Alpacas are members of the camel family, along with llamas, vicunas, guanacos, and camels. They arose in South America through selective breeding (although it is believed that, as with other camelids, their distant ancestors migrated from North America), and are quite close in size and fibre type to the wild vicuna. They are quite a bit smaller than llamas, and have a gentle, curious disposition. Their fibre is very fine, soft, and highly valued by the textile trade. There are two types of alpacas with very different fleece appearances: the huacaya, whose fibre is very soft and crimped appearing puffy, and the suri, which has straight fibre that falls from the body and ends up in curls that give the appearance of dreadlocks. Both types of fleece are valued, although the suri type is much less common (estimated less than 10% of the world's alpaca population). The fleece, in addition to being extremely soft, is also estimated to be 5 times warmer than wool, and is very light.
Although the primary domestic use for the alpaca is it's fibre, they are increasingly popular as companion and show animals. Since they are much less common than llamas, they are harder to find and a little more expensive. However, there are a number alpaca qualities that make them suitable for those who want a few primarily as companion animals. They are quite a bit smaller than llamas, standing only about two and a half to three feet at the shoulder, and weighing in at 100-190 lbs. (llamas are more like 250-400 lbs.), which makes them a little more manageable. Their disposition is much like llamas. They have a calm, gentle and predictable personality. They will tend to spit at each other if disgruntled about something, but will rarely spit at a human. Aggressive behavior is rare (watch for foot stomping and kicking). They can be taught to lead on a halter and other simple commands. They are sociable, so you will need to have more than one. By nature they are pack animals and will huddle together if nervous or frightened. They produce several vocalizations but the one most owners find most charming is their humming - in different tones for different situations.
Alpacas are hardy animals, and do well in most climates. A decent, well fenced pasture will be necessary, as well as some sort of shelter. A good quality, relatively low protein forage, with some supplementation will take care of dietary needs (it is best to have locally available feed analyzed for nutrient content and supplement accordingly). Routine veterinary care and maintenance such as nail trimming, tooth care, and shearing will also be necessary. Otherwise, these are fairly easy animals to look after.
For anyone interested in alpacas, here are some good starting points:
- Alpaca.com - information on the alpaca, alpaca fibre, breeders, a store, as well as paid subscriptions (newsletter and members only area).
- Bonny Doon Alpacas - this California ranch's site features loads of information as well as alpacas for sale and other services.
- Llama and Alpaca Links - many more links to llama and alpaca information and ranches.
Also visit the Alpaca Photo Gallery.