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The Buckhorn

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Winters Express
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Alpacas can teach you things you didn’t even know you needed to learn

One of my weirder obsessions is alpacas. I didn’t even know I had this obsession until I went to do a story on a nearby ranch for the Express. Within moments, I was hooked.
Such bizarre creatures. They have no upper teeth, and a perpetual whimsical grin — except when they’re trying to look fierce, their ridiculously huge brown eyes outlined with long whispy lashes, flashing anger. It has to be an impressive display, because they can’t really back that up. Besides lacking upper teeth with which to take a chunk out of your hide, they don’t weigh that much. Underneath all that hair, they’re delicately built. If push came to shove, I could probably take an alpaca down barehanded.
Me, wrestling an angry alpaca.
There’s your visual for today.
You’re welcome.
Yes, if looks could kill, the first lethal glance came from an alpaca. Beware “The Stare.” If the alpaca stink eye doesn’t get the message across, they can spit like their llama cousins. They usually don’t, but they will.
I learned all these cool facts while visiting Bruce Nelson’s “Ahh... Sweet Alpacas” ranch just south of Winters. We sat in his “office” (a wooden bench under a weeping willow, completely sheered off at about six feet from the ground — just where the alpacas’ reach ends). On another visit, I had the amazing experience of holding a newborn alpaca (called a cria) that was all legs and air — they only weigh about 15 pounds at birth. More recently, my husband and I took his grandkids to visit with the alpacas.
After feeding fresh mulberry leaves (alpaca crack) to the alpacas and giving the grandkids an opportunity to lead some alpacas around (who was leading who is debatable), we went out to Bruce’s office, surrounded by his sweet little herd, and listened to Bruce’s funny stores and anecdotes, as the alpacas wandered around us, occasionally making this little sound that I’m at a loss to describe — like a soft, soothing, grunty “mmmm mmmm mmmm.” Some were busy eating hay, others reached for any willow leaves that might have grown within reach, some curled their legs underneath them to lie in a position called a “cush,” and others wandered quietly behind us to nuzzle our necks and hair.
There’s nothing quite like the tickle of alpaca lips on the back of your neck and turning around to come nose to nose with such a wacky, wide-eyed whimsical creature... like a cross between a llama and an ostrich. Me, I had an epiphany at that exact moment: “I need an alpaca.”
Bruce explained, however, that you can’t really have just one alpaca because they’re unhappy by themselves and also because, like potato chips, you can’t really stop after just one.
Yes. They’re addictive.
Although some people purchase alpacas for their wonderful fleece, most discover that their true value is purely therapeutic. Alpacas are four-legged Xanax. Having a crappy day? Go sit with some alpacas and all that static drifts away.
If you want that experience, you can’t force it. You have to be still and let it happen on the alpacas’ terms. They don’t enjoy being touched and if you try to force your affection on them, no matter how well-intended, they’ll leave. They’re a lot like bunnies in this regard. People try to hug and kiss bunnies like they do dogs and cats, not realizing that a bunny isn’t a dog or a cat, it’s a bunny, and about the last thing on earth a prey animal wants is to be held tightly by a predator. That’s why so many cute little Easter bunnies end up at the animal shelter by summertime: the animal is “failing” to conform to human expectations, when in fact, it’s the humans who have failed to understand the animal.
There’s a valuable lesson to be learned from animals that won’t compromise themselves just for human affection. To experience a unique, wonderful relationship with this type of creature, you must surrender to it and allow the animal to decide if and when it will accept you. And when it does, there’s nothing quite as magical on earth as that rush of tingly joy and don’t-breathe-or-you’ll-ruin-the-moment when that animal decides to give you a chance.
Such was the case with my Minnie, a quite unsociable little rescue cat that had clearly been abused at some point in her life. She didn’t care for people at all, didn’t like to be touched, and should you insist on holding her, she’d wait for a golden moment of opportunity to spin like a whirlygig into the air and slash you to ribbons with her tiny, razor-sharp claws. Minnie didn’t come home with me because of her winning personality — her cagemate, Maxx, who suffers from excess personality, stole my heart and because they were bonded, Minnie came along with the deal.
I was kind to Minnie but basically left her alone. Months later, one day she hopped up onto my chest, stared into my eyes, kneaded my flesh into hamburger a little, then curled up purring and went to sleep. I didn’t move for an hour. And I really had to pee, too. But I wasn’t about to ruin that magical moment.
Minnie has been my sweet little soulmate ever since — but only because I interacted with her on her terms. Had I attempted to force her affection, well, I’d have needed more BandAids.
Growing up, I was taught to view animals as something to control; something to be taught to obey. But animals aren’t “things.” They’re creatures with needs and feelings, and if you can get out of your own human-centric way, they’ll teach things you never appreciated before. I’m learning this with my new horse too: cooperation is so much more fulfilling than dominance.
Want to discover what an alpaca can teach you? Ahh... Sweet Alpacas is having an open house on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 24 and 25. Maybe I’ll see you at “the office.”