Georgia Alpaca Association volunteer Sherry Ammen said that when she tells people that she breeds alpacas they generally respond with confusion.
"I have more people turn around and say, 'Oh, I've heard of that kind of dog before,'" Ammen said. "Alpacas are new enough in the United States that people aren't familiar with them and what a fine fiber animal they are."
The alpaca is most closely related to the camel or llama and is indigenous to Peru, Chile and Bolivia. The first imports of alpacas arrived in the U.S. in 1984, and since then breeders have established more than 2,000 alpaca farms.
The alpaca's profitability is in its coat -- a fine, soft fleece that can be milled into fiber to create everything from purses to rugs to clothing. Ammen said that alpaca is sought after by the fashion industry, and its thermal and texture properties outdo wool and synthetic.
An alpaca has no lanolin, which causes wool to be itchy, and is soft, lightweight, warm and hypoallergenic, Ammen said. The fiber is also more breathable than synthetic and keeps moisture away from the body. Even compared to cashmere, Ammen said, it is more wrinkle resistant and keeps its luster.
Those interested in seeing the unusual animals firsthand will have an opportunity next weekend when the Royal Alpaca Challenge comes to the Georgia International Horse Park. An event free and open to the public, the Royal Alpaca Challenge runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 22.
More than 80 alpaca farms from the Southeast and across the U.S. including Utah and Illinois will display their animals and compete for best fleece quality and animal build. The event also features fiber artists demonstrating weaving and spinning techniques, and alpaca merchandise, such as yarn, sweaters, vests, hats, scarves, socks and floor coverings, for sale and available through silent auction.
Ammen said breeders choose to raise alpacas not only for their useful and attractive fleece but also because the animals exhibit good temperaments.
"The fact that the animal is a gentle, cute and easy to handle animal that is raised just for fiber, not killing, is a major attraction," said Ammen.
The Royal Alpaca Challenge is for people of all ages, Ammen said.
"Both children and adults, once you're there and see these animals, particularly when you have a number of them together, it is an amazing sight. They have 22 recognized natural colors, and at the alpaca show you'll see an interesting cross of colors," Ammen said.
Oxford alpaca breeders Louise Avaritt and her daughter Alison Lassiter, along with their husbands, decided to establish Titan Alpaca Farm almost three years ago as a way to build a low-stress family business. Avaritt works part time as a pharmacist and Lassiter is a registered nurse who is choosing to stay home and raise a family; both women's husbands work full time outside of the farm.
Dog breeders and horse owners, the women said that they wanted to stay in the field of animal husbandry and the alpacas offered a gentle and kid-safe alternative to horses or other large livestock.
"They are very quiet and peaceful to be around," Lassiter said.
Making a profit off of alpacas doesn't involve slaughter of the animal, another plus.
"Every year we take the fiber off and use it and the animal is intact and healthy. That was appealing," Lassiter said.
Lassiter and Avaritt started with four breedable females and now tend to a herd of 10. The animals require minimal maintenance -- hay, grass, grains and water, twice daily -- and monthly shots to control worms. Keeping the animals cool in the summer and making sure that baby alpacas survive birth prove to be the biggest challenges.
The women said they intend to make a profit by selling the offspring they've bred. They also give the fleece to a co-op, which in turn gives them products made from alpaca.
"Our goal is to be self-sufficient instead of all of us going in different directions," Avaritt said.
For more information, visit www.royalalpacachallenge.com.