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  • December 19th, 2013

A Warm Love Affair

By Joel M. Vance

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShe was long-legged and as graceful as a ballet dancer.  Her large, expressive eyes met mine and something passed between us.  I wanted to caress her soft neck, perhaps if things progressed, steal a kiss.

Instead she moved away, into the crowd, among her peers, and the moment was lost.  My last glimpse of this beauty was of her chewing a mouthful of hay in a figure eight rotation.  She was an alpaca, a member of the ungulate family that includes llamas and camels.  A kiss would have been a brief touching of noses.  It was not to be, another unrequited love.

She belonged to  Linda and Liz Mitchko, who have the dual distinction of owning the largest alpaca operation in Missouri and who also are the nation’s first mother-daughter SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) racing team.  The racing days are behind, but the alpaca ranch is flourishing.

Whirlwind Ranch (named after a tornado narrowly missed the 160-acre operation) opened in 1996 near Lebanon.  In Ozarkese (which seems appropriate for the thick-coated animals) they are a “fur piece” from their native mountainous Peru, Bolivia and Chile.

Every April some six inches of incredibly dense fiber rolls off each animal under the buzzing shears of a professional animal shearer. The fiber comes in 22 different colors (actually, the animals do) and it has more uses than the ubiquitous Ozark pickup truck.   Liz Mitchko once did the shearing herself, but she is somewhat of a one-woman industry and has turned that chore over to others.  She also knits, dyes and weaves various items of clothing and sells gloves, scarves, sweaters and other soft, warm alpaca fiber products.

As if fiber products weren’t enough, she also sells Paca Poo Gold, a byproduct that is precisely what the name implies.  Alpaca droppings are pelletized and will not burn plant life.  They also don’t smell, making them ideal to fertilize house plants.  If you think that selling animal doo doo is silly, consider that last year Whirlwind Farm sold 55 tons of it—poo gold, indeed!

The alpaca population on Whirlwind ranges from 80-100, depending on births or sales (mostly to folks who want a pet that is not a dog or cat).  The babies are called “crias” and they are so cute as to cause a sugar hangover.

Three Great Pyrenees guard dogs (named Polka, Lotte and Dolce), themselves citizens of the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmountains, make sure that the alpacas are safe.  Ironically, the major predator on alpacas in this country is the feral or stray dog (and no doubt any other members of the canids—coyotes or wolves).  In their native South American mountains, the prime enemy is the puma or mountain lion (Missouri has the occasional lion, young males probably migrating from other states in search of new territory—or maybe alpaca entrees).

But the big, cuddly Pyrenees are all business when the sun goes down.  They consider themselves both members of the alpaca herd and devoted nannies and they literally work all night long to protect their family.  It is a family of royal heritage—for 150 years only the Peruvian royal family was allowed to own baby alpacas.

The first alpacas came to Missouri in 1984 but now there are 100 owners of the fleecy animals in the Show-Me State.  And “fleecy” is almost an understatement.  A mature alpaca grows six inches of fleece in a year’s time.  The hollow fiber has the ability both to warm and cool.  It’s fire-retardant and wicks moisture away, meaning that a pair of alpaca socks will keep feet not only warm, but dry.  The versatile fiber even is used to tie dry flies—being hollow it promotes floatability.  The resistance to fire makes the fiber exceptionally valuable for clothing.  It is rated Class One by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the highest possible rating.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhirlwind’s alpacas are “Huacaya” strain, which means as Liz explains, “an alpaca with a Teddy Bear like appearance.”  And the Huacaya is the most prevalent, at 80 percent, of the North American alpacas.  The North American herd now numbers some 90,000.  In the wilds of South America the herd tops 3.5 million, mostly in Peru.

The depressed economy has depressed alpaca prices—what once was a $5,000 animal now is $2,500-3,000, but it depends on the animal’s lineage.  The record price is $670,000 and Liz turned down $50,000 for one of her herd sire animals (mother alpacas are dams).  In the wild an alpaca has an average life span of 7-9 years but in captivity they will live up to 20 years or more.

Each of the birth year crias gets a name and each year has a theme so that any named animal can be age-dated by the category of its name.  There is a contest to select the theme with the winner to receive an alpaca teddy bear.  The contest is open to anyone with a deadline of Feb. 1.  The forecast was for 15 crias to arrive in 2012 so there must be 50-60 potential names.  Some previous themes include game shows, alcoholic drinks, cars, herbs and spices, dances and rices.  One theme that didn’t make the cut was brand names of condoms.  There were at least 20 entries for the 2012 contest.  The address is Liz Mitchko, 24649 Snowberry Drive, Lebanon MO 65536-6471.  Contact  info: Phone (417) 533-5280  –  Fax (417) 588-2636  –  email info@whirlwindranch.com.

In the Andes Mountains alpacas are food animals as well as wool producers, but Linda and Liz wouldn’t dream of making any of their babies Big McPacas.  Elderly alpacas get to enjoy retirement, pampered with hay and health care.

While some invest in alpacas as fiber factories, others merely want an unusual pet or a show animal.  World War One British and American pilots, assaulted by bitter cold in open cockpits, wore alpaca jackets to keep warm.   According to Whirlwind’s fact sheet, both Pope John Paul and Hillary Clinton wore alpaca clothing.  Wearing alpaca won’t make you Pope or potential President….but it will make you warm.

As will the sight of a cuddly cria stretching its long neck forward to touch noses with a small child.

-30-

 

 

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