Faith Gong: Alpaca dreamin'

I’ve been known to say, “More love is always a good thing!” I’ve been known to live that maxim, too, which is how I ended up with a husband, five children, a dog, a cat, 18 chickens, and 8 ducks. But I do have my limits, and I offer the following proof: We’re not sure about getting alpacas.

Most of my children love animals, and they’re prone to treating animal acquisition like it’s an arms race. “Why can’t we get another dog?!?” they’ll whine, after learning about a friend’s new canine — or fill in the blank with the species du jour. 

We are friendly with one particular family — we’ll call them the Donnells — whose habits of animal husbandry are the envy of my middle daughters. Like us, the Donnells have chickens and ducks, but they also have geese and two dogs. In past years they’ve kept pigs and beef cattle; currently, on a plot of land no bigger than our own, they are raising sheep and goats… and are the proud new owners of two alpacas. 

We haven’t seen the Donnells in months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we share a pediatric home health nurse in common, which is how we heard about the alpacas.

My daughters were upstairs playing while our nurse performed a weekly weight check on my son. “So,” she said casually, packing up her scale, “did you hear that the Donnells got two alpacas?”

Shhhhh!” I hissed, making slashing motions across my throat and pointing at the ceiling. Too late: Footsteps pounded up the stairs, followed by the voice of my third daughter telling her sisters, “Guys! Guys! I just heard that the Donnells got alpacas!

The inevitable question came at lunchtime: “Can we get alpacas, too?”

It just so happens that several of our daughters have had a year-long obsession with llamas; alpacas, slightly smaller relatives of llamas from the camelid family, would do just as well.

My husband and I have a two-fold criteria for deciding whether to add animals to our menagerie:

1.     The animals should have a purpose, providing a useful service such as food, mowing, or guardianship, and

2.     The animals should help our children to learn about responsible caretaking.

Two of our daughters started researching immediately in order to address the utility of alpacas. They recorded their findings and presented them to us:

“Alpacas work better with humans than llamas.”

“They are small and easy to care for.”

“Their wool is much softer than sheep wool, is flame and water resistant, and comes in about 52 colors!”

And this is what got my husband’s attention: “Because of their aggression towards foxes and coyotes, they are often used as guard animals.”

In late spring, a couple of brutal fox attacks wiped out nearly half of our poultry flock. We’ve recently spotted a large raccoon prowling around the perimeter of our coops. My husband is thinking constantly of ways to prevent further predation. Could alpacas be a solution?

“But the thing is,” we cautioned, before alpaca dreams started dancing in our heads, “you girls would need to really prove that you would take care of them. On your own. All year long.”

Animal chores have long been a sore point in our family. Every time we add poultry or house pets, our daughters swear to high heaven that they’ll take care of the animals…and a few weeks later, it’s the adults who’ve taken on all the chores rather than risk animal cruelty. Sure, the kids hover over the cute chicks when they arrive, but when it comes to mucking out the coop or hauling water in the dark freeze of a winter morning, they’re too tired, too busy. 

Thus far, we’ve let this slide because it’s effort enough just to get our children on track with more immediate, essential indoor chores like getting dressed, brushing their teeth, cleaning up after themselves, and helping with mealtime dishes. To be fair, our daughters are very helpful when it comes to fun tasks like watching the baby, rewarding indoor tasks like feeding the dog, or exciting one-off tasks like stacking wood or mowing the lawn. It’s the daily drudgery that they struggle with — as, I suppose, do we all. We’ve tried all sorts of systems, chore charts, and incentives, only to come to the conclusion that until some sort of inner change takes place, we’ll need to resign ourselves to a certain amount of nagging. 

There may be hope, however: For reasons that I can’t explain, that very kind of inner change has taken place in my two oldest daughters right around the time they turned 11 years old. It’s almost as if the pre-teen switch that causes them to become extra-sensitive and moody simultaneously flips a “neatness switch.” My eldest daughter, now almost 13, rearranges the furniture in her room on a weekly basis and is particularly concerned about the correct placement of the throw pillows on her bed. Stranger still, my second daughter — the sloppy creative who can fashion anything from cardboard and duct tape and leaves the detritus of her detailed clay setups all around the house — has suddenly become an obsessive bed-maker and room-cleaner, who nags her younger sister (and roommate) about cleanliness. 

Change happens. And it may just be that the promise of alpacas will inspire similar change when it comes to animal chores: After learning that they would have to earn our confidence by taking more responsibility for animal care, my daughters have been out of bed, dressed, and ready to tend the poultry for the past two mornings.

Time will tell; in the meantime, I’ll be fielding this daily question: “NOW can we get alpacas?”

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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