95% of alpaca births happen without any issues and require no human intervention. It's an important thing to remember as you sit in the barn worrying about an alpaca in labour. There are specific guidelines established to help you decide when assistance might be required - and just what kind of assistance that might be - but that's not what this post is about. You can go HERE
to read about that.
This is a story about Baby L.
Last summer was a tough one for alpaca births in this area. The early and extreme heat caught both humans and animals unaware, and we had a few births complicated by bad positioning and heat stress that required some help. When Miss L's labour went overtime and she seemed no closer to delivering, a quick check revealed that Baby L was trying to come into this world shoulders first. With the Vet on the way, I used my human midwife skills to try and rotate the cria and managed to get him partially turned. The Vet and I worked for an additional 45 minutes rotating and finally pulling out a very shaky but otherwise okay baby boy. Poor Miss L had a very rough delivery, and since baby was sitting up and okay we worked on making mom more comfortable.
Baby L was adorable and as mom recovered from the initial shock of the traumatic birth she nuzzled her wee boy and encouraged him to stand. When crias first stand up it's kind of like that scene from Bambi - they are all wobbly and it takes some practice for them to get used to their legs. As Baby L stood up and tried his first few steps I knew immediately this was different - something was very wrong.
His legs appeared to pull to one side - front and back. The more he tried to walk the worse it got. I was beside myself. I don't get like that often. Was it nerve damage? A stroke? I had no idea. I picked him up and held him as tears rolled down my face. His mom had laboured so hard and I was still covered in her blood. After working so hard to be born it was heartbreaking that Baby L's struggles weren't over yet. We called the Vet back.
In horses they call it "windswept legs" and it's usually the result of a bad position in utero. Mild cases can resolve with a few simple measures and time. Baby L had both front and back legs affected - in opposite directions. One of his rear legs could not touch the ground because it stuck out at the hip.
The vet had never seen this in alpacas, but a horse so badly affected would have limited options. The possibility that Baby L would never use his legs and the difficult choices that would bring was never far from our minds. Calls were made to the Vet school and slowly a treatment plan came together. Using a combination of activity restriction, soft splinting and passive gentle stretching we would try to support the delicate growth plates in the knee and stretch the tendons and ligaments to allow more normal positioning. He had worked so hard to be born, we figured we owed it to him to give him the best chance at a normal alpaca life. Plus, he was cute as all get out.
We kept him with mom and his grandmother in a small area in the barn where they could see other alpacas but couldn't run with them. I felt bad having to separate him from the other new crias, but I knew he would try to keep up with them and potentially crush the bones in his leg. Every morning and every night I massaged his legs and gently bent them into shape. After 3 days I would use soft gauze and foam to softly splint his legs into position each night, and remove the splints in the morning to let him strengthen his tendons. By the end of the first week all four feet could touch the ground at the same time.
Our Vet team made many follow up visits, and while some were dubious about our therapy regime, it was clear that Baby L was growing stronger and getting better. It took many weeks of careful monitoring and care before we knew for sure his legs would be able to support his growing weight. I started him on an enhanced nutrition program to make sure he had the minerals he would need to heal as well as make sure his weight gain was slow and steady. His mom seemed to know we were trying to help and she was very good about letting us work with Baby L.
Nearly a year has gone by and the days of watching and worrying seem like a distant memory. Baby L is a big strapping (almost) yearling who runs and jumps with his buddies and shows no sign of any angular limb deformity. He has a sweet disposition, luscious fibre, and he's very tolerant of the humans that occasionally give him the once over. A year ago I was hopeful that someday Baby L would be able to support his own weight and walk well enough to live a normal life. After such a rough start, I wasn't sure we could expect much more than that.
Today I know better. Baby L has taught me that will to live and determination to overcome obstacles are not just human qualities. This little guy fought hard to stand, move, walk, run and play like the other crias. The least we could do was join the fight.
Just after shearing here is Baby L today:
**I've included only the mildest, least graphic, photos here. Photos do not show the extent of the original deformity, but hopefully convey the general idea in case others are looking for info on the condition in alpacas. Please contact me for more details.
You can tell a lot about what an organization stands for by taking a look at the kind of people behind it.
Canadian Alpaca Products is kind of a unique group for a lot of reasons. It's not just our many years of experience in the alpaca industry, or the fact that we can help with everything from buying an animal to shearing and processing fibre, that sets us apart - it's the people. There's no better example of this than a story from this past shearing season.
It was a few weeks into the season and we were at DL Farms with a full schedule of alpacas to shear. Both of our expert shearing teams - Dee and Adria Graham and Fred and Faye Glauser - would be kept busy that weekend getting all of the animals taken care of. We also had our expert fibre sorter Sheryl and her team, and my job was providing medical support and any injections or medications an animal might need.
That day we were making decent time and coming up on a much needed lunch break. I could tell the shearers were tired, and we had worked with some of the larger pregnant gals that morning so we were all looking forward to a snack and a cold drink. I spotted a truck pulling an older horse trailer coming down the laneway toward the shearing shed. We often have "drive-bys" when we shear at a farm - local people who may have an animal or two and drop by to have their animal tended to - and we are happy to do it. It doesn't usually take much time out of our schedule and it's sometimes the only way these animals have access to professional shearing or routine herd care. So we weren't too concerned as we cleaned off the tables to get ready for the next animals. That's when we saw him.
He was a recently rescued llama, and the kind folks that brought him had no idea of his age, past health or anything else. The animal seemed old and a little dazed, his posture was hunched, and he seemed to be stepping gingerly as he was led to the shearing area. Obviously he hadn't been shorn in some time - or as his new owner put it "He's in bad shape and I don't think he can wait much longer."
