A Taste of Life at Windrush Alpacas

October 27, 2007

Help – I’ve lost my baby!

I often tell people how important it is to know your alpacas well, I feel that knowing how each one behaves on a daily basis and understanding their individual personalities is crucial to the health and happiness of the herd. 

Knowing your alpacas well also makes you more aware of when they are trying to communicate something to you.  Alpacas can’t hold a conversation with humans the way one human would with another, but they are smart animals and they can devise their own ways of communicating with you.

If you are reading this and think there is no way an alpaca can communicate his or her needs with a human, then I ask you to read on and perhaps you will change your mind. 

When alpaca crias are first born they are on their feet within a short while after birth.  They have evolved to do this over hundreds of years to ensure their survival.  Usually once the cria is on its feet there is a very short time before the cria finds its dam and then nurses.  Scent goes a long way toward helping a cria find it’s dam, and an instinct to search out the dark or shadowy areas helps the cria find it’s way to the dam’s udder.  You sometimes hear of alpaca crias who try and nurse from a dark corner in a stall, or from the shadowy area underneath a wall-mounted feeder.  Those crias have found a dark or shadowy area (albeit the wrong one) and their instinct tells them that they should find an udder there (they won’t and that’s why it’s important not to put crias in solid sided stalls and to remove wall mounted feeders from a stall until after the cria has found its dams udder a couple of times.)

We monitor our newborn crias closely and make sure that they nurse well from their dams, we also give the dam and cria time alone in a stall to bond.  Once the cria has dried off, nursed a few times and is steady on it’s feet I then allow the dam and new cria to join the herd.  There is always great excitement among the girls when a new cria joins the group with much sniffing of the new arrival and sometimes even a little nudging and licking.   During that first day or two of life the crias eyesight is still not completely focused and sometimes the little ones can lose track of their dam as she moves around the pasture.  Given time the two will find each other, but if I am out in the pasture and see a new cria looking for it’s dam then I will gently herd it in the right direction and make sure the two reunite.

Our latest cria Kanika is a little bit of an independent girl and it has not been unusual for us to find her quite a distance from her dam Chai.  Chai is a good dam but she loves her food and will often have her head buried in the hay feeder.  Periodically she comes away from the hay and will search the pasture to find Kanika and check on her and when Chai’s udder is full she will make sure Kanika nurses.

Yesterday following morning chores we had some girls that we needed to breed.  While I was supervising one of the breedings Chai came up to me and hummed a little.  Now Chai is not really a hands on alpaca, she will readily come up to you to steal fruit from you if you have any, and at feeding time she is more than ready to get her head in the feed buckets but apart from that she prefers to interact with other alpacas.

When Chai came up to me the only thing I had in my hand was a lead rope, I thought she thought maybe the lead rope was something to eat and so held it out for her to sniff and check out, but the lead rope was not what Chai was interested in.   Chai stood directly in front of me and again hummed and I wondered what it was that she wanted.  It was a bit early for her to be interested in breeding so I didn’t think it was the male alpaca in the breeding pen that was getting her interest.  I waited a little longer to see if Chai was just hopeful that I had food and would wander off once she realized that I didn’t have anything to give her, but Chai remained in front of me staring at me and giving a little hum every now and then.

Then I realized that I could not see Kanika anywhere nearby and that the reason for Chai’s attention to me was that she had lost her baby.  Looking around the pasture I could see Carissima and Zeus over by the large blue barn so I thought that Kanika was most likely with them but may have gone into the blue barn where Chai could not see her.  I started to wander over to the blue barn and called for Chai to come with me which she did.  Having reached the barn I checked inside but there was no sign of Kanika.  Chai was now right behind me looking inquisitively into the barn, when she realized that Kanika was not in the barn she again stared at me and hummed. 

I thought of other places Kanika could be, I checked the alleyway between the fence line and the large blue barn but there was no sign of Kanika.  I checked all of the feed pens and the area around the big bale feeder to no avail and all the time I was checking Chai was following behind me, when I stopped Chai stopped, when I walked Chai walked.  The last hiding place I could think of was the alley between the small blue shelter and the fence, surely Kanika had to be there, but there was no sign of her.  Now I was starting to really get worried, where could Kanika possibly have gone?

I thought back to our activities that morning and realized one of the last things Ric did was walk out of the gate with a heavily loaded wheelbarrow of poop that needed dumping.  Perhaps Kanika had followed him out of the gate without him realizing.  I looked around outside of the pens but could not see any signs of a cria and Chai was still following close on my heels also looking for her cria. 

I started to call Ric who was in the house to see if he had any ideas where Kanika could be, I was now worried that she had somehow wandered off from the farm but was baffled as to why she would do that and how that could happen as we are so careful with opening and closing gates on the farm.  Just as I was dialing the house from my cell phone I walked back to the front of the small blue shelter and then noticed a little piece of dark cria fleece sticking out from under the hay feeder, there she was!  Kanika had fallen asleep under the hay feeder and then had become surrounded by the other girls who were busily eating out of the feeder.   Kanika was still asleep under the feeder blissfully unaware that Chai and I had been looking for her.  I felt bad waking her up but it was more important that she be reunited with poor Chai who had been worried as to where her cria was.  So the two were happily reunited.

What interests me about this situation is that Chai actively sought me out to help her.  She could have just wandered about the pasture on her own looking for her cria.  Most likely if I had seen her doing that I would have realized something was wrong and checked on her.  But Chai instead chose to come to me and in her own way told me that something was wrong.  It took a while for me to understand what she was trying to tell me but she got her message through eventually.  I firmly believe that Chai either thought I had her cria (she is used to us taking Kanika every day to be weighed and knows we always bring her back) or remembered that I had herded Kanika to her during those first couple of days when Kanika and Chai would become inadvertently separated.

I am sure had I not been in the pasture this morning Chai would have eventually found Kanika, it just would have taken her a lot longer to find her and in the meantime she would have become quite distressed.  But Chai didn’t choose to look for her cria alone, instead she came and found me and followed me as I worked my way around the pasture looking for Kanika.  I didn’t have any food with me at the time to cause Chai to follow me and this is very unusual behavior for Chai – so can alpacas communicate with humans?  I know what I think the answer is, but I’ll let you make up your own mind.

Rosemary

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