Is there an alpaca in your closet?
If not, you may be behind the times. Already, the fashion industry is hinting at alpaca sweaters and coats for autumn. Lightweight as silk and soft as cashmere, the fiber shone in designs from Louis Vuitton and Versace in Paris and Milan earlier this year.
In the Tampa Bay area, down a dead-end road in Largo, you can visit animals similar to those that source these luxury items.
The houses on Nina Street look ordinary, but in the back yard of Jamie Flores and her husband, Bob, there's an acre of peaceful livestock. Along with a donkey, five dwarf goats and a few dogs, 14 alpacas make their home at Shi'Lo' Alpacas. The couple also have 11 more females and three males at Golden Spirit Alpaca Ranch in Odessa.
Flores' eyes light up when she talks about her "boys." Most days, she can't wait to come home to them after working as a nurse manager at Largo Medical Center. On her website, shilo-alpaca.com, she writes that "once you step into my little bit of heaven, it doesn't take long before you feel a sense of calm and serenity."
"Taking care of my boys is a labor of love," she says.
The Floreses head out west every year. It was in the late 1990s, at a mom-and-pop diner in Flagstaff, Ariz., that they saw an article in a local newspaper about Cloud Dancer Alpacas. A side trip took them to the site, and she fell in love with the South American creatures.
"I was done," she says. "I was mesmerized. I said, 'I have to have these.' "
After leveling their back yard and erecting gates and fences, the couple purchased their first three alpacas in 2004. Flores previously had spent several days on a farm in Virginia to learn how to care for, feed and protect the animals.
"We just wanted three pets in our back yard," she says. "But ... alpacas are addicting.
"Fortunately, (the animals) don't require a lot of daily care. I feed them two times a day, and it takes about two hours to do the daily maintenance of feeding and paddock cleanup. They eat grain made just for the special needs of alpacas and a high-quality hay.
"When I have a day off, I spend more time with them just sitting in the field, cleaning water buckets and feed pails, spraying their bellies with the water hose."
Throughout the state of Florida there are more than 100 alpaca farms, and thousands of the animals.
Alpacas are bred specifically for their fiber. The cashmere-like fleece is used for making knitted and woven blankets, sweaters, textiles and woven items.
There are two breeds of alpaca. Suris have long, shiny locks that are very soft and slightly curly. Flores compares them to long, silky dreadlocks. The fiber is used in flowing items such as shawls and dresses. Huacaya (pronounced wuh-kai-ya) alpacas are fluffy like teddy bears. The crimpy fiber helps hold elasticity and is used in sweaters and gloves.
The fiber is hypoallergenic. Unlike wool, it is light and doesn't scratch. It is sometimes used for insulation in homes and for lining in military vests and other clothing.
Flores doesn't sell to commercial entities. She calls herself a hoarder and says she likes to keep the fiber for herself. She sends it off to a mill and decides afterward how it will be best used.
Once a year, usually at the end of May, she hires a company to shear the animals before the summer heat sets in.
Maintenance also includes packing the fleece and trimming the animals' nails and teeth, if needed.
A small store on the property holds mounds of soft fiber, used for yarn. Flores carries sweaters, hats and baby clothes all made from outside alpaca fibers. At any given time of the day, Desperado, 20 years old, or Kasa, almost a year old, along with the other animals, may be lounging at the front of the shed.
Alpacas tolerate the Florida heat and humidity but prefer colder temperatures.
"During the summers, we use fans to help keep them cool," Flores says. "I run my fans 24/7, have kiddie pools for them to swim in and provide loads of shade. But it's not unusual to see them lying out in the hot sun during the day with their bellies facing the sun."
What about their temperaments? Flores compares her alpacas to cats.
"If they want you to 'love on them,' they will let you. If not, they won't give you the time of day.
"I do have a couple that will stand for hours and let me scratch their necks," she says. "Some I can hug on, but others find humans to be a necessary evil in order to be fed and watered.''
But they are all very special to Flores in their own way.
"Talk to any alpaca rancher and they'll tell you the same thing," she says. "There's something magical about these creatures."
- Shi'Lo' Alpacas at 10950 Nina St. N, Largo. To schedule a farm visit, call (727) 278-3996.