CONYERS - If you've never been up close and personal with an alpaca, this weekend is your chance.
The Georgia Alpaca Association is hosting The Royal Alpaca Challenge Saturday and Sunday at Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers.
"It's kind of like a dog show but with alpacas," explained Holly Williams, president of the association and chair of the show.
About 340 alpacas from all over the South and Midwest are expected to compete at the event, which is free and open for the public's enjoyment.
The alpaca, a domesticated species of South American camelid, resembles a llama but is about half the size and known to be much more gentle. Alpacas also have a softer coat and their ears are straight versus banana-shaped like a llama's.
With big doe eyes coupled with a tendency to nuzzle your neck, it's only fair to say the creatures are downright charming, so long as you pet them on the neck or back and not directly on the head. Like all camelids, alpacas have a tendency to spit, but unlike llamas, they usually don't aim directly at humans on purpose, said Williams.
"They're just darn cute. They're really gentle and good with kids. This is more of a family thing. Kids aren't going to get scared the way they might from dogs barking. They're family friendly critters," she said.
At the show, the animals will be judged on conformation, or how well proportioned they are and how well they move in the ring, and quality of fiber. The more ribbons an alpaca wins, the more valuable it is and the higher price it fetches when sold for breeding.
The animal is primarily prized for its fleece. In America, alpacas cannot be sold for meat, although they are consumed in Peru and other South American countries.
The show is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, and judging will be ongoing for most of the day. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, when a kids' group will add a little fun to the festivities by running alpacas through an obstacle course. In addition, there will be vendors selling alpaca fiber products such as hats, scarves and socks and demonstrating fiber knitting.
Janice Buttitta of Desert Mountain Alpaca Ranch in Mansfield is bringing seven of her more than 30 alpacas to the show. Buttitta transferred her alpaca breeding business from Arizona to Newton a few years ago. After being laid off from her corporate job, she decided to find something a little less stressful and a little more enjoyable. It's clear she's having fun.
"This is Prada, that's Donatella, that's Versace," she said, introducing some of her herd to visitors.
She's also got an Armani and a Karan, as in Donna. In addition to high-end fashion designers, Buttitta's alpacas boast the names of Greek and Roman gods and luxury cars. Mercedes' coat feels like touching a cloud.
Competitors are not allowed to wash their animals before a show, so despite their fancy names, the alpacas are not highly pampered. Their fleece looks like peach cotton candy, as they've been rolling in the Georgia clay.
Other than walking them in a halter for practice and clipping their toenails with a rose bush trimmer, there's not much grooming that goes into preparation for the show.
Buttitta's alpacas are sheared in April. She sends their fleece to a mill that processes it into yarn and socks. She sells the yarn and products she's knitted in a small shop on her property, along with other alpaca fiber items imported from South America.
Alpaca fiber is great for sensitive skin, Buttitta said, because it's not itchy like wool and is lanolin free. The more fine fibers -- royal baby, baby and superfine -- are used for clothing items and accessories that touch the skin, while the coarse fibers are used for rugs, outerwear and other products worn away from the skin.
"Shows are a great place to meet new people and meet up with old friends and a great place to show everybody what you're doing in terms of breeding fibers," Buttitta said, explaining that the quality of fiber all comes down to breeding.
For more information on the Georgia Alpaca Association, visit www.georgia-alpaca.com.