With their fuzzy frames and quizzical expressions, alpacas might be one of the world’s goofiest looking animals. Of course, these llama-like creatures have much more to offer than just their funny faces. Alpaca fleece ranks as one of the finest textile materials available, similar to sheep’s wool only warmer and without any prickliness. In the 1990s these key qualities fueled a boom in alpaca fleece production that also encouraged many Americans to purchase their own animals for breeding. Once called “the world’s finest livestock investment,” the Alpaca Owners Association claimed that buying one beast for $30,000 would yield $1 million in earnings over a decade.
The alpaca market remained robust through much of the 2000s, with one farmer saying she sold a prized male for $500,000 “during the peak craziness.” However, matters turned for the worse when the financial crisis hit in 2008. Demand for expensive alpaca fleece fell along with the value of the animals themselves, leading to “herd liquidations” at many farms. Since then, rescue organizations have been scrambling to find homes for alpacas that can no longer be cared for by their original owners.
But while some farmers are giving away their animals and taking a big loss, others are discovering new ways to put them to work. At AlpacaZone in Winnipeg, for instance, customers can take dance classes outdoors while alpacas amble around them. Whether it’s “Camelid Cardio” or the hip-hop themed “Poppin’ Pacas,” these unusual events bring out people who love to socialize with animals as they work out. (The most popular class is “Alpacas, Mommy and Me,” in which the animals act “like a built in babysitter while mom is doing her exercise.”) Like other farms, AlpacaZone originally focused on breeding and fleece production only to change course once the bottom fell out of the market. Now they’re joined by other alpaca owners who use the creatures as interactive props at everything from birthday parties to wine tastings. Or as Alpaca Owners Association executive director Bud Synhorst describes these services: “Like a singing telegram, but with alpacas.”
- What caused the bottom to fall out of the alpaca farming market?
- Do you think unusual businesses like AlpacaZone can succeed in the long term? Why or why not?