Meet Little Gus. He’s the one not wearing a dinosaur raincoat. Instead, he’s wearing a coat warmer than wool and soft as cashmere, in one of twenty-two natural colors.
Little Gus is a cria, or baby alpaca, and in addition to wearing a lovely coat that, when he’s fully grown, could potentially become ten pounds of Ralph Lauren sweaters or the world’s most luxurious socks, he also knows where to poop. The alpaca uses several communal waste piles in a pasture and their natural cleanliness, along with their gentle, aloof nature–two ranchers I’ve spoken with have likened them to cats–make them ideal tenants and soothing company.
We visited Little Gus and about ninety of his huacaya pasture-mates a few weekends ago, on a road trip to Peaceful Prairie Ranch, just over ninety minutes north in Arizona’s altiplano. (Huacaya, pronounced “walk-EYE-uh”, are the most common of two types of alpaca, Huacaya and suri (pronounced “SOO-ree.”) They live with Wendy Dittbrenner, on acreage she’s crafted into an ideal alpaca preserve, with divided pastures for males, females, crias and their mamas, visiting stock, etc. She also keeps a small herd of Merino sheep, a variety of hairy sheepdogs, and a henhouse around which colorful chickens strutted.
Wendy breeds the animals for health, temperament and fiber. Each April on shearing day, professionals wielding razors liberate the animals of their coats, which can yield from five to nearly ten pounds of useable fleece. I’m a fan of alpaca yarn–Nanny knit me a sweater of 100% alpaca several years ago, and it’s the only fiber I’ve found that rivals cashmere for its light weight, warmth, and softness.
Each alpaca is unique in appearance and temperament–they all had names and Wendy knew them by sight. Although the bots were curious about the big, fluffy critters, Mbot kept drifting across the yard toward the chickens. Chickens do not poop in discreet piles, they poop everywhere. And it smells vile. Mbot was not discouraged. It is confounding to me that a child who can smell dog food from across the room and identify two teaspoons of espresso in an entire batch of fudgy cupcake batter does not mind the smell of chicken poop on his boots. Nonetheless, Mbot attempted the whole time we were visiting to pat a chicken. He finally succeeded, and the hen, a silken gold and brown, stood obligingly still as a beaming Mbot stroked her feathers.
Driving home, Mbot asked if we could get another pet. “I’m ready to move on from my starting creature,” he announced. (His starting creature is the antique cat, whom he sometimes feeds and waters.)
“Well,” I replied, “I don’t think we’ll get Little Gus. They’re herd animals, and so we’d really have to get two or three, and we don’t have room for them.”
“No, Mom,” he said. “I want a chicken.”
But pictures and poop on our boots will have to do for now.