Don’t call them llamas
Living with alpacas, the ‘productive pets’
Sid and Susan Crane have owned an alpaca farm for 13 years. Not ranchers by profession—he’s retired from law enforcement, she’s a music teacher—they raise these animals, which they sell, along with blankets, shawls, hats and other items crafted from the silken, colorful, hypoallergenic fleece.
“Sid likes to say they’re all for sale,” Susan told the CN&R during a recent visit to Andante Alpacas, their property in north Chico.
“Everything is for sale,” Sid said with a mild laugh. “It depends on the price.” To which Susan replied, “I would say there’s several of them out here, they’re not for sale in my book.”
Her husband probably wouldn’t fight her too hard on that. Both Cranes have an attachment to their alpacas that transcends the typical wrangler-livestock relationship.
Theirs is a relatively small farm, comprising 1.5 acres, and their current pack of 17 is the largest they feel they can accommodate. Each animal has a name and is registered with his/her DNA with a national organization. What the Cranes gain by being so close to their alpacas—in proximity and bond—is a grasp of traits and quirks.
“They all have pretty distinct personalities, unlike sheep or cows,” Susan explained. “We keep our number limited, and they’re so close to the house, that we spend a lot more time with them, observing them. We know them all so personally.”
Their network of fenced pens sits less than 100 feet from the back door of the Cranes’ home, where Susan conducts piano lessons. Her students and their siblings often visit the alpacas. Once in a while, a birth interrupts a session and the topic of instruction switches to science.
Susan shares music with her animals, too. She straps on her harp, strolls into a pen and starts playing. The alpacas in her vicinity draw near; some look at her, listening intently. And when the Cranes’ sons were younger, living at home, one would accompany Susan on his fiddle. (They’re now in their 20s, both in the Navy, stationed in Hawaii.) Andante Alpacas also has hosted outdoor recitals.
“It’s probably mostly for me,” Susan said of her alpaca interludes. “I just enjoy being outside playing. A few of them act like they’re scared of it; a few of them act like they like the music and it’s fun.”
The harp, ironically, introduced the Cranes to alpacas.
In 2003, Kathleen Friend hired Susan to play an event at Friendly Farm Alpacas, the ranch Friend operated on Keefer Road. Susan found herself so taken (“It was love at first sight”) that she and Sid bought one and boarded it there. The next year, they moved crosstown to their current place, around the corner from Friend, who retired from breeding in recent years.
In the intervening years, they have learned much about their flock, including what distinguishes alpacas from llamas.
The Alpaca Owners Association (AOA) summarizes conspicuous differences: “Llamas are much larger, about twice the size of an alpaca … whose weight averages 100 to 200 pounds. Llamas are primarily used for packing or for guarding herds of sheep or alpacas, whereas alpacas are primarily raised for their soft and luxurious fleece.”
The Cranes use this analogy: Alpacas are like cats, llamas like dogs.
“If [alpacas] want to come close to you, they will, but if you want to go up and pet them, they tend to run away,” Sid said. “It’s got to be on their terms.”
“Llamas are more willing to socialize with you in a different sort of way, like a dog would, come to you, whereas alpacas are more like cats,” Susan added. “They like to be near you when they’re curious, but they’re also a little bit wary of you. They like to stand back and observe.”
Alpacas come in two-dozen colors. The Cranes name their animals less for hue and more for circumstance. Dust Devil (aka Dusty) owes his name to the dirt dervish that blew through the pasture during his birth. Polonaise (Polly), born amid a thunderstorm that caused a blackout, got her name from the last piece of music played during the candlelit recital held that day.
Susan considers all of them “productive pets” or “pets with a purpose” because of the bounty they provide. There’s the wool, of course, plus other benefits.
“They’re quieter than dogs, they smell [better] than dogs, they mow your lawn,” she said, laughing. “And they’re not much bigger than a lot of dogs.”
Unless the Cranes sell one or more of their alpacas—any that Susan is willing to let go—they’ll keep their household as it is.
“We don’t foresee any changes,” Sid said. “This is the relationship we have, and we’re OK with that.”