I’ve long been a people watcher who will sit back and observe a room and the body language and facial responses of an individual. Without realizing it, this has quickly been transferred to alpacas. Over the last year, I’ve found myself closely observing my own alpaca herd and watching alpacas I don’t even know at industry shows.
Just like people, if you stop and take a moment to watch and listen to your alpacas, you can learn a lot about them and their behavior.
Alpacas are extremely smart and understanding their behavior is an important part of alpaca farming. The happier your herd is, the easier time you’ll have breeding them, keeping them physically healthy, producing high-quality fiber, and selling the alpacas or products to others.
The more I personally interact with alpacas, the more I become highly annoyed with everything I read about understanding and managing alpaca behavior. The alpaca industry has not embraced the internet, so there is a lot of old and incorrect information online. This made it really hard for me to learn online and forced me to do trial and error so I could learn firsthand.
To make matters worse, if you spend time visiting alpaca farms and ask each breeder the same question, you’ll most likely receive different answers each and every time. We’ve been to six alpaca farms this year and everyone has different views and opinions on managing and raising alpacas. Some of the information we’ve been given has had slight variations, while other information has completely contradicted the best practices of another farm.
Today I’d like to walk through my experiences with alpaca behavior, what I’ve observed, and more importantly, what I’ve learned.
The Backstory on Our Herd
Before I talk about standard alpaca behavior, I’d like to review my history with our alpacas. I want to walk through their personalities and how these have shifted as time progressed. I think this is important because I want you to see that alpacas are each unique and they come with very different experiences and personalities.
Yes, they are livestock, but they are extremely smart livestock. Their genetics and their life experiences shape their personalities. As an alpaca farmer, you can shift that behavior in many different directions.
The Alpaca Divas
In January we acquired our first set of alpacas. We bought five from the Nelsen’s at Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm in Frankfort, Michigan. Four of these five alpacas arrived together and then we had to patiently wait for baby Adel to come once she was weaned from her mother.
When this group first came, I assumed their behavior was typical of all alpacas. Oh, how I was wrong. These alpacas were an example of alpaca behavior for this farm and this lineage out of Peru. As our farm grew, I realized the Crystal girls were divas, had short tempers, and two of them had a strong stubborn streak. And with all those characteristics, I loved them all dearly.
The four adult alpacas were quick to spit at each other and had little tolerance for anyone in their personal space. Even mother Kalista and daughter Sienna offered little grace to each other when personal space and feeding came into play.
Ariana and Adel both stem from 5Peruvian Micay, who was a spitfire female alpaca from Peru. Micay is Ariana’s mother and Adel’s great grandmother. Micay’s personality is strong and her ability to pass this on to her offspring is even stronger. I was recently at an alpaca show and I could spot Ariana’s daughter (Micay’s granddaughter) from twenty feet away simply by seeing her demeanor and facial expressions. I had never met this alpaca before, but I instantly knew it was from 5Peruvian Micay.
Ariana was clearly the alpha alpaca and no one was going to unseat her and take this position from her. Kalista was always trying to move into her position, but she didn’t have the personality passed onto her from Micay so she was no match for Ariana.
Anastasia, another adult female, simply focused on food and growing her overweight self. She was super pleasant and sweet, but the bottom line was she cared about nothing else beyond her next meal.
All of this maneuvering produced disagreements and spitting.
I had my fill of this quickly and I would find myself doing manners training in the barn with the girls in the depth of February winter nights. Without even realizing it, I taught them the words “no ma’am” and my mom look. They learned my stern mom look meant to tone down the behavior and cease the spitting.
Flash forward ten months and the girls no longer spit at every whim. Ariana is still the alpha, but Kalista has given up the fight for dominance. Everyone is more tolerant of each other and they all know I am the alpha human mom. When I am in the barn, spitting is usually not present and if I give a look or a no ma’am they all quickly take note.
Ariana is still my favorite and we have a strong connection with each other. She keeps a keen eye on me as I do on her. She verbalizes to me when things are wrong and makes sure I am aware of something she deems important or of concern. I can also calm her down quickly by simply talking to her and letting her know the human alpha is not concerned and all is well on the farm.
