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Alpacas (and their fans) are flocking to Denver for the Great Western Alpaca Show

A young trainer leads an alpaca through a performance competition at the Great Western Alpaca Show
Courtesy of Jennifer Hack
A young trainer leads an alpaca through a performance competition at the Great Western Alpaca Show

The first commercially imported alpacas were brought to the U.S. from South America in 1984. Alpacas are famous for their soft, luxurious fleece – as well as for their reputation as perhaps the most adorable creatures on the planet, with their sweet, goofy smiles, calm dispositions, and impossibly long eyelashes.

The U.S. alpaca industry took off exponentially in the early 2000s, but prices collapsed a few years later during the Great Recession, and by 2014 the so-called alpaca bubble had burst.

Since then, however, the industry has been slowly coming back – and there’s plenty of love for alpacas here in Colorado. Ranchers raise them and sell their fiber for use in comfy sweaters, socks, even bedding.

You can visit with them up close this weekend at the Great Western Alpaca Show at the National Western complex in Denver. The show is free and open to the public, and runs through Sun. May 1. Fans can watch halter and performance competitions, costume contests, and peruse vendor booths with handcrafted alpaca fashions. And you can commemorate the entire weekend by hopping into the dedicated alpaca selfie photo booth.

To get a better idea of what the buzz over these fuzzy, gentle creatures is all about, Colorado Edition spoke with Jennifer Hack, the owner and founder of Triple H Ranch in Sedalia, where she’s been raising suri alpaca since 2013.

Interview Highlights
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: What made you decide to get into raising alpacas, versus some other type of livestock?

Jennifer Hack: There was a lot of thought that went into it. Part of it is that I can't raise animals that are going to go for slaughter. I just I get too attached; it’s a fault of mine. Alpaca are one of the few where, thankfully, right now there is not a terminal market for them. They're raised specifically for their fleece.

Judges at the Great Western Alpaca Show gauging fleece density and quality.
Courtesy of Jennifer Hack
Judges at the Great Western Alpaca Show gauging fleece density and quality.

Can you give a brief explanation of how the alpaca market works? I know they're valued for their fiber. How do ranchers like yourself make a living from alpaca herds?

So, there's many different streams of revenue in raising alpaca, or any livestock. But alpaca specifically, as I said, they are raised primarily for their fleece. Some of us like myself and some other larger ranches in Colorado, we also raise what are called seed stock. And those are the animals that are a little bit more valued. You know, they've done very well at shows. They have both the conformation as well as the fleece characteristics that we're looking for in making all the beautiful products that they can make. But - anything from having four animals as a fiber herd that you want to spin the yarn yourself, to -- there's people across the country that have their own mill and their own knitting machines and have just made a huge business out of it. So, it's really what you want to do and what you're comfortable with.

For those of us who haven't had the pleasure of feeling it, can you describe what a garment or an item made from alpaca fleece feels like?

Well, it's incredibly soft. Wool -- everybody thinks of that as prickly. And that's because it's got little scales that come off of each individual fiber. Alpaca does not have that. So there isn't that prickle factor when you deal with alpaca. And especially, you know, we've been breeding them for 30 years in the U.S. now and improving the fineness of all of our herds and the two different kinds are suri and huacaya. Suri feels more silky and has more of a drape, whereas huacaya still has that incredible soft feel, but it's a warmer fleece.

I want to talk a bit about the market and the infamous alpaca bubble. In 2006, there were around 85,000 alpacas registered in the U.S. And as sometimes happens in other industries, there was an alpaca boom in the early 2000s. That was followed by a bust. What happened?

Courtesy of Jennifer Hack
Tikka, one of the curious alpacas at Triple H Ranch, poses for the camera

Honestly, it's a lot of what happened to pretty much every industry. You know, around 2008 when the recession hit and prices for everything dropped simply because people couldn't afford to feed them, couldn't afford the property they were on anymore. It was just a difficult time really for the entire country. And so it's been slowly building back. But, you know, the industry now I think is pretty strong and we just continue to grow.

It almost sounds like there were a lot of people being sold this kind of idealized vision of a retired or semi-retired lifestyle, where you could just wake up and have coffee and go out in your backyard and tend to your herd of alpaca. But it sounds like it was a bit more complicated and a bit more difficult than that.

