ODESSA — As Brenda Crum neared a chain-link fence at Golden Spirit Alpaca Ranch, a set of big, black eyes framed by long lashes watched her.
"She loves to give kisses," Crum said as Maudie, 6, nuzzled her nose against Crum's face. Other alpacas rolled in dirt, basked in the sun and stripped bark off a crape myrtle.
Crum, 59, was working as an operating room nurse when inspiration struck one weekend in 2005. She was flipping through a farm magazine at a tractor supply store where she and her husband, Frank, shopped for supplies for their barn. There was a picture of an alpaca, a descendant of the camel and cousin of the llama.
She and Frank had 8 extra acres at their home that needed a use. Let's get some alpacas and see what happens, he said.
She bought four and quickly discovered a learning curve.
"We didn't know what we didn't know," she said.
She got showered with alpaca spit and got kicked trying to trim alpaca toenails. But she learned to predict spit in time to prevent or dodge it, and to provide space so she doesn't get kicked. Gradually she cultivated a business of shearing them for fleece, breeding them and selling their offspring. Then she bought more.
Her herd grew so big that Crum had to stop working as a nurse. She also needed a bigger ranch. In increments, she bought a tree farm, a horse farm and an orange grove along Tarpon Springs Road and turned them into Golden Spirit. The ranch has 75 acres of pasture for grazing.
A herd manager, a groundskeeper, a ranch hand and four part-time employees run the ranch with Crum. The staff helps her monitor the herd's health by overseeing behavior, weighing the animals monthly and doing ultrasounds on pregnant alpacas, which carry their babies for 11 1/2 months.
The staff also provides grain, hay and water, trains the alpacas to be led with halters, and cleans up manure — lots and lots of it.
The market for alpaca fleece is undeveloped, Crum said — it isn't mass produced. The fleece is comparable to cashmere and is used for sweaters, coats, gloves, hats, scarves, yarn and rugs.
This year, Crum estimates that the ranch has harvested 700 pounds of fleece. She'll send some of it to fleece shows to be judged for quality. The rest will be sold raw, sent to a co-op to be combined with other alpaca owners' fleece crops or sent to mills to be turned into yarn.
The ranch also sells alpacas to people as a commodity or as pets, and boards them. Crum owns about 150 of the 180 alpacas at the ranch. The others belong to owners who show them, breed them, sell them or have them as pets but don't have the space or time to take care of them without help.
Jamie Flores, president of the Florida Alpaca Breeders Association, lives in Seminole and owns 30 alpacas. She boards 14 females and two males at Golden Spirit.
"Brenda does all my breeding, she does all my birthing. Females require quite a bit more attention" than males, said Flores, who works 10- to 12-hour days as a nurse. "It's a relief knowing my animals are in the best place they can possibly be."
The ranch, said herd manager Angel Rodriquez, is the best ranch he has worked at in 20 years of working with alpacas.
"Brenda cares so much about the animals," he said. "She doesn't treat them like livestock."
Added Flores: She treats them "like family."
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6235.