And baby Adel? She has grown into her own and is now one year old. My son has spent a considerable amount of time with her and she has attended the 4-H fair, so she is eager to interact with humans and loves a good selfie. She is smart enough to know her limits. She still has her stubborn Micay streak, but she knows she is the alpaca and she is not above either Ariana or us humans. She’s lovable, yet sassy all in one.
Looking at the five girls, their personalities, and how they’ve changed over the last few months is a great example of nature vs. nurture. I will never be able to take out Micay’s spunk from Ariana or Adel, and honestly, I don’t want to either. But I can influence how they interact with us and our herd.
I’ll admit I never thought we’d come this far in these last few months.
The Alpaca Adoptions
Our next arrivals came from a small farm in Northern Michigan. The 4-H had called us and asked if we could adopt two alpacas that needed to be rehomed. We went to visit them on a cold winter day and we promptly said yes to the adoptions. Faith and Stormy arrived home a few days later.
Neither had ever had a barn, so they opted to stay outside the first few weeks. It literally took a good month before Faith was comfortable being in the barn at night or being in the barn with humans.
As the weeks progressed, Stormy grew her love for us. She would dance around the pasture when she saw me approach and always run over to greet me. Faith would simply exist and maintained her distance.
I made Faith my special project for months and would slowly work at approaching her. She would not eat from a bucket or our hands, so I would go out in bitterly cold winds to open spaces to work with her on this task. Slowly and day by day, she shifted her behavior. First, she would eat out of a bucket outside, then my hand outside, and then my hand inside the barn.
Flash forward about nine months and Faith is just one of the herd. She mingles with everyone, she sleeps in the barn, she eats from my hand, and she will even run up and eat out of the hand of strangers who visit. And she does so with interest and happiness for the treats.
I would have never thought we would have influenced and modified her behavior in the way that we did. And honestly, all it really took was patience, some love, and allowing Faith to progress at her own pace.
The Chill Alpacas
Our next alpaca purchase came from Loney’s Alpaca Junction in Lake City, Michigan. The owners of this farm are Bill and Gena Loney. They are the nicest and chilliest people you’ll meet in the alpaca industry. We soon found out their alpacas are just as chill.
We purchased Dolly, Reba, and Princess Aurora in the spring. We liked the look of all three and Dolly and Reba had Snowmass in their genetics, which was something we wanted. What we didn’t realize was the ladies had the same personality as Gena and Bill. All three are mellow and just plain go with the flow alpacas. Their behavior was just the opposite of the Crystal Divas and Micay’s offspring. This group made an excellent addition to our alpaca herd, because their behavior offset that of the Crystal alpacas. It produced a yin and yang and provided balance.
Dolly, Reba, and Princess Aurora are all now pregnant and they have shifted their personality slightly. Dolly has become even more chill and Reba has become spunkier. Calm little Reba will not quickly tell other alpacas how she feels.
While I didn’t need to shift any alpaca behavior with this group, I did want to make sure the chill alpacas didn’t feel overpowered by the diva alpacas. This meant I needed to reinforce their sense of security, without disrupting the group dynamic and the natural alpaca behavior that is set in place by the fact that these are livestock animals that have herd mentality and a social hierarchy in place.
The PA Girls
Our last set of alpacas came from a farm in Pennsylvania. My husband discovered a couple who was looking to disperse their herd for retirement purposes. We purchased seven female alpacas from this farm and did so without actually meeting the alpacas in person.
The PA girls came with their own sense of hierarchy, personalities, and characteristics. Their alpaca behavior was securely in place and their group dynamic was very firm.
Vin was their matriarch and the group’s alpha alpaca, Bean and Avalon were the group’s lovers, Zula was the quirky one, Indie and Attie were the divas, and Ginger was the omega and a bit of an outcast.
You could immediately tell this was a whole different group and I suspected they would modify the behavior of our existing herd. And they did just that!
At arrival, I could not get Attie or her daughter Ginger to make eye contact with me or be physically anywhere close to me. Ginger has constantly talking and humming as if she was upset about something. I knew things would settle and that calm would eventually come with time. I also knew had to wait until they felt comfortable in their new home to truly see their personalities.
And they settled in, their alpaca behavior shifted. Attie now eagerly interacts and makes eye contact with me, while Ginger is warming more day by day. Ginger only hums when things are changed around her, and I can quickly settle her by talking one on one with her should she get upset about something.
