BLUFFDALE Love at first sight? Absolutely! Dark eyes, curly locks, whimsical expression. What's not to love?
For Dan and Rebecca Merrill, all it took was one TV commercial.
At the time, the Merrills were living in California. In the past, they'd had horses, but they were at a time in their lives when they were going to make some changes. "We were going to leave California. We'd been around animals all our lives, but we didn't want to stay with horses," says Dan.
That's when they saw an ad on TV for alpacas. The more they looked into raising the animals, the more it appealed to them. And so, in 1999, they moved to Bluffdale and bought their first alpacas. It's been nothing but love ever since.
"We love the lifestyle they offer. We love them," says Rebecca.
The Merrills raise suri alpacas, one of two kinds that are popular in the United States. The huacaya are more plentiful, explains Rebecca, "but we were attracted to the suri. We like the luster of their fleece. It glistens and shines, and it's twisted into locks that hang down. They are aristocratic in carriage; they're very elegant looking."
The Merrills raise breeding stock, shear and market the fleece and show their animals around the country.
Alpacas have become increasingly popular in this country, they say. There are approximately 120,000 registered animals, of which only 20,000 or so are suri, says Rebecca. Alpaca shows are held from coast to coast.
This weekend, the National Alpaca Show will take place at the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy. Sponsored by the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, the four-day show will feature class competitions as well as demonstrations and exhibits of how the fiber is used, and vendors offering handcrafted alpaca items. The show is free and open to the general public.
The Merrills will be showing five alpacas at the national meet. Animals are judged by class accord-
ing to color, age, type, gender. "They are judged 50 percent on confirmation and 50 percent on fiber quality," says Rebecca.
Alpacas are native to South America, where they have been domesticated for thousands of years. They played a central role in the Incan culture that occupied the high Andean plateaus and mountains, and suri fiber, especially, was prized by Incan royalty.
The first alpacas were imported into the United States in 1984, but since 1998 all alpacas have been born and bred domestically. There are currently approximately 4,000 members of AOBA and some 30 alpaca ranches in Utah. Membership in the association has doubled in the past decade or so.
"They are very sweet, very curious animals," says Rebecca. "They are a bit aloof until they get to know you. Their personality is somewhat like a cat. They like things on their terms. They like predictable behavior."
But, she says, "they are very fun to be around. They are magical."
The Merrills have about 20 of the creatures, which is about the maximum for herd size, says Dan. "You find a lot of herds that are typically 12-20 animals."
They are very easy to raise, says Dan. They only need a relatively small parcel of land; an acre can sustain five to seven alpacas, and "they don't tear up the ground like horses do. They are very easy on it."
They graze on pasture land, which is supplemented with hay and alpaca pellets that were developed by researchers at Brigham Young University, he says.
Another nice thing: They are clean animals. "They have a communal dung pile off in one corner, and they are all very good about using it," he says. "They are not smelly and don't attract a lot of flies."
Unlike llamas, which also come from South America, alpacas are not used as pack animals. Their major commercial value comes in their soft, luxurious fleece, which is about one-third the weight of wool and is hypo-allergenic. The fiber is spun into yarn, which can be used for knitted and woven items, such as blankets, sweaters, hats, scarves and gloves.
"Get a nice, high-quality alpaca sweater, and you'll throw everything else away," says Rebecca. "The fiber is hollow, so it breathes. It's warm, and you can wear it right next to your skin. It isn't scratchy like wool."
Huacaya fleece "has a lot of loft and is popular with knitters," she says. "Suri is more silklike and works best for wovens."
The fleece comes in about 22 natural colors, says Dan. "But color is hard to breed for. Blacks and grays are very rare." More common are the whites, browns and fawns. "Our goal is to get a black one, but we've never had much success in breeding for it." Recessive genes and all that, he says.
Alpacas have an 11.5-month gestation period, but they very considerately give birth between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., says Rebecca. "It's probably a holdover from living in the Andes. They want to take advantage of the warm, sunny hours. If I have a baby due and it's not here by 2, I know I can go run errands."
But you'd be hard-pressed to find an animal that's any cuter than a baby alpaca, she says. "The babies are called crias, and they are adorable." Most are on their feet within hours of being born and don't need any special attention. But one recent cria needed some special care and was put in a pen in the garage with her mother. "She's doing well now, but the mother didn't like being separated. They are very social animals," she says.
That's part of their appeal. The Merrills have never regretted their switch to raising alpacas. "We knew immediately that this was for us. It's a lifestyle we thoroughly enjoy," says Rebecca.
Just being around them is a wonderful experience, she says. She loves to just watch them. "They're like poetry in motion. They appeal to the eye the way poetry appeals to the ear. You look at the glistening, swinging locks and the graceful movement of the animal. They are beautiful."
"You can't be around them and not feel good," adds Dan. "If I'm ever having a bad day, I go sit in the barn and talk to them, look at them. They just make you feel good."Love does that for you.