In the agrarian section of Litchfield County, Connecticut, Roaring Acres Alpacas lies nestled among conventional livestock farms. The road winds away from the main street, where streaming traffic overflows from Bradley International Airport. The ride through gently sloping fields of cropped corn stalks and grasses makes one realize how tucked away this place is. Beyond these fields, a simple sign with an alpaca drawing marks the entrance to the gravel driveway that curves beyond a shrub-laced fence: “Roaring Acres Alpacas.”
The main attraction is its 135 furry, camelid inhabitants, Huacaya and Suri alpacas. These natives of South America are an unusual sight in Suffield, but not in their native Peru, where they have been a domesticated species for almost seven thousand years. Here in Connecticut, this farm fits a creative niche—a twist on the traditional American concept of animal husbandry.
In 2013, the owner and founder, Alison Mnich, began acquiring alpacas as a hypoallergenic alternative to horses, converting this once-golf course into a farm and sanctuary. Since then, the alpaca herd has expanded through purchases from other farms and numerous births. Roaring Acres Alpacas survives on its fur product sales (mostly yarns and clothing), donations, and alpaca sponsorships. Its mission is to bring public attention to alpacas as domestic animals, and it seems successful in doing so. The alpacas draw regular visitors who can’t resist their charm, their warm fur, and the welcoming atmosphere.
So, what can a first-time visitor expect?
During this winter season, the farm opens on Saturdays only. Visiting hours begin at noon.
This Saturday morning has had more activity than usual behind the scenes. As volunteers and staff workers performed their usual morning chores–feeding, watering, and cleaning up after the alpacas–a pregnant alpaca went into labor. Mnich is off somewhere in a nearby barn birthing a baby alpaca.
Chickens wander the parking area, crowing and darting under the fences that separate pens of pot belly pigs, cows, mini horses, and alpacas. Ducks splash playfully in the puddles of melting ice water. The birds’ commotion feels like a welcome call that conveys the lively but serene ambiance of the farm.
“But this is what they do. This is them. They go out to the field, frolic around for a bit.”
Mikaela Bouchard, one of the alpaca caretakers, mills around in the open field behind the parking lot, busily doing chores, but she takes a break to meet and greet visitors at the welcome kiosk—a small, wooden-blue hut bordering the pens. Her streaked blond hair is pinned up, and she is outfitted for springtime farm work: jeans and knee-high rain boots already speckled with mud from the field and pens. Bouchard explains the rules for entrance into the alpaca pens: don’t pet them on the top of the head—they don’t like it—and keep the bags closed when not feeding. Upon entering, the visitor gets a small paper bag filled with llama and alpaca grain, pellets that look like rabbit food. She calls it “their second serving of breakfast—a supplement to their main diet.” The staff feeds them their main staple of hay around 6:30 a.m. The alpacas are early risers who graze throughout the day.
Resident veterinarian James Smith, and fellow caretaker Dave Richman, dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, welcome visitors into the front alpaca pen.
Slender camel-like faces peer up from beneath powder puff Huacaya hairdos and ropey Suri dreads—in white, black, shades of browns and grays, and complex earth tones. The two breeds are a diverse bunch. But they all have the same big doe eyes that stare inquisitively at visitors.
Their behaviors and activities revolve around the supplement smorgasbord. The alpacas munch on donated Christmas trees: a nice dietary supplement, like a Metamucil breath mint. It’s a special treat that they enjoy. Still, they eagerly check out what the visitors have. They wander around, noodling the visitors, sticking their noses into the paper bags, purses, and pockets. They need to get to the bottom of a mystery—Who has food and where? Inside of their pen, anything that catches their attention is fair game for sniffing and nibbling.
The crunching of paper bags is a call to action.
A white-faced, gray-black Suri named Zora plows through the herd with her nose, nudging others out of the way. She somehow manages to always have her mouth wherever there is a hand extended. Feeding others proves challenging.
Originally from the Bahamas, Smith has an easygoing personality and a bright smile. He stands near a woman and her young daughter, who is avidly feeding a few alpacas. Zora butts between the others. Smith does funny, jovial interpretations of what the alpacas would say if they could talk. With a big, animated grin, he imitates Zora: “She’s like, ‘There is no one else. There is only me!” He gestures in the air with a little wave of his hand: “If they were hungry, they would push their way through like I am. Of all the alpacas here, the only one you need to worry about is me! Let me simplify your job.” Another alpaca is sizing up the woman’s phone. Smith says, “When people pull out their phones, sometimes they go for the phone.” Glancing at the woman’s phone, he responds as an alpaca, “Can I eat that, too?” The woman tells the alpaca she doesn’t have any more food. The alpaca nibbles at her Styrofoam Dunkin’ coffee cup. Smith leans and peeks towards her cup as he continues, in his alpaca voice: “What’s in the cup? Can I eat that, too?” But don’t worry. Alpacas don’t eat phones or coffee cups. They’re just curious animals. Once they know it’s something that is not food and doesn’t belong in their world, they lose interest.