Vin joined Ariana as an alpha alpaca, and so far, they tend to share this title in harmony.
Avalon is the new farm greeter, while Bean and Zula seek out attention and love from the humans.
Indie and Attie beat to their own drums, but both are becoming more and more social. Indie was actively seeking interaction with me this week and there was a noticeable difference in her level of comfort and happiness.
While that may not seem like a lot of change, they’ve only been on our farm for weeks. So, it is a lot of shifts in behavior in just a short amount of time. This tells me they trust us, feel comfortable with their new farm, and they’ve settled into the herd hierarchy.
Boys bring a whole different version of alpaca behavior and you have to worry about things you would not with females. From Berserk Male Syndrome to wanting to mate the ladies, the boy alpacas are a handful. This changes the dynamic quickly and it requires segregation once the boys are weaned from their mothers. Teddy and Levi are just reaching this point.
The interesting thing is you can tell who comes from which mother and which farm.
Teddy has Micay in his background, so he is a mini spitfire similar to Adel. He can quickly get into trouble, although he does listen to us humans. Levi is just the opposite. Laid is completely back just like his mother and the rest of the alpacas from Loney’s farm. Interaction with them requires you to adapt to the nuances of their personalities and alpaca behavior.
There is no golden rule for managing alpaca behavior. You have to remember that alpacas are livestock and they have personality traits and actions associated with alpacas in general. Then you have to adapt this knowledge to the individual alpacas, their personalities, and their lineage.
Understanding the Nuances of Alpaca Behavior
Now that I’ve taken you through some recent experiences I’ve had with alpacas and their individual behavior, I’d like to talk about alpaca behavior in general. It’s all connected and it is important to understand all aspects of alpacas.
Livestock vs. Pet
Let’s start by reviewing alpacas and their usage. Alpacas and llamas have become very popular lately. This isn’t just in the United States, their popularity has been growing all around the world. As their exposure has grown, the confusion on their usage has grown as well. People assume they are pets, when in fact, they are 100% livestock.
Yes, you can keep a few alpacas as pets, but make no mistake, they are livestock and they have a purpose well beyond cute companions.
Alpacas originate from the vicuña, which is a South American camelid. They were bred to produce high-quality fiber for the rich and wealthy. This was their primary purpose and why they are referred to as producing the “fiber of the gods.” In addition to producing high quality, hypoallergenic fiber, alpacas also produce offspring, hides, poop, and meat for sale.
Notice nothing there was mentioned as pets. Alpacas and their usage are signals of farming, livestock, and operating a farm as a business.
That said, older or nonbreeding alpacas do make excellent pets. This is because they no longer have the option of breeding and producing offspring. As the alpaca ages, their fiber micron levels increase and the quality decreases, which makes usage of the fiber more difficult and restrictive. This thus reduces the options for using alpacas, which is why older nonbreeders are turned into pets.
End of life is something we alpaca farms in the US need to work on to produce a more sustainable industry. Most older alpacas will go to families and be used as pets, however, that is not always ideal, since many people take on alpacas without understanding the true nature of their needs.
But the overriding point here is that alpacas are in fact livestock and they become pets out of lack of use. Alpaca farmers typically do not breed alpacas for pet usage, but they default to this as they age out of their working years.
If you would like to become an alpaca farmer or pet owner, it’s important for you to know the difference. Remember their first purpose is as livestock and as members of a working farm. They fall into the pet category when they fail to meet the quality standards needed or they age out.
This means you have livestock, and no matter how cute and fluffy alpacas are, they need to be treated as livestock. My caveat to this is they are highly intelligent livestock and this does impact how one would interact with them.
The next point of confusion involves alpaca herds and the need for maintaining this balance. Alpacas are herd animals with very limited ability to protect themselves. They feel safest in a herd and they are at the peak of mental and physical health when they are in a herd. We found this belief to be overly accurate as we grew our own herd.
Three alpacas are the minimum of what should be kept on a farm. Anything less will prevent a feeling of safety and will eliminate the ability to establish a social hierarchy. That will produce stressed alpacas and this will be illustrated in their behavior and fiber quality.