He was right about that. I immediately noticed the llama's rapid breathing and a quick listen to his heart confirmed that the poor guy was in trouble. It had been a very warm spring and *Brutus was already suffering from serious heat stress. This can happen quickly in unshorn heavier fleeced animals, and swelling around his testicles indicated the backup of fluid that comes with heart failure.
There was no doubt he needed immediate care, but we were wondering just where to start with such an overgrown animal in such precarious condition. His fleece was severely matted and since he was sweating, his skin would be as fragile as a baby's under all of that fibre. The weight of the fleece would need to be supported to avoid pulling the skin and causing the shears to nick or cut the animal. After a quick assessment, both shearing teams carefully got to work.
I prepared some vitamin shots and supplements to help keep Brutus as calm as possible - but considering what was happening, he was pretty still. While Fred worked on carefully parting the matted fibre and shearing, Dee worked on chipping away at his overgrown nails. It was long past break time but the crew stayed to assist in any way possible, even if just holding back fibre or helping to lift a foot.
It took awhile and there were many stops to sharpen blades or cool down the overworked shears, but slowly the prison of matted fibre was peeled away and Brutus seemed to revive before our eyes.
As his overgrown toenails were brought down to size he stood taller, and as the weight was pulled away from him he began to shake his head and take interest in his surroundings. I could already see his breathing becoming more regular and and his heart rate was closer to normal. Finally, Brutus was free.
It didn't take him long to notice the girls on the other side of the fence, and he pranced energetically towards them looking nothing like the stressed, worn llama that we started with. His new owners were grateful and amazed at what a handsome young stud he was under all of that fibre. After a final check to be sure he was recovering, Brutus was loaded back onto his trailer for the return home - without a scratch. He left behind a mountain of matted fibre and a weary and slightly bewildered shearing crew. We walked back to the house for an overdue break, and nobody said a whole lot about what we had just finished.
We had a short break and got on with the day, staying later into the evening to make up for the time spent on Brutus - but nobody seemed to mind. The crew didn't make a big deal about what they'd done and you won't hear any of them calling attention to the way they do their jobs. They give the same kind of care and attention to all of the animals they work with - and I've watched them shear hundreds of animals in all kinds of circumstances. They are the people that make CAP the kind of group it is. Whether you visit us at the market, drop in to an open house, or even visit us online, you are dealing with people who truly care about the animals we work with and the products we create.
We are getting ready for a new shearing season and we know it will bring its share of surprises and challenges. We are hoping it also brings us a chance to meet up with Brutus again and see how he's liking his new haircut.
I've written before about Archer, our 5 month old wandering
boy who manages to slip under fences, gates etc. in spite of everything
we do to block him. He never strays - stays right beside the fence or
wanders to the grass on the lawn, and when I approach him he slips back
under the fence or goes to the gate and waits for me to open it.
Yesterday he caught sight of the big boy paddocks across the lane and
went for a stroll. I wasn't far behind him, and I was curious to see
just what he'd get up to. Most of the big boys gave him a quick sniff
and them dismissed him. A few ignored him. But Tango - his father -
stuck his head out of the fence and gently nuzzled him, and they rubbed
heads and then ran together along the fence line.Their bond was obvious - in spite of the fact that they hadn't been exposed to each other before this. It's another reminder that there is so much that we do not yet understand about the way these remarkable creatures interact and communicate. I've seen this kind of thing before and it tells me that the bonds of herd and family are very important to alpacas, and I am very aware of this as I manage my herd.
Archer slipped out a few times more during the day, and strolled over to visit his dad. I followed him each time to make sure he got back where he belonged. Soon he will be too big to wiggle under the fence, and his Houdini days will be over. Then I'll put him in a halter and take him for walks to see his dad, and when he is weaned he will join him in that group. By then my main challenge will be trying to tell them apart.
When we talk to people about alpacas we often get asked "What do they eat?"
The simple answer is hay and a blended pellet with minerals.
But it goes a lot deeper than that. Much like other animals and even humans, they will eat a great many things - and left to their own devices they can exist on all kinds of forages and grains. But, just like with humans, the issue becomes "What SHOULD they eat?"
Like all creatures, alpacas have nutritional needs, and if we expect them to produce the best quality in fibre and offspring, then we need to pay attention to these needs. You can't feed your animals forage that has minimal nutrition and expect them to produce quality. That's like feeding your child nothing but junk food and wondering why they are not Olympic athletes.
We work with a local feed mill, and a representative I can call on the phone and talk to about what goes into the next batch of feed. A little more of this, a little less of that - all depending on the weather, the nutritional needs of the herd at the time, and the quality of the hay that makes up the bulk of their diet. Every alpaca will eat approximately 2-4 pounds of hay a day. The 1 cup of pelleted feed they eat daily is meant to add the minerals and other elements that the hay doesn't provide.
The widespread drought in North America has meant that the cost of good hay has tripled. We are lucky because we have local farmers who can supply us with just the kind of hay we need for our growing herd. Many people have had to ship in hay from far away. It may be pricey this year, but we are still very picky about the hay we feed our alpacas. A lack of rain this summer left the pastures pretty lean and nutritionally lacking, so we are not seeing the summer build up of weight on our animals - making good hay over the cold winter even more crucial.
So when someone squeezes a skein of our yarn at the market, or holds a shawl up to their face, exclaiming at how luscious and soft it feels, I'm sure they are not thinking about bales of leafy hay with just the right blend of alfalfa, well dryed and crumbling all over your neck as you lift it in to the feeder - but I am.