Yeah. I mean, they are livestock. So there's what comes with raising any livestock; you have to feed them twice a day and clean up after them, and watch their health, and know the individual personality of each animal so you can tell when there's a problem or not. So it's certainly not that easy. I mean, as far as animals go, alpacas are easier -- on the land, which was part of what brought me to them. They have pads on their feet so they don't tear up the ground like other hooved animals do. They're pretty easy on fencing. So as far as that goes, they're relatively easy, but it's still work.

You got into the alpaca business in 2013, after this bubble had burst. Did you have any qualms about it? And did that shape your approach getting into it?

Honestly, I was really excited to get in, to get involved. You know, I did a lot of research on them beforehand, and it helped as well that I had other livestock knowledge. So I understood their needs as far as being a herd animal, and I understood the nutrition and their conservation. So for me, it was actually it was a pretty simple transition.

What's the state of the industry right now for people who want to raise or breed alpaca? Have things recovered?

I think actually things right now are looking really positive. There have been a couple of national auctions this year that see the seed stock animals, that I was talking about earlier, selling back up to getting closer to where they used to be price-wise, which of course helps the breeders that are doing it. But at the same time, there's still those fiber animals out there, that if people want to have a small herd, it's enabling them to be able to do that relatively easily.

A small herd of alpacas at Triple H Ranch
Courtesy of Jennifer Hack
A small herd of alpacas at Triple H Ranch

Let's talk about the Great Western Alpaca Show. What can alpaca enthusiasts expect to see this weekend?

Well, there's a lot to see. We have, of course, our regular halter competition, which the alpacas are judged on 50% conformation and 50% fleece quality. And there's several characteristics that go into that.

Could you explain what you mean by conformation?

Conformation is how the animal is put together. So what they're looking for or want to see is a square body; so their back is the same length as their legs and the same length as their neck. So they're nice and balanced and they want a straight back. You know, they look at the quality of the head. Is it too long? Because that can make it difficult to breathe; or is it too short? Because that can have the same problem. They look at their bite to make sure that they can eat properly because obviously that's very important. Conformation is important because if you don't have a sound animal they tend to have a lot more health issues.

Courtesy of Jennifer Hack
Tikka, one of the alpacas of Triple H Ranch

What about judging the fleece? Do the judges just sort of get in there with their hands and feel for how fluffy and luxurious it is? How does that work?

Yes. So they'll part the fleece so they can see what it looks like down by the skin. They look for how fine the fleece is and actually take a small sample of the fleece and put it on their arm so they can compare it to the other animals in the class. They're looking for brightness and density -- how much fleece is that animal actually putting on their body? And every animal is different. So obviously our harvest is their fleece. So we want more follicles, the more hair follicles per inch the better because that gets us more fleece when we harvest it.

Does anyone measure the length of the eyelashes? I have to ask since it's one of the things that stands out to me personally the most when I see an alpaca face...

No. (laughs) Though there are some that have really long eyelashes.

Of course, one of the highlights for many people this weekend is the chance to get a selfie with an alpaca. Is there any alpaca photo etiquette we should know beforehand? They are sometimes known for spitting, so how do we not get spit on?

So first, alpaca don't generally spit at people. If they're going to spit, it's because they're arguing with each other over food. Or sometimes the mature males, which there are very few of at the show -- we only bring the calm ones when they're mature. Sometimes the mature males will spit at each other. It can happen; it's just very rare.

Courtesy of Great Western Alpaca Show

As far as being around them and touching them… Unlike a dog, they don't like to be touched on the top of the head. If people want to come in and touch them [it’s ok]. I mean the selfie booth, obviously people can get in there and put their arm around them; and they're very calm animals. They're used to being around people and they're good with having their neck petted. Sometimes some of them like to have under their chins scratched, that type of thing. But because they're a prey animal they can't see what's on top of their head, and that's why they don't like having top of their head petted.

What do you love most about raising alpacas?

Well, there's a couple things. One, they're just very calming animals. You know, if I've had a hard day and, you know, I love my horses and I have a very different relationship with my horses; but alpaca just seem to help you get centered and help you relax after a difficult day. But the other thing that I found is that the people in this industry are just honestly amazing people and very welcoming and very helpful. It doesn't matter if they're a competitor or what. If somebody needs help, they're going to give it.

As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.