One additional point to note is that adult males and females cannot be part of the same herd living in the same quarters or pastures. Males must be kept separately, and this is true even if they are gelded and no longer capable of producing offspring.
I often hear or read about new farmers keeping males and females together. This can and will be physically damaging to the females, it will result in lost pregnancies, and possibly the death of the female.
As the alpaca owner and breeder, it is your responsibility to create the proper herd structure and physical boundaries to create a safe and healthy environment for your herd.
I mentioned earlier about both Ariana and Ginger talking to express their displeasure with a situation. Avalon also talks, but for her, she clucks as humans approach. It’s her way of signaling she sees you and her effort to create a friendly encounter.
Let’s review the various types of alpaca sounds:
- Humming – This is the primary method of communication and it starts at birth. When a new cria (alpaca baby) is born, the mother and cria hum constantly to each other. It is their way to communicate and stay connected. Alpacas will also hum in an effort to express distress or anger. This is especially true if living arrangements are changed, they are moved, or they are separated from their herd. Alpacas may also hum if they are curious, happy, or just plain cautious. You might be asking how you’d know the difference, but you will quickly know the hum and meaning if you listen. I know my alpaca hums and I know what they mean. I know this because I’ve spent the time to sit and listen to them.
- Snorting – Alpacas will snort when another alpaca is invading their personal space. It’s like a warning message to move away. We don’t have a lot of alpacas that snort, but the ones that do, snort often.
- Clucking – An alpaca will also cluck to express concern or to signal friendly behavior. I mentioned earlier that Avalon clucks and Stormy does too. Both cluck when they are excited to see humans approach the pasture. Ariana and Princess both clucked for their young crias.
- Alarm Call – I had never heard this until Zula arrived. If Zula sees something she fears, she will signal the herd of the threat by using her alarm call. I suspect this also is a warning message to the treat to depart. It’s hard to describe the sound, but when you hear it you will know it is the alarm call.
- Screaming – An alpaca scream is extremely loud. It’s as if someone set off a siren next to your head. Alpacas will scream when they are not handled correctly or when they believe they are not being handled properly. Ariana screams during shearing no matter how gentle the sheering team is with her. Thank heavens they are professionals, can power through the noise, and can remove the fiber quickly and safely regardless of Ariana screaming in their ears.
- Orgling – An orgle is a sound the male makes during breeding. It is not pleasant and it’s something that would send a human female running. The alpaca female doesn’t mind.
Now if you noticed in my listing of alpaca sounds, not everyone produced all the sounds. Each of our alpacas are fairly unique in what sounds they make and when they make them.
As the alpaca farmer, it is your job to listen, learn about each sound, and understand what this sound means for a given alpaca.
Everyone always asks about spitting. Alpacas do spit, but generally only on each other and only when upset. Spitting is not something that an alpaca walks around doing for no specific reason.
In the last year, I’ve been spit on three times. All three instances were in a few weeks’ time and all of them were due to me being in the way. Not once did the alpaca mean to spit on me personally. I just got myself in the path of the spit.
Alpacas are docile creators by nature. They would rather pleasantly interact with you before spitting at you.
The alpaca herd is similar to any community, group, or even gang. They have a leader and they have followers. The leader, or alpha, tends to watch over the herd and will influence the behavior of the other alpacas in the herd.
For example, Ariana watches over the herd, watches everything around the pasture, and keeps a keen eye on what the alpacas and humans are doing. If she senses danger she will hum. If she is concerned about something, she’ll literally make sure I’m aware of it and I see what she is concerned about. If she is upset with the behavior of another alpaca, she will make this known with other verbal cues or spitting.
Another example is Vin. Vin is the oldest alpaca we have and the matriarch. She is also an alpaca, but she is a milder alpaca. She still keeps watch as Ariana does, but she is slower to react and will be softer in her communication to another alpaca.
Both of our alpaca girls become very agitated if they are segregated from the heard. This is because they cannot keep watch and perform their alpha duties.
All herds need an alpha and I never interfere with this social hierarchy and interaction. I have interfered when it is obvious the alpha is picking on a specific alpaca. We have had this experience with Ariana and this was an example of alpaca behavior that I modified. Some may argue with me on that approach, but for the peace and stress level of the herd, I thought it was necessary. And in the end, Ariana and I still have a close bond and probably an even stronger bond because she now views me as a follow alpha.