Aside from being pickpockets, the alpacas just like to hang out, be petted, and use people as snuggle posts. Their only rambunctious behaviors are the occasional territorial spit at another alpaca and, on rare occasions, a monkey-like sound to warn other alpacas of dangerous animals: in this domesticated environment, cats and dogs. The alpacas get along with all other farm animals. Smith sums them up in very basic terms: “But this is what they do. This is them. They go out to the field, frolic around for a bit.”
Many families are regular visitors here. A flurry of excitement and activity lingers among the children, most of them toddlers to elementary schoolers. The kids really seem to love the alpacas. Smith says that the feeling is mutual: “They love the kids, too.”
The alpacas have a nice way of skimming food. Alpacas have a cleft palate of sorts, and they do not have front teeth; a split lip allows them to separate their lips and grab food from small human hands. Smith explained the feeding experience, “like a fingernail across your palm—the grazing of their bottom teeth. They use their lips more so. Some of them you feel using their teeth, scraping up the last bit, but they’re pretty gentle about it.”
There seems to be a special relationship between the visitors and the staff, too. The woman with the Dunkin’ cup tells Smith about what prompted her visit today. With a huge, carefree smile, she mimics her young daughter: “I want to see the pacas! I want to see the pacas!” The woman asks her daughter, “Did you say ‘Hi’ to James?” Smith replies, “She waved from outside, today. Long time, no see—how have you guys been?” The woman smiles as the little girl giggles, bounces up-and-down, and happily strokes one of the alpacas. Smith continues, “I see someone doesn’t have to be carried anymore.”
Located catty-corner to the alpaca pens, in a grayish cottage, the gift shop is a small, intimate boutique, where souvenirs and wardrobe items can be purchased. In addition to a selection of ready-made items throughout the store, wall-to-wall cubicles brim with yarn bundles: colorful dyed threads made from white alpaca fur and natural yarns in an array of authentic alpaca colors: white, silver-gray, rose-gray, tan, brown, bay black (brown/black), and black.
After a long morning birthing the baby alpaca, Alison Mnich enters the shop. She is dressed in the same farm garb as her employees, and her blond hair falls loosely at her shoulders. Her stance is relaxed, her manner attentive and friendly. Speaking about the differences in fur textures, she selects varied yarn bundles of fluffy Huacaya fur, ropey Suri fur, and varying mixtures of the two: “The Suri ends up being a much heavier drape, good for scarves or a cowl or something like that.” The variety of textures and colors makes this shop a knitter paradise.
These grown-up activities take backstage when a little girl enters the gift shop and pulls out her collapsible, pink canvas camp chair, placing it in direct line with the door—probably to get the best view of everyone coming in and out. Then, she plops herself in it. Her brunette head hovers in front of a shelf stacked with tiny alpaca stuffed animals, dyed in brilliant colors of the rainbow. From the counter behind the cash register, Bouchard looks amused and asks the little girl if she is making herself at home. The girl looks up, with her big blue eyes, and replies in a very matter-of-fact tone: “I’m not at home; I’m working.”
The shared love of the place blurs between visitors and staff, and work and home.
The staff seems at home in their work, because the farm chores are a labor of love, dedicated to the furry residents. Chores are mixed with exchanges of affection between alpacas and the staff. An alpaca cranes its face upward as caretaker Richman plants a kiss on its nose. Beaming with affection, Bouchard hugs a caramel brown alpaca:“This is Toffee. I bottle-fed her.” Like a snuggle bear, Toffee cuddles against her human mom. Smith lives here so that he can be on-call for medical care—such as birthing, shots, and IV therapy. After spending an afternoon here, it’s easy to understand his attitude about this big responsibility of caring for 135 hungry alpacas: “You get used to it. After many years, it becomes second nature. Mostly, we just like spending time with them.”
Moments of mutual joy are palpable as hands extend offerings and stroke fur. Zora gobbles up grain eagerly; other alpacas nibble leisurely. The relaxed pace of the alpacas strolling in their pens rubs off on people. No stress here—it has magically melted away on this cool March Saturday. The alpacas stare with their big doe eyes and time vanishes, or just really doesn’t seem relevant here. Spurts of activity from the excited children and, on occasion, the zoomies of young alpacas feel special.
That the alpacas look like oversized stuffed animals makes them particularly endearing to children and adults alike. This is therapy. In our crazy modern world, Roaring Acres Alpacas feels like a little, magical microcosm that takes us back to childhood. Once upon a time, we were all kids who loved our stuffed animals. As Smith might say, “This is them.” This is why we love them.
Jennifer Kelm is a Staff Writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Header image courtesy of Jennifer Kelm