Did someone say alpacas? With a shock of topknot hair, excellent posture and a face right out of "Whoville," alpacas are sprouting up in...

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Did someone say alpacas?

With a shock of topknot hair, excellent posture and a face right out of “Whoville,” alpacas are sprouting up in the Pacific Northwest, with more on the way: The Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association had 435 inquiries for purchasing animals in Washington last year.

It’s hard to out-curious alpacas, who look back at humans as if we’re something out of Dr. Seuss and then dash across the field with a stiff-legged leap aptly called “pronking.” But people joining the padded-foot stampede find that alpacas come with extra baggage — the need to educate passers-by.

“What are they, emus?” “Baby llamas?”


What’s up
with alpacas?



Alpacas come from the same camelid South American Andes family as llamas, which were domesticated primarily for packing but also for fiber, and the wild vicuña and guanaco. All native camelids were nearly wiped out in the 1500s by Spanish conquerors who replaced them with sheep.

Alpacas have been bred for more than 5,000 years to produce their fiber. Each animal yields up to 12 pounds a year. The Huacaya (wah-KI-ya) alpaca has a fluffy fiber, while the rarer Suri looks like it has dreadlocks.

The cost for starting a farm with one pregnant female and one young female runs about $68,000, according to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association. That includes $35,000 for the animals and $30,000 for barn and fences.

Alpacas live in tight herds, and up to 10 animals can live on an acre. They weigh about 150 pounds, stand 36 inches at the shoulder, and live about 20 years. They eat minimal grass without damaging the roots, maintain a communal dung pile and tread softly on padded feet.

It’s all part of the territory with alpacas, says Sue Henry, co-chair of next weekend’s seventh annual Alpacapalooza. The event was bumped up from Monroe to the Western Washington Fairgrounds in Puyallup this year to accommodate the rising interest in alpacas, which are indeed cousins to llamas but wouldn’t know an emu if they pronked into one.

Alpacas, known for their cashmere-like fleece, were first imported to this country in 1984, other than those placed in zoos. But it’s only in the past decade that their growth has looked like the return trip on a bungee jump: Membership in the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association increased from 626 in 1994 to 4,188 last year.

There are 61,879 alpacas registered with The Alpaca Registry in the United States and 6,578 registered in Washington state, the second-highest number in the country. The biggest farm in North America, Alpacas of America, is in Tenino, Thurston County; with more than 1,600, it skews Washington’s numbers, since most farms have fewer than 20 animals on just a couple of acres.

Burned-out lawyers own alpacas. 4-H leaders. People who want to get back to the earth but don’t want to starve doing it. Alpacas cost a pretty penny — $15,000 and much more — but they’re such “easy keepers” and take so little land that some cities across the country are pondering restrictions to keep them out of back yards.

“We’re all still learning about them, too,” says Henry, who owns Skagit Valley Alpacas in Burlington with her husband, Bill. They’ve owned alpacas since 1995 and tote them around in the family van. Like many breeders, the Henrys do “post-sale follow-up,” which includes standing with nervous owners at the first births and saying, yep, there’s the first two feet, there’s the head. “Everything’s going the way it should.”

On the farm

“Alpacas! Alpacas! Hey girls!”

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Rosie, an alpaca on a farm in Burlington, likes to walk around the pasture gumming sticks. Alpacas are known as “easy keepers” and take up little land.

The Henrys make their living on 4 ½ acres with a crisp view of Mount Baker on land that resembles a spacious suburban neighborhood.

They’ve sold $100,000 or more a year in alpacas for the past couple of years, always working to improve the quality of their herd. Believing that 10 or 15 years down the road there may be a separation between breeding stock that maintains its value and commercial fiber animals that could drop as low as $500 a head, they want to stay on the breeders’ side of the fence.

The Henrys are up there with the big boys this year.

They’ve bred one of their females to a stud that just sold for a record $580,000, and they purchased a female from the same auction, where Sue Henry says females averaged $45,100.


Want to learn more about alpacas?



Alpacapalooza next weekend at the Western Washington Fairgrounds in Puyallup. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Halter show begins at 10 a.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. Sunday. Seminars run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. The popular fashion show will also be Saturday around noon. Information: www.alpacapalooza.com.

The Pacific Northwest Alpaca Association has a good list of alpaca-related Web links at www.pnaa.org/html/info.alpaca/links.html

The Alpaca Association of Western Washington is at www.alpacawa.org.

To learn more about alpacas and 4-H contact the WSU Whatcom County Extension, 360-676-6736, or Carol Boswell at Camelot Ranch Alpacas, 360-366-9976, www.camelot-ranch.com.

Like many breeders, they’re having to buy to replenish their stock, because demand outstrips production. Females give birth just once a year. The Alpaca Registry stopped accepting imported animals in the late 1990s, and accepts only offspring of registered alpacas that qualify by blood typing. (Uncontrolled growth has been the downfall of more than one “next big thing” in the exotic-animal world.)

“It seems crazy when you have an animal at an auction go for more than half a million dollars,” says Bill Henry. “I can’t imagine that that is sustainable.”

But the quality of the North American herd has improved, the Henrys say, and the price has held or increased for good-quality females and gone up substantially for the best. Among the goals: better conformation and denser fiber.

Selling the fiber

Marketing is key. That’s why regional gatherings such as Alpacapalooza are aimed toward teaching — through seminars and judges who take the time to explain why they rated one animal or one fiber above another.

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Sue Henry, co-chair of next weekend’s Alpacapalooza, holds a jacket made of alpaca fleece. Its texture is like that of cashmere.

“There’s no reason alpaca fiber can’t be as well known as cotton and wool,” says Connie Beauvais, who has 27 alpacas at Alpacas of Cedar Wind, west of Port Angeles.

The fiber is seven times warmer than sheep wool, she says. It is lighter, softer and nearly devoid of oils, good for people who have allergies. Alpaca fiber is used for everything from laced wedding gowns to sturdy rugs.

The future of the alpaca industry depends on rising fiber demand. An Englishman rediscovered alpaca for the international-fiber market in the 1800s and, while finished fabric from South America is used to make the finest suits in Europe and Japan, it’s less common in the United States.

With so little alpaca fiber, U.S. mills are still set up for our 7 million or so sheep, and most alpaca fiber is sold through cottage industries and a national cooperative. Knitters and hand weavers pay up to several dollars an ounce for raw alpaca fleece.

Carol Boswell of Camelot Ranch Alpacas, near Ferndale, predicts the day will come when people go into Macy’s or Nordstrom and demand an alpaca sweater, knowing “it will be wonderfully warm and soft and last a long time.”

Boswell has her own marketing fleet — the 13 kids in the Alpaca Tracks 4-H group in Whatcom County. They put alpacas through agility drills and explain to anyone who will listen at fairs about the importance of alpacas.

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Male alpacas look over a fence at pregnant females.

“Alpacas are curious by nature, and when children enter the pasture the alpacas’ ears go up and their eyes brighten,” Boswell says. “It’s a real connection that’s magical to see.”

Horses need a lot of repetition to learn new tasks, she says, but alpacas learn quickly, and that keeps the children interested. If you ask alpacas to step up into a trailer even after months of no practice, “they’ll do it,” she says.

The emotional side of alpacas is never a hard sale, says Beauvais of the Olympic Peninsula. Her alpacas bring her peace — even if it’s from her own laughter when she sees them pronking across the field.

“They’re like wind-up toys.”

Sherry Stripling: sstripling@seattletimes.com.