If you look at our alpaca photos, you’ll clearly see we spend a lot of time with our alpacas. My husband is with them at least twice a day for chores and I go out to the barn each night after my workday ends. We both view this as an important part of alpaca farming and breeding.
The more human interaction we offer, the more we learn about alpaca behavior, and the more we know our alpaca herd. This allows us to better care for them and prepares them for an eventual sale to another farm.
A few things to remember about interacting with alpacas is they have long-term memories. If you treat an alpaca poorly, they won’t soon forget it. They are also highly intelligent animals. They can tell one human apart from another and they can learn how to adapt to different humans and each other.
You also need to remember that even though they can tell one human from another, your interaction influences their perception of all humans. You can either build up trust or degrade it with each encounter. I chose to build trust and respect, while also encouraging anyone who comes to our farm to do the same.
The more time you spend with your alpacas, the more you will be one with the herd. Notice I did not say one of the herd. You want to personally know and deeply understand your herd. It is only when this happens that you will be able to fully understand alpaca behavior and better see how your actions can influence it in a positive or negative manner.
People are often surprised when I state alpacas are trainable. This year I’ve found our alpacas to be very trainable, especially since most of my training wasn’t done with intent. I literally taught our adult alpacas “no ma’am” without even trying to do it, which makes me think I could have trained them for so much more if I was paying better attention.
Overall, I’ve found alpacas to be more trainable then family pets like dogs or cats. My assessment of this year’s activity with our alpacas has included the following:
- Alpaca intelligence varies alpaca by alpaca, just like it does in humans.
- Alpacas are very astute. They watch humans closely and use this information to modify their own behavior.
- Alpacas can watch and react to facial expressions of humans.
- Alpacas can learn verbal commands and be taught to take action based on these commands.
- Some alpacas begin to recognize physical items and recall their usage. Our alpaca Adel knows what an iPhone is and expects selfies when one is brought out.
- Alpacas know their names when you use them frequently.
- Alpacas know if one alpaca is receiving more attention than others. This isn’t true for our entire herd, but it is absolutely true for some of the smarter alpacas like Ariana.
- Alpha alpacas expect to be treated with respect and this pertains to both humans and the alpaca herd.
Just like humans, alpacas are unique. Not all are smart, nice, or agreeable. Figuring out the core behavior of an alpaca will help you modify it if needed.
One cannot discuss alpaca behavior without touching on the issue of Berserk Male syndrome. This is also known as “Novice Handler Syndrome” or “Berzerk Alpaca Syndrome.” It is brought upon by humans when they inadvertently incorrectly interact with young males. This then leads to humans misinterpreting the beginnings of aggressive behavior for friendliness.
Since we have two young males right now, we have to watch this closely. We interact with them, create a bond, but watch closely for signs of aggressive play or a desire for dominance. I’ve had two incidents where Teddy and Levi went from being loving to wanting to dominate me in play. I quickly stopped the behavior and have done my best to not encourage it moving forward. I don’t think either alpaca was being overly aggressive, but there is a fine line between play and male dominance. As the human it is my job to maintain the appropriate boundaries, so the young alpacas do not confuse me with an alpaca.
Mating is another topic that quickly comes to mind when discussing alpaca behavior. If you’ve ever witnessed mating with an aggressive male, you’ll know why. When the male is an aggressive mate, he will do everything within his power to complete his task and you do not want to get in the way.
I’ve found it very interesting to watch how this all plays out and to note how the male’s personality can vary during this process. Add in the elements of different environments and females and you will have even more variance in the male’s temperament.
Variations in temperament are not for the males alone. The female varies too. An unbred female alpaca can completely change her personality when a male arrives. Even the crabbiest alpaca can turn into a sweet docile female in an effort to be the winner of the mating session. We’ve witnessed this with Sienna on multiple occasions.
And while the mating is happening, there is always a spectator area in play. Any unbred females will lie down as close to the mating couple as they can. The bred females tend to stand back and just watch as if this is the entertainment for the day.
Alpaca pregnancies shift personalities drastically too. I would say virtually all of our alpacas have changed their personalities once they become pregnant. Friendly Stormy became aloof, while quiet and quirky Reba became spunky. Kalista, who would come greet me every time I entered the barn, now ignores me entirely.
