"How many of you are current alpaca owners?" Mike Safley asks.
There are 30 of us here at Safley's Northwest Alpacas Ranch west of Portland, attending his seminar "How to Buy, Breed, and Succeed in the Alpaca Business." At his question, nearly everyone raises a hand except me. I have spent my entire life being behind the curve.
"We have a contract to buy five alpacas," says Dick from Oregon. "We leapt from chickens to alpacas," says Penny, his wife.
"The alpaca is not a fad," says Al from Florida.
No, not a fad―the future. Good-bye, ostrich! ¡Vaya con dios, llama! The alpaca is the exotic livestock of tomorrow, conquering the world through sheer cute appeal.
If alpacas have not been on your radar screen, here is a primer. The alpaca is a smaller relative of the llama, from South America's Andes Mountains. There are two alpaca breeds: the huacaya, with thick fleece and a teddy-bear face; and the suri, which resembles a walking shag carpet. Until the 1980s, there were no alpacas in the United States outside of zoos. Today the U.S. alpaca population runs in the tens of thousands. And if there is one part of the nation that―in terms of numbers of animals and ranches--seems particularly welcoming to the animal, it is Oregon, where alpacas are becoming as ubiquitous as Pinot Noir grapes.
If one man can be labeled Mr. Alpaca, it might be Mike Safley. He's not the premier alpaca philosopher―that distinction belongs to Marty McGee Bennett, animal trainer and author of Llamas & Alpacas as a Metaphor for Life. ("Oh, her seminars are wonderful," Penny tells me. "She's an alpaca whisperer.") But Safley is former president of the Alpaca Owners & Breeders Association, founding editor of Alpacas Magazine, and a guy who promotes alpacas in the easygoing way of someone who knows that his product sells itself.
At his monthly alpaca seminars, Safley and his associate, Fred Kraft, teach you how to breed a herd whose beauty and luxuriant wool will dazzle judges and buyers alike. "Genotype and phenotype," Safley prints on the blackboard, making me feel that I have returned to high school biology class. "Dark fawn," Kraft writes, listing alpaca coat colors. "Medium fawn, rose-gray, white." Kraft pauses to test us:
"As a beginning breeder, do you want to go into the show ring with a white alpaca?"
"No," we shout. "Too popular!"
"Right! Too much competition! You want to go with rose-gray."
The color discussion is interrupted when Kraft looks out the window to spot an alpaca in an adjacent pasture, giving birth. We rush out to watch. At last the alpaca baby― the cria―is born, dropping to the grass in a tangle of legs. "Oh, they're so stinking cute," a guest says.
Afterward, I talk to Safley. His father was one of the country's first llama breeders, back in the '70s. But it wasn't until Safley discovered alpacas that he got the camelid itch, giving up a real estate career to start Northwest Alpacas in 1984.
It has worked. The alpacas have inspired him to write two books, and he's working on two more. He has explored the Altiplano of Peru, becoming friends with the Inca descendants who breed his beloved animals and launching a program to bring dental care to these Peruvians.
"I never would have done any of that except for the alpacas," Safley tells me. "Alpacas have been very kind to me."
They do seem like kindly beasts, the alpacas.
I go back to the pasture, where the mother alpaca is now kushing―the unique alpaca kneel―next to her cria. For a moment I can visualize it: my own herd, all prizewinning rose-grays. I foresee cornering the wool market, I foresee trips to Peru. At last the cria totters up on its four gangly legs, as sweet, hopeful, and utterly improbable as my dream.
INFO: Northwest Alpacas Ranch (Hillsboro, OR; www.alpacas.com or 503/628-3110)