Local residents care about camelids
by Kathryn Purcell
photos by Angelina Bellebuono
It's a common question, one asked by more and more people each year: What to do after retirement? Some people travel; some volunteer; some even take part-time jobs.
Morgan County resident Judy O'Rourke, however, chose to pursue a slightly different answer to that question.
The idea to start Tuckaway Farm Alpacas began with simple curiosity. O'Rourke and her husband, Jim, took a trip to a north Georgia alpaca farm, just to see the animals. It was there that her interest was peaked, and her passion for the animals ignited.
After the visit, O'Rourke started consuming every book, magazine and Web site on the subject she could find. Then, she came up with a business plan. At the same time, the couple elected to put their house, located next to Morgan County Primary School, on the market and move somewhere a little smaller. They didn't need the space anymore, O'Rourke said, now that their children were grown and moved out from under their roof.
"Halfway down the driveway, I fell in love," O'Rourke said, of the couple's current Buckhead Road home. "I said 'I hope there's a house down there.'"
The previous owners had horses, which meant plenty of land for a potential alpaca farm. The former horse barn was re-worked, fences erected and the farm laid out. All that was left, then, was to find the beginnings of their herd.
The answer to that question came to the O'Rourkes during a trip to another north Georgia alpaca farm. At one point during the visit, O'Rourke was standing at a fence, leaning down to see a newborn alpaca. As she came back up, she found herself on the receiving end of a big, wet kiss.
"When I saw her, I knew I had to have her," O'Rourke said. "They said she wasn't for sale, but I got her."
The O'Rourke's ended up leaving that farm with "Kiss" (who O'Rourke lovingly calls a "floozy" given the fact that she bred before she was supposed to), their first alpaca and the dominant female of their current herd.
The herd continues to grow and grow, and the O'Rourkes now have 17 alpacas.
"We thought about horses, cows, goats, sheep," O'Rourke said. "Then, I saw an alpaca. Once you see one, you want one. And once you get one, you want more."
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Traveling down the driveway that leads to Tuckaway Farm, it's easy to see why people fall in love so quickly with these animals. Approaching the fence, visitors are promptly greeted by a group of very curious, and very fluffy, male alpacas.
O'Rourke describes the animals as curious, and generally amicable.
"They tend to stay out of arm's reach," O'Rourke said. "They're gentle, easy to be around."
Among the herd, they attach to each other and become friends. Often, alpacas become depressed when separated from their best friends.
Alpacas are very easy to care for. In fact, most first-time alpaca buyers are women with no previous farm experience, according to O'Rourke.
At Tuckaway Farm, the alpacas are fed straw and hay and are given water twice a day. As far as health care goes, the animals, whose life expectancy lasts to their late 20s, are vaccinated once a year, and toenails (alpacas don't have hooves) are clipped as needed. The primary health concern, especially in this area, is a meningeal worm carried by whitetail deer, which causes neurological problems in the alpacas.
While easy to maintain, it's often difficult to determine whether an alpaca is in need of medical attention.
"They're very stoic animals," O'Rourke said. "They won't tell you if there's anything wrong."
Alpacas are very hearty and have a very efficient digestive system, according to O'Rourke, all of which makes sense given their origins in mountainous Peruvian lands where food can be scarce. Even more interesting are their, well, bathroom habits.
"They have a communal dung spot," O'Rourke said. "They pick one place in the pasture and that's where they all go."
Further, their waste makes excellent compost, according to O'Rourke.
The make little to no noise. In fact, the sole noise they do make is a humming sound that varies depending on what message they are trying to convey. Mothers make a slight clucking 'hum' to call their children; males make a screeching 'hum' when they are fighting, or 'neck wrestling,' or if something's wrong.
And then there's 'orgling,' the sound makes make when they're interested in mating. According to O'Rourke, the sound triggers ovulation in females.
Females are bred at one-and-a-half years old, and gestation lasts for 11.5 months. When alpacas come into the world, they are typically born by 11 a.m.
"It's something nature provides," O'Rourke said. "It gives them time to get up and dry off."
After delivery, alpacas are capable of breeding again three weeks later, and they often do.
"They're not happy unless they're breeding," O'Rourke said.
The biggest predator, when it comes to alpacas, comes in the form of packs of domestic dogs. That's where Sadie comes in.
Sadie is a Great Pyrenees, a breed of dog often used in guarding livestock. So, it seems to make perfect sense that she found her way to Tuckaway Farm.
"We keep her with the males during the day," O'Rourke said. "At night, she gets free run of the place."
Without the help of Sadie, alpacas have two defenses -- run or spit. However, they're reasons for spitting distinguish them from other, less dignified camelids.
"Alpacas spit defensively," O'Rourke said. "Llamas spit recreationally."
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Alpacas are members of the family Camelidae, better known as camelids, along with camels and llamas. According to O'Rourke, the earliest camelid fossils were found in the Kansas City area. It is thought that some of these early camelids traveled north to Alaska, along the Bering Strait and through to Asia, Europe and Africa, evolving into camels. Some, on the other hand, went south to the South American continent, becoming llamas.
Alpacas originated with the South American group, and come from Bolivia, Chile and Peru, where they are considered a 'National Treasure.' For that reason, Peru refused to export the animals. Chile, however, didn't, and provided the beginnings of the American herd.
The first alpacas came to the United States in 1980, according to O'Rourke. In 1984, the National Registry for the animals was closed.
"There were about 120,000 [alpacas] registered in the U.S.," O'Rourke said. "But we're not sure how many of those are alive now because some people don't report deaths."
Alpaca importers can still bring the animals into the country, but they can't be registered. And, if they can't be registered, there's not much that can be done with them, especially in so far as breeding, according to O'Rourke. However, those born in the United States to registered parents can still be registered in the U.S., just not as part of the original National Registry. In order to do so, a sample of the newborn's blood must be sent in.
The closing of the National Register encourages breeding within those animals already in the United States, an effort to grow the American herd.
There are two types of alpacas, huacayas and suris, living in the American herd and around the world. They are differentiated by the type of fiber they produce. Huacayas produce a straight fiber, while suris produce ringlets.
Alpaca fiber, and the number of alpacas in America, is becoming more and more important as it is hoped by many alpaca farmers that there may one day be enough alpacas in the United States to consider the animals a source of fiber for clothing.
"They figure we need at least 300,000 alpacas before we can say 'Okay, we'll always have fiber,'" O'Rourke said.
Tuckaway Farm boasts a solely huacaya herd, and O'Rourke prides herself on the fiber produced, especially because she's an experienced knitter.
"Alpaca fiber is one of the nicest fibers," O'Rourke said. "It's as fine and soft as cashmere, as warm and strong as wool."
Moreover, the scales on alpaca fiber lie flat, whereas the scales on wool don't, according to O'Rourke, making the final product less itchy.
South American alpaca herds are almost all white, while North American herds come in 22 recognized colors.
The significance of alpaca fiber? Funding.
"Some sell raw fiber to people who spin," O'Rourke said. "Most [people] have it processed into yarn."
The major monetary source for many alpaca farmers, however, comes from the sale of breeding stock.
"Generally, you make enough from breeding stock and fiber to maintain the animals," O'Rourke said.
The cost of maintaining alpacas isn't terribly astronomical, however the cost of growing a herd is a different story. The average female alpaca costs $20,000 or more. Males typically cost less, save for herdsires. In fact, the top male alpaca in the nation sold at auction for $1.5 million.
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More than the companionship and the excuse to knit (O'Rourke often takes the products she makes with Tuckaway Farm alpaca fiber to sell at shows), alpacas provide the O'Rourkes with socialization they wouldn't get with any other hobby.
"There are social aspects in the form of shows we go to," O'Rourke said. "There are state, regional, national organizations and educational and research seminars. Alpaca people love to talk about them and are overall generally helpful."
Currently, the O'Rourkes are on the board of directors of the Georgia Alpaca Association as well as being members of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, the Southeastern Alpaca Association, the Alpaca Registry, Inc. and the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of America.
Moreover, they are crossing their fingers that there will be a alpaca show in Georgia next year, one that they plan on being very involved in.
All of this said, alpacas have become much more than a hobby for O'Rourke, they've become part of her life.
"They're my therapy," O'Rourke said.
O'Rourke's husband echoes her sentiments.
"'When I look into their eyes,' Jim says, 'I feel connected. They renew my belief that life is good and God wants us to be happy,'" the Tuckaway Farm Web site states.