The only one who hasn’t shifted drastically is Ariana. I’m not sure if this is because she is an old pro at it or if she is not affected by the hormone change as much as the others.
What I do know if my alpaca girls are affected by the change in hormones and we can see this by the dramatic shift in some of their behavior.
My Personal Tips for Managing Alpaca Behavior
I am not an alpaca expert. Far from it actually. But I do pay close attention to a person’s character and their demeanor. This practice has transferred over to my interaction with our alpaca herd and I know I’ve benefited from it.
Below are my ten tips for encouraging positive alpaca behavior, building a strong bond, and making the most of your alpaca relationship:
- Talk Upon Approach – As I walk to the pasture or barn, I will start speaking while I’m far away so the alpacas can hear my voice and know it is a friendly and familiar human approaching. As Stormy dances or Avalon clucks, I know they are happy to see me. This brings them a sense of calm and it makes me happy to know at least some of the herd is excited to see me.
- Remain Calm – No matter what happens, remain calm and project this sense of tranquility to your herd. Alpacas are smart enough to feed off of your vibe and your mood, so make sure you don’t let this get altered while interacting.
- Don’t Bring Your Bad Day to the Barn – I’ve had a lot of bad workdays that left me exhausted and crabby. Instead of staying in this unpleasant mood, I choose to head to the barn and let the alpacas lift it away. In doing so I need to be careful of not transferring my stress to the animals. I leave my crabby at the door and allow the alpacas to replenish the void with peace.
- Time is Invaluable – The best gift you can give your alpaca is time. They need time to adjust to their new surroundings and time to get to know you. The easiest way to facilitate this is to simply sit with them often. Take a chair and sit in the middle of the alpaca activity or off to the side. Let them see you exist with them and as part of them. Read a book if you must, but be present.
- Get on Their Level – I’m a tall woman and my head can be a few feet above some alpacas. I always make sure I lower my head to their level when interacting with them. I become less intimidating and the alpaca immediately becomes more relaxed. When I welcome children to the farm I always tell them they are the perfect size and this is because they are already at alpaca level. I personally believe it is one of the reasons alpacas love children.
- Make Eye Contact – Eye contact is important for human interaction and it is important for humans interacting with alpacas. I have found this to be important. If new alpacas, like Attie and Ginger, are uncomfortable with this, that’s okay and I’ll just keep trying. Soon enough they are comfortable and they realize eye contact is a way to interact and connect.
- Talk and Sing Them – This is probably one of the most important lessons I’ve learned. The more I talk to the alpacas, the more comfortable they are with me. And I don’t just talk to the herd as a whole. I patiently walk around and talk to each and every one of them.
- Use Their Names – Alpacas are easily smart enough to know their name and acknowledge their names being said. When I speak to each of our alpacas, I say their names while having our chat. I try very hard to name every alpaca in our herd when I visit. As the herd grows I miss some, but I catch them on the next visit. If your alpaca doesn’t currently know its name, keep repeating it. In a few weeks, I will know it and it will respond. And before I forget to mention it, I don’t use the “official” registry name. I use short versions like Vin, Attie, and Indie. It makes it much easier for communication and verbal reprimands if needed.
- Watch and Listen – There is so much you can learn if you sit quietly and watch and listen. I’ve always been one to people watch and now I alpaca watch. I’ve learned so much about general and individual alpaca behavior this way. If you take the time you can learn their body language and verbal cues, which will help you quickly identify stress, sickness, or plain old happiness.
- Address Anxiety – Don’t dismiss anxiety and stress, as it will quickly manifest itself in overall health and fiber quality. If you look at fiber, you can see exactly when alpacas undergo stress from farm moods, illness, or even bulling. If you see signs of anxiety, address it quickly. Comfort the one in stress and locate the source of the stress. A little intervention can go a long way to keeping your alpacas happy and healthy.
As with anything in life, the alpaca behavior you experience is typically comparable to the level of effort you put into your alpaca herd. You’ll have a very good understanding of each alpaca’s demeanor and temperament if you spend a lot of time interacting, listening, and watching. And the more you know and understand, the more you can shift this to produce more desirable behavior within the barn and pasture.