Common Alpaca Questions
The alpaca is a fascinating animal, with a surprisingly sweet personality, unusual mannerisms, and a look that can only be described as adorable… and it’s also a little bit strange. Since they are not common in North America, people here don’t know as much about them as they do about, say, cows and sheep. As an alpaca wool entrepreneur, my friends have started to view me as something of an authority on these animals. They have begun to ask a lot of questions, which reveal how little they know about South American camelids, how curious they are to learn more, and in some cases, how loose their screws are.
Here are some of the most common questions I am asked, as well as a few unusual and memorable ones. Enjoy!
Q: Do alpacas bite?
No, they really have no biting instinct and will not bite humans. Their teeth are specifically evolved for plucking and chewing plants. In fact, they only have front teeth on the bottom of their mouth, so they really can’t even accidentally nibble you while feeding.
Q: Do alpacas spit?
Well, yes, they do. When agitated, they will spit at each other, and they might occasionally spit at their human handlers as well. Their spit is formed of partially digested food, and does not taste good, so spitting is unpleasant for them as well and they will only do it if they feel they have to.
Q: What is the difference between a llama and an alpaca?
They are actually quite similar, and people seeing llamas or alpacas for the first time might struggle to know which is which. Llamas are larger, weigh significantly more, and are somewhat more assertive than alpacas. Whereas alpacas are kept for wool, llamas are kept for meat and as beasts of burden. Llamas have heavy coats as well, but their fur includes guard hairs, which are long coarse hairs that protect the inner coat.
Q: What is the difference between an alpaca and an emu?
Hahaha. Yes, I have been asked this. An emu is a type of large flightless bird from Australia. So, I guess these two animals are similar in that they both walk.
Q: What happens if an alpaca doesn’t get sheared?
Their fleece gets really, really puffy. As summer comes along, alpacas that have not been sheared might struggle with overheating. Thus, it’s quite important for their well-being that they be sheared every spring.
Q: Is shearing unpleasant for alpacas?
Shearing for alpacas is like getting a haircut for human children. It doesn’t hurt, but may be a bit unpleasant because they don’t see the point of it and it feels unusual. Nonetheless, adults make them go through it because it is best for them.
Q: Do alpacas kick?
No. Their mental programming simply seems not to include any ideas about kicking people. Further, they do not have the heavy, pointed hooves of a mule, horse, or cow. Their feet are more like those of a dog, with pads on the bottom, so they couldn’t land a hard blow if they wanted to.
Q: Are alpacas bad for the environment?
Actually, alpacas are very easy on the environment, especially compared to other wool animals. Sheep and goats tend to bite plants lower to the ground, which is more damaging to fields. Goats will even rip the roots out of the ground while grazing, turning their pastures into mud patches. Having reduced the strength of the grass by aggressive grazing, they roam around with their pointy hooves, further damaging the turf. Cashmere goats in particular have been blamed for changing large swathes of mongolian grassland into desert. Alpacas, with their soft feet and gentle grazing, leave grassland healthy year after year.
Q: Are alpacas smelly?
No, they are actually quite clean. A herd of alpacas will even go so far as to establish a communal latrine, and will not graze near this latrine area. The animals don’t have any particular aroma and their wool doesn’t get dusty or grimy.
Q: Where do alpacas live?
They are raised all over the world! They are now becoming popular farm animals in many different areas, especially in the United States, Australia, and Europe. Their breeding in the harsh climates of the Andean highlands have given them the ability to thrive in a wide range of conditions. When sheared, they tolerate moderately warm environments, and with their heavy coats they are comfortable in the cold. To this day, though, over 90% of the world’s alpaca population lives in South America, principally in Peru, but also in Bolivia and the border areas of Ecuador and Chile.
Q: Are there wild alpacas?
No - alpacas are a thoroughly domesticated animal. However, they are very similar to the Vicuña, their wild ancestor which still roams the high-altitude grasslands of South America.
Q: Can people ride alpacas?
Um, no, please don’t do that. Adult humans are typically heavier than alpacas, and they can’t even come close to carrying your weight like a horse. Honestly, alpacas really aren’t suited to carry loads at all. Their larger and stronger relative the llama often serves as a beast of burden, but is still not strong enough to carry a person on its back. It’s theoretically possible that a small child could ride a llama, but we really don’t recommend that you try this.
Header photo credit: Joakim Honkasalo
Alpaca photo credit: Dušan Smetana
Emu photo credit: Matthew Meredith