Alpacas are truly gentle and curious.
As T. S. Eliot might ask (i.e., Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats) How do you talk properly to an alpaca?
Let alpacas approach you! Alpacas are not as domesticated as cats or dogs! Don't reach out for them--you could be a predator. Alpacas don't particularly like to be petted! But when they know you, they often appreciate a scratched neck! It takes time and patience to earn their trust.
The alpacas at Big Meadow Creek come running when people approach the pastures--it might be grain time! Visitors to the farm always get to feed the alpacas.
Is it safe for children to be around alpacas?
Alpacas do not butt or bite; they do not have horns, hooves, or claws. An alpaca raised around children will be easy for those children to handle. One of my alpacas loves little girls--she comes up to smell their hair. Grade-school children from the local school visit our farm each year and by third grade, they are telling the younger children all about alpacas!
Do alpacas understand?
Alpacas can learn to recognize voice commands like dogs. They learn to recognize their names. When putting on a halter, I always say, "Halter." Touching a leg and saying "foot" makes them understand I want the alpaca to lift its leg--this helps when trimming toenails. In the summer of 2009, I had a cria who needed supplemental milk--I would take a bottle of goat's milk, approach her, touch her and say, "Sit," and she did!
When the weather permits (no snow or rain), we let a group of alpacas out of their pens so they can roam around the property (it helps them get exercise), and when I want them to return to their pens, I get behind them and call, "Go home, girls!" And when the crias were new and ran faster than their dams, they weren't sure what to do. But because they are herd animals, if you get a few to respond, the rest will follow. There are always a stubborn few who want their last minutes of "freedom"!
Do alpacas spit?
A question asked quite often: The partial answer is yes, they can and do spit. However, there's more to the story than that. There's what I would call a "little spit" and then there's the "big spit." When alpacas do the "little spit," it's mostly a form of shoving: "Hey, I want to get at that food first!" "Get out of my way!" "Stop bothering me!" They generally do the "little spit" at each other.
The "big spit" involves regurgitating hay/grain and it's much like vomiting, so it's not something they really like to do--it doesn't taste good! So, when the "big spit"? A female in her tenth month might get more annoyed than usual--wouldn't you? An alpaca can feel threatened, frightened. Someone who was helping during shearing last year claimed the dubious honor of being spit on. "I just wasn't patient," he told me. "If I had just waited a moment before trying to get her to move, she never would have spit!"
A macho--male--might assert his dominance over a younger male by spitting at him.
What do alpacas need?
Alpacas need basic shelter from rain or heat, water, and food. Alpacas eat approximately 2-3 pounds of good quality grass hay per day. Like cattle, they chew their cud.
Alpacas are grazers, but their split upper lip prevents them from damaging the vegetation's roots--instead of pulling grass in the pasture, they shear it. Most alpaca owners supplement hay with grain and minerals. They also require annual vaccination boosters and worming may be required.
You will want fencing to keep potential predators out. Alpacas will not challenge a fence. And most don't even try to get out of fencing. One of our "moms" this year, for some strange reason, did, at least three times, jump over fencing to get into an adjacent pen. It wasn't the same pen! Maybe she was just in "traveling" mode!
Alpacas have communal dung piles--they defecate in fixed areas. This makes cleaning pastures fairly simple. Again, most owners have strict deworming programs. [And the "black gold" is wonderful fertilizer--it is not hot, so can be put directly on gardens, etc., without aging. Vegetables grow faster and bigger! We share our "paca-poop" with community gardens and sell it to friends and neighbors.
As sunset approaches, you are likely to see crias running, chasing each other and pronking! These alpaca "races" help heat up the youngsters before bedding down at night.
Crias are the most curious. To entertain themselves, they may find things to chew (this cria found her mother's name tag intriguing) and may run and butt into other members of the herd.
You won't normally hear many sounds coming from alpaca pastures. But alpacas do have their own language and ways of communication: