For some it started with a picture -- those big, brown eyes and that soft fuzzy 'fro. For others it began with the luxurious fleece. And for still others, it was a yen for a bit of rural life.
This attraction for all things alpaca has bloomed into a passion, a second career, a retirement plan, or a living, breathing 401(k) that may or may not bring in big returns, but satisfies in other ways.
"I grew up in a two-bedroom apartment with no shades on the windows, the 24th floor, looking uptown and looking at pigeons on the Upper East Side," said Robin Shatzkin, 50, of Baldwin Harbor, one of several Long Islanders who have become enamored with the animals.
Now, she owns Autumn Kiss Alpacas, an enterprise that includes a herd of five alpacas, as well as the sale and marketing of alpaca products. "It's not what I would expect for this juncture in my life," she said, "but it's amazing how, when you get into it, it becomes a passion."
Shatzkin, who worked for many years in advertising and now does marketing and administrative work for a day camp in East Rockaway, was introduced to alpacas through her knitting endeavors. But a visit to an alpaca farm upstate sealed the deal for her.
And other Long Islanders have made that same commitment to invest in the animals.
Donna Trunk, 53, gave up her teaching career 10 years ago to build a business that includes spinning alpaca fleece, creating and selling the resulting products, such as hats, scarves, bags and cowls, teaching knitting and other fiber art classes and raising two alpacas in her Shoreham backyard.
Back to a basic lifestyle
Mark Palumbo, 54, and his wife, Janice, 56, of Northport, wanted a family activity that would also bring them back to basics. And Patty Ludwig, 49, a production planner who loves animals and dreams of pursuing a farming lifestyle, now has 11 alpacas in her herd.
For all of them, raising alpacas has become a way of life they say will take them well into retirement.
"It started out as a hobby, but it became such a passion I went full time," said Trunk, who envisions herself continuing with her "wearable art" and alpacas well into her 80s.
Alpaca enthusiasts point out that these camelids (related to camels) need very little maintenance, and their care often costs less than the upkeep for dogs. They eat grain, grass and hay, chew cud, hum to communicate and can be pastured at about five to 10 an acre, according to the Alpaca Owners & Breeders Association (alpacainfo.com). Many suburban owners like Shatzkin and Ludwig board their alpacas at farms upstate or in New Jersey.
"We always wanted a horse ranch," said Ludwig, of West Islip, referring to the dream she and her twin sister once shared. "My sister comes with me to all the shows and when the reality hits . . . I say, 'Janet, can you believe we're really doing this?' "
Caring for alpacas, is relatively easy, owners say. They usually void in one spot, making it a cinch to scoop up their droppings. While they require certain inoculations and deworming medicines, alpacas are relatively disease-free and have an average life span of 15 to 20 years.
Although many view alpacas as an easy retirement enterprise, owners say a love of the animals must come first. Despite pre-recession stories about alpacas selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, owners warn of expectations that are too high.
"We didn't do it for the revenue, but down the road we hope the investment will come back to us," said Palumbo, who co-owns a Dix Hills nursery and a landscaping business. "You have to do it because you love it." The Palumbos own Alpacas at Whispering Oaks -- 19 alpacas, idyllic barns and pastures on six acres of land behind the Dix Hills nursery.
If they're lucky, they say, breeding fees and sales will help pay for their children's college tuition.
The alpacas may even help with the environment. Recently, Palumbo and other alpaca owners across the country donated fleece for absorbent booms, hoping to help contain and clean the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
An alpaca's pedigree, show ribbons and fleece competition help build its value. Female alpacas cost between $10,000 and $15,000, owners estimate. Male breeders can go for $30,000 or more. And non-breeding males can fetch $1,000, but are also available at much lower prices.
"People are selling lower [because of the economy], but just like stocks or CDs, when you're . . . getting nothing on them, you leave them there until the economy recovers," said Ludwig. "So I am growing my herd and not worrying about selling."
Both Shatzkin and Trunk were introduced to the alpaca world as artisans, drawn to the ultrasoft fiber. In addition to breeding alpacas, Shatzkin, a member of the Long Island Crocheting and Knitters Guild, teaches knitting and works with mills and artists to bring domestic alpaca products to market.
And Trunk, whose Donna Lee Fiber Arts business includes teaching knitting and spinning, also displays and sells her handmade garments at juried shows and galleries. She works with many materials, but alpaca fiber, she said, is her favorite.
"It's easy to spin, clean - and doesn't have a smell to it," she said.
Alpacas are shorn once a year and their raw fleece fetches between $2 and $5 an ounce, according to the Alpaca Owners & Breeders Association. But the finished item captures a much higher price. A fleece rug from Shatzkin's alpaca, Trista, could go for $350, she said.
Interest in alpacas is growing. The Empire State Alpaca Association has more than doubled its member list from 100 alpaca farms in 2003 to more than 250 today. On Long Island, there are more than four dozen alpacas on farms and about 9,500 statewide. Would-be alpaca owners should check local ordinances before investing.
Shatzkin and the Palumbos are doing their part to promote alpacas and their fiber locally. They plan to launch Long Island Alpacas, which will include a website and newsletter for local enthusiasts.
But for all its potential benefits as a business, raising alpacas also offers intangible rewards.
"I