancy sampled new hay. Nancy didn’t want to be interrupted and stepped away. She did this several times and Dave whimpered pitifully. I was standing next to Matilda, who had finished nursing her cria. I felt a gentle bump and turned around to see Dave move in and begin to nurse from Matilda. I stepped out of the way, wondering what Matilda would do when she saw it was Dave, not her own cria, nursing. She nuzzled him and stood quietly. It was OK with her. It was also OK with Nancy who continued devouring the hay.
When a new cria is being born there is much excitement in the herd. The females stand at a respectful distance humming and watching. The humming grows louder as the birth approaches. The males climb as high as they can on the fence and stretch their necks to get a better view and watch and hum. When the cria has been born, the herd — females and crias — moves in to greet the new little one. Usually they all rush in, humming excitedly, as soon as the baby hits the ground. We have observed with fascination the treatment given the cria of the herd matriarch. In some years, the herd lines up in what could be described as a receiving line and each alpaca moves by and touches noses with the new cria of the boss.
Pam, a mother of six sons and one daughter, is very fond of that one daughter. Bahkti, two years old, a pregnant adult, lay on her side sunning herself one hot summer afternoon. Pam wandered down the length of the pen to the water tank, then meandered back toward the barn. She went out of her way to cross the pen and tweak Bahkti’s ear and nuzzle her, then she crossed the pen again and continued on to the barn. If Peter is handling Bahkti, he often finds Pam bustling in, thrusting her head across the now-adult Bahkti’s neck as if to protect her. She’ll stare at him and bump him and if he doesn’t stop, she’ll spit at him. (I AM allowed to touch Bahkti in the presence of her mother.)
At night, if you go out to the barn you will see the females in family groups. A mother will be cushed down next to her new cria with older daughters lying down next to her on her other side.
First time mother, Sarah, stood protectively over her newborn cria, trying to eat. Other females moved in to nuzzle the new member of the herd as is their custom. Sarah chased them away time after time. Their crias bounced over, curious about the new one. Sarah chased them away. Sarah’s mother, Mimi, walked over to look at the new addition to the herd. Sarah stepped aside and let Mimi sniff the baby, poke at her with her nose and lick her face. Mimi was the ONLY one allowed to approach Sarah’s little one.
There are good alpaca manners and bad alpaca manners. The mother has the primary responsibility for instilling proper alpaca behavior in her little one. However, the rest of the herd joins in when the mother can’t do it alone. Case in point: Trouble. Crias in our herd are expected to stand quietly next to their mothers, lie near them or play with friends a short distance away from the adults while the females eat their grain. From the very beginning, Trouble aggravated his mother, biting her hocks and bumping roughly against her while she tried to eat. She spit and squealed through most of every meal. This was so much fun for him that he crashed into the sides of other adults, racing under them, nipping them as they ate. Dinnertime that summer was stressful – spit flew, cranky, out-of-sorts alpacas screeched and squealed as they disciplined one ill-mannered cria. It took the entire herd most of the summer to finally subdue and civilize Trouble.
Gentle Silky stood in the doorway of the barn gazing out at the pasture as her day old cria nursed. Behind her, Mimi’s minutes-old baby lurched to her feet for the first time and crashed forward, bumping Silky. Silky swung her head around in annoyance, giving a warning spit. Then she saw the cria. Horrified that she had spit at a brand new baby, she turned completely around to face the little one and reached her nose out to the baby in an apparent apology. The cria took that as an invitation to approach Silky – not what she wanted. Silky backed up a step, puffed out her checks and blew at the baby, gently telling her to stop.
Shearing happens in late May and early June. Proud, imposing males with six inches of fleece are reduced to skinny silly looking giraffe-like caricatures of themselves. The first to be shorn always seems chilly and appears embarrassed, peaking around the door at the herd. The alpacas approach, noses out, then mob the newly shorn one, sniffing and humming. You’d think they are laughing at him. The same thing happens with the next to be shorn and the next. After the first few, the newness wears off and everybody continues eating when a newly shorn creature comes back.
The young males neck wrestle and play fight and practice for the day they will be herd sires. Sometimes, play gets out of hand and the boys come in with lower lips dangling and dripping, green spit showing on white necks. They vary in personality from shy and skittery to confident and curious. Pete and Grrr, who were born a day apart, have been inseparable best buddies ever since. They are often out in the pasture, grazing side by side long after the others have come in for grain.
The males play king of the hill on a pile of dirt in their pasture. Arguello, a young male who fancies himself quite the ladies’ man, never walks. He struts. Often, he charges up the manure pile and stands majestically, surveying the pasture and all the female alpacas in his view.
Our cat, Moses, spends days outside patrolling for mice. Moses always comes when he is called. One day I called him. Nothing happened. No answering meow. I called again. Nothing. I called and called. No Moses. I began to worry and started up the driveway along the north pasture toward the gate calling the cat’s name over and over. Two Marks was grazing forty or fifty feet from the fence. He always stays his distance from people, but this day he looked at me and walked toward the fence. He stopped about twenty feet from the fence and cocked his head, looking directly at me the whole time. I called the cat. Mark twitched his head toward the ground several times. Did he have ear ticks? I moved closer to the fence to observe his peculiar behavior. He continued to watch me and to make that strange motion with his head. I stood up on the rail – and then I saw Moses. He was motionless, concentrating on a gopher hole just at Mark’s feet. I walked down the road to the gate and back through the pasture. Mark didn’t move until I picked up the cat. Then he wandered off to graze.
Alpaca breeder friends tell us similar stories. One breeder had an alpaca give birth to a cria who died shortly after birth. The mother nosed the baby, trying to get him up. She finally laid down beside him. Then the breeder used the same phrase I did earlier: the rest of the herd “formed what appeared to be a reception line” and filed past in a single line, sniffing the dead baby and touching noses with the mother. The herd moved off a short distance and grazed. The mother remained by her cria for a couple of hours, then stood and rejoined the herd.
We have observed that when a dead baby is removed immediately, the mother goes to the last place she saw her cria, searching and humming loudly for it; this lasts for four or five days. When the mother is allowed to spend two or three hours with her dead cria, she seems to understand and returns to grazing with the herd in a few hours without the frantic searching and humming.
Another breeder had two females – half sisters – who gave birth within days of each other. When the crias were two months old, the breeder noticed one of the mothers allowing her sister’s cria to nurse from her. The amount of time the cria nursed from her aunt increased over a period of days; the cria’s mother seemed to be separating herself from the herd more and more often. The breeder went out to the barn one morning to find the mother of that baby dead. The sister is now nursing her own baby and the orphaned cria full time.
Alpacas have distinct personalities. They are smart. They communicate clearly with each other and with us. They live in a complex social structure. Each knows its own role. They have best friends. They tease and play and fight.
We feel privileged to live among them.