Meet the alpacas

Thursday, September 29th, 2011
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By Cynthia Sweeney

North Hawaii News

National Alpaca Farm Days was celebrated here on the Big Island last weekend, where the public got acquainted with a different breed of farm animal.

“These are not exotic animals, like giraffes or zebras,” said Jenny Brundage, who, with her husband, Eric, keep 19 alpacas on their five-acre farm in Ahualoa. “They are truly domesticated livestock. They are gentle, calm, peaceful creatures. As farm animals, they are intelligent, curious and predictable social animals. And they’re not going to slaughter, so they fit my bill.”

Alpacas are generally bred for their wool, which is comparable to cashmere with the luster of silk. Their fleece is thick and very warm, so living at a higher elevation (2,500 feet in Ahualoa) allows them to be comfortable and not suffer from being overheated. They do not need as much protein as horses, Brundage explained, and they do well grazing on pasture grasses. With highly efficient digestive tracts, they need about one-tenth the pasture of a horse, making them ideal for small farms.

“They are efficient browsers and grazers, like goats, so our five acres is plenty of room for them, and they love the strawberry guava,” Brundage said.

Alpacas and llamas originally come from South America and both are related to camels. Llamas are roughly twice the size of alpacas, however, with a course outer coat over a softer inner coat, as opposed to the alpaca which has a very fine, single coat. Llamas also produce far less fleece than the alpaca, despite its larger size. This is because for over 5,000 years, the llama has been bred as a pack-carrying animal, whereas the alpaca has been domesticated and carefully bred as a luxury-fiber producing animal.

Brundage first ran across alpacas in Del Mar, Calif., while attending an event at the fair.

“An alpaca show was being held next door. I turned the corner and said ‘Who are you?’ This was the first I’d seen these creatures and I was smitten,” said Brundage, who also keeps dogs, cats and three goats.

The Brundages moved to the Big Island in 2008 and were looking to keep some type of livestock. After much consideration, they purchased their first four alpacas from a farm in South Carolina. Three more from Ohio were added, and the herd was brought to the island in 2009. The alpacas are transported via air cargo through Pacific Airlift, who regularly flies horses and cattle between Hawaii and Los Angeles.

Brundage did her homework before bringing the alpacas to the island.

“I was on the internet daily learning more about their needs, their health, genetics and their fleece,” she said.

For 20 years, the Brundages bred and showed American Shorthair cats before retiring in 2007. Also a veterinarian, Brundage practiced on Oahu for 18 years, and a significant part of her practice involved canine reproduction. With this experience, keeping the alpacas has been an easy transition.

As breeders, the Brundages are developing a foundation of alpaca stock for breeding in Hawaii. They have partnered with a mainland breeding program to import breeding stock. they also sell the fleece to a mainland co-op.

the u.s. has seen alpaca numbers rise since the early 1990s, and they are not new to hawaii. other small herds have been raised in puna and ka’u. they are considered legitimate agricultural livestock, qualifying as a property tax agricultural exemption.

there are two main types of alpacas — the Huacaya, which Brundage raises, and Suri. Suri are more rare, and are distinguished by long dreadlocks, which are not as ideal for procuring yarn and fabric. Alpacas do not have horns, hoofs, claws, incisors or upper teeth, but they do have three stomachs. The average height is about three feet at the withers (where the neck meets the spine) and weigh between 150 -200 pounds. As members of the camel family, the resemblance can be seen in their feet, that have two toes with pads, so they treat gently on the land.

And then there is the “cuteness” factor. With large, doe-like eyes, a fuzzy face, long neck and furry body, they are almost cartoon-like. But alpacas are also intelligent, Brundage explained, they know their names and come when called.

“They stop and think about something, like a cat, whether they want to do it or not,” she said.

The price for an Alpaca can run from $500 for a male and up to $15,000 for a breeding female. The alpacas temperament is docile and they are mild mannered with children. If sufficiently provoked, however, they will spit. It is something they do more frequently with each other than with humans, but if sufficiently irritated, they will look at you, cock their chin, adjust their body posture, and spit with a purpose.

Alpacas live to be about 20 years old, and, as herd animals, it is not advisable to have only one. And although they are grazers, they do require some personal attention. They are generally very hardy and disease free, but they are prone to some of the same parasites goats experience. They require annual vaccinations, need routine parasite control, and occasional nail and/or teeth trimming.

They vary in color from black to white, to over 20 shades in between.

Alpacas are also sheared once a year, yielding from five to ten pounds of fleece. The fleece is spun and woven into fabric for blankets, socks, hats and other clothing.

The wool is warmer and lighter weight than sheep’s wool, is well insulating, does not hold water like other wools, so is appreciated by hunters and hikers. It has a natural shine and the colors, being all natural, do not fade.

At last weekend’s event, members of the Big Island Chapter of the Hawaii Handweavers Hui brought their spinning wheels and looms to demonstrate turning the fleece into a fine wool.

“This is beautiful fiber to work with,” said Veryl Ann Grace, who has been spinning for about 24 years. “It has a lovely feel, soft and not as elastic as sheep’s wool.”

The Handweaver’s Hui is looking forward to working with Brundage’s alpaca fiber. Currently, they sell their woven items, some with alpaca, at craft shows around the holidays. While Brundage sells most of her fleece to a mainland co-op, ideally, she sees a sustainable alpaca industry here on the island.

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