The other day I was telling a friend about my new pals, the alpacas on Bristol, Vermont’s Burpee Road. I see a portion of the small herd of ten animals almost every time I bike past them. Now they’re so familiar with my arrival that they stroll over to the wire fence and say hello when I stop. They are friendly and curious and feign interest in me even though I don’t share my Gatorade with them.
“But do they ever spit on you?” my friend asked.
This was the first I had heard that alpacas spit. I’m pretty much a cat and dog person. But I didn’t think an alpaca could possibly spew anything more grotesque than the stuff my cats shoot and spray from different orifices almost every day of their lives. I have one cat that insists on marking every book in my library. I have no idea how he reaches some of the shelves that he does.
In any case, I was really interested in this spitting thing, in part because I have the emotional maturity of a six-year-old boy, and in part because I couldn’t imagine these unfailingly polite sweater factories spitting. So, I decided to meet their owners, Peter and Gail Cousino.
“Oh, alpacas spit,” Gail told me, smiling. “It’s their only defense. Spitting and running. It’s a deterrent.” I asked if they could kick since, after all, they have hooves. She answered that being kicked by an alpaca is nothing compared to being kicked by a horse. And she would know, since she has had horses for years – as well as rabbits, pigs, Jersey cows, cats, dogs, and now the ten alpacas.
But the alpacas are new. This month marks two years since they brought home their first ones. “We got them as pets,” Peter told me, though this spring they had them sheared for the first time. Also this year the herd grew from eight to ten with the birth of Snapple in June and Sherlock in August. Astro, a white alpaca male who towers over the mostly cinnamon-colored females, was dad to both. The moms were Sugar and Sasha. The Cousino family finds their alpacas among the most low-maintenance animals they’ve ever had. “They’re beautiful and they’re quiet and they’re neat,” Gail said. An alpaca will usually grow to about four feet in height and live for 15 to 20 years.
“But does this spitting thing work?” I asked her. “I mean, spitting and running are pretty solid defense tactics if you’re in preschool. But if there’s a real predator after you, I would think spitting only goes so far – unless, maybe, you’re spitting radioactive sludge.”
Nope: Alpacas don’t spit radioactive sludge. Sometimes they spit air; sometimes they spit some seriously malodorous green slime straight out of “Ghostbusters.” And mostly, Gail said, they spit at the guys who are trying to shear them. Nevertheless, Alpaca expert Lennie Foss of Rochester, New Hampshire told me, “We need to be aware of their natural predators. In the case of farms with large pasture areas, there may be guard llamas that help as well as guard livestock dogs.” But alpacas are protective of each other: Gail has noticed that after Snapple and Sherlock were born this past summer, the mothers would surround the newborn alpacas to shield them whenever she or her husband got anywhere near the babies.
Peter told me that my interest in their alpacas is common. Some days he has seen people drive by and set up their tripods to photograph them. Visitors invariably park by the fence for a moment to watch them on weekends. And why not? They’re the spitting image of a well-mannered herd. They clearly don’t mind the paparazzi – or even a bicyclist who has filled his iPhone with pictures of them.
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If you want to learn more about alpacas, visit the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction later this month for the Green Mountain Alpaca Fall Spectacular. It runs Saturday and Sunday, October 19 – 20. There will be roughly 200 alpacas there, presentations about the animals, and vendors selling sweaters, blankets, and hats. Admission is $6. Children under 5 get in free.