New program studies alpacas and other camelids

By Rachel Ehrenberg

Classes in sheep physiology or equine diseases may be standard in most veterinary science programs, but the campus has added another animal to the menagerie: alpacas. This fall the campus will launch its camelid studies program, the first such undergraduate program in the nation.

Made possible by a $500,000 gift from Jennifer and Ian Lutz of Cas-Cad-Nac Farm in Perkinsville, Vt., the program will address a growing national need for vets, farm managers and researchers who are savvy in camelids, the mammalian family that includes camels, alpacas and llamas. Smaller and with softer fleece than their llama cousins, alpacas are an increasingly popular choice for pet owners, hobby farmers, entrepreneurs and investors alike. And with an average worth of $20,000 each, the animals have allowed some people to go back to farming without going broke. Such is the case with the Lutzes, who started their farm with four animals and now boast a herd of more than 200.

Several regional alpaca breeders, including the Lutzes, have donated start-up animals -- the first dozen are due to arrive at the Hadley Farm soon, says Stephen Purdy, director of the new program. Purdy is in his 25th year of private veterinary practice, the last 19 of those in New England. He hopes eventually to have a herd of around 30 alpacas, with the farm becoming a regional center for alpaca study featuring annual conferences for vets and owners.

While the number of alpacas registered in the U.S. and Canada has climbed in the past decade—from roughly 5,000 animals in 1994 to more than 67,000 in 2004—the number of vets with large-animal training is plummeting, says Purdy. And even those trained in large animals may not have encountered camelids, he says, which are very different beasts from their ruminant relatives (cud-chewing creatures with hooves including cattle, goats, sheep and deer).

“Their GI tract is similar to cows, sheep and goats, but their stomachs have three compartments, not four,” he says. Their uterine lining is like that of a horse, yet their mode of breeding—ovulation is induced by the physical act of mating—is more feline than equine.

Students enrolled in the program will learn how to care for camelids and the ins and outs of their various maladies, such as Parelaphostrongylus tenuis, the meningeal worm. The parasite doesn’t harm its normal host, the white-tailed deer, but can damage the spinal cord and brain of camelids. And the camelid immune system lends itself to study, says Purdy. One research aspect of the program will explore the use of camelid white blood cells to manufacture disease specific immunoglobulins for the treatment of animal and human diseases.

Instruction in advanced camelid management will be offered each term, which, in addition to biology and health care, will cover particulars such as fiber harvest techniques and sales. Although llamas are mostly used as pack animals in their native Andean stomping grounds of South America, alpacas are primarily valued for their “wool.” Once woven into robes for Inca royalty, the fiber is harvested once a year and is highly sought after in niche markets in the United States and Europe.

Eight semesters of alpaca studies

Of the nearly 400 undergraduates who major in Veterinary and Animal Sciences, many select specialist courses and management clubs focused on livestock or horses. Now they can have eight semesters of alpaca studies, says Purdy. This semester’s inaugural course has 29 students and Purdy expects those numbers to climb in future years.

The program should give graduates an edge, whether they are pursuing graduate school—Oregon State University and Ohio State’s College of Veterinary Medicine currently offer graduate-level camelid studies—or entering the workforce. Training opportunities will also be available for graduate students from veterinary colleges who want to boost their camelid credentials.

“Most of the people who own alpacas do not have a livestock background,” says Purdy, so students familiar with camelids will be strong job candidates, be they interested in breeding, farm management or fleece. The UMass program “will be the whole gamut,” he says. “I want students to come out of here and know everything there is to know about alpacas.”