Making a wooly debut

Alpacas: The smaller cousins of llamas make their first appearance at the Baltimore County 4-H Fair.

July 13, 2002|By Ben Piven | Ben Piven,SUN STAFF

Megan Sherman and Courtney Schmidt playfully snuggled up to their young alpacas, Double Dip and Athena, and meticulously pulled the straw off the animals' soft coats to ensure they were well-groomed.

Soon, the Baltimore County girls would help the alpacas maneuver awkwardly around blocks, steps and hay stacks, and jump over hurdles in the horse ring at the Maryland State Fairgrounds.

The unusual event, part of yesterday's opening of the county 4-H Fair, gave Megan, Courtney and 13 other youngsters a chance to showcase animals they had cared for since April at Dorsey Farm in Butler. Each of the children leases an alpaca for $1 per year through the 4-H Alpaca Club, and they trained the animals every Friday night to prepare for the fair.

Before yesterday, alpacas had not been shown at the fair, which is now in its 38th year.

But Tilly Dorsey, owner of Dorsey Farm, proposed adding the Alpaca Club to Joyce Sheats, president of the 4-H fair board, as a supplement to the cows, goats and pigs. "The kids have just had a ball because alpacas are so easy to handle," said Dorsey, whose farm has 63 alpacas.

4-H stands for Head, Heart, Hands, and Health and aims to educate young people about leadership, communication and altruism. Among the groups that belong to Baltimore County's 4-H chapter are the Pony Club, the Chestnut Ridge Club and, since April, the Alpaca Club.

Members of the camelid family of mammals, alpacas are smaller cousins of llamas and are native to Africa, Asia and South America. Each alpaca typically sells for between $10,000 and $30,000.

"They're all really nice, so you shouldn't get spooked," said Courtney Schmidt, 11, of Reisterstown. "They're just head shy, but they really like being petted on their necks."

Alpacas are shorn twice a year, producing an average of five pounds of wool that can be used as fleece, or converted into felt or yarn. Of the two types of alpaca, the suri produces a silky strand of fleece while the huacaya produces a heavier, bulkier fiber.

Alpaca females have a 12-month gestation period and usually cannot breed until they are 18 months old. All alpacas in the 4-H program are younger than 2 years old.

Sandi Saltsman, manager of Dorsey Farm, watched her 6-year-old daughter Sydney walk Shazaam around the ring. But the young girl had trouble getting the alpaca to hop over the obstacles.

"I like it because you can learn a lot about alpacas, what they like to do and what they don't like to do," said Sydney. "Alpacas are more fun than llamas because they're smaller, but you can't ride alpacas."

Yesterday's demonstration ended with a costume celebration in which each alpaca and its handler dressed in matching outfits. A beige huacaya named Monty Python was adorned with two leis, a Hawaiian shirt, and purple sunglasses. His human friend, 12-year-old Elizabeth Montgomery, also donned tropical clothing.

Other alpaca-human pairs dressed as lacrosse players, rappers and knights.

Alpaca Club members will present again today at 1 p.m. in the Cow Palace at the state fairgrounds in Timonium.

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