Fans see lots to love in alpacas

Owners say they're beautiful, valuable and easy to keep -- if you can dodge the spit


Ben Rosche, a 7-year-old from Upper Marlboro, loves his family's 21 alpacas, especially a white one named Lima.

"Whenever we sing ... she makes crazy noises," Ben said yesterday as he played near a group of the exotic South American animals at the 2006 Maryland Alpaca Show and Sale in Reisterstown. "They are nice, they are entertaining."

Owners from around the Northeast and from as far as Florida attended the two-day event at Three Ring Farm, where more than 500 alpacas - a record number, according to organizers - were shown and sold.

Alpacas, a smaller version of the long-necked llama and a member of the camel family known for their fine fleece, are increasing in popularity in North America. And those who follow the industry say 9 percent of the 60,000 alpacas in the U.S. are in Maryland; there are an estimated 40 alpaca farms in the state.

Alpacas are beautiful, easy to keep and their fleece has high value, said the show's organizer, G. Robin Gilmore, an owner of 30 alpacas in Boyertown, Pa.

"We are essentially promoting breeding programs," added Gilmore, who runs two other shows and promotes a fourth during the year. "We are trying to breed out imperfections."

Alpacas are native to Bolivia, Peru and Chile. Full-grown animals weigh about 150 pounds and have a life expectancy of about 25 years.

During the show, alpacas were separated by sex, color and subspecies. Gilmore explained that animals are judged on skeletal structure, which is linked to the animals' ability to chew food.

Though alpacas have been in the United States for decades, Gilmore attributes the recent surge in their popularity to their high selling value and low maintenance costs.

The animals can range in price from $500 to more than $30,000, according to owners.

"It's an investment, and they sell for a good amount of money," said Jackie Armiger, a banker from Columbus, N.J., who bought her first alpaca six years ago.

Armiger, who was dressed in a matching hat, gloves and scarf she made of alpaca fleece, spins yarn from the fleece and sells 2-ounce bunches for as much as $18. She said she began to make a small profit from her animals after five years.

"They make money, and these things are beautiful," she said.

Alpaca fleece can be sold for up to $100 a pound. By comparison, sheep's wool brings about seven cents a pound, according to Gilmore.

Cheryl Palmeatera, an owner of 28 alpacas in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, said she quit her job as a computer technician because the alpaca industry is so profitable and enjoyable.

"There are no more migraines," said Palmeatera who made $350,000 in 2003 after selling two dozen animals. "My blood pressure has dropped."

Teresa Persons said it takes an hour a day to feed her 15 alpacas. She estimated it costs about a dollar a day to keep each animal. She said the animals require little grooming or maintenance.

"We love the lifestyle," said Persons, a owner of 16 alpacas in Nokesville, Va. "We spin [fleece] and make garments out of it."

Persons' 7-year-old son, Kyle, who said he loves to feed the alpacas, was proud that two of his alpacas placed second and fourth in the day's judged competition.

"They are nice animals," said Kyle.

Most of the time, anyway. Although alpacas are considerably more tame that llamas, the animals can occasionally be aggressive. Armiger said that some of the animals - especially pregnant females - have a tendency to spit.

`They can slime you from top to bottom," said Armiger. "That is their natural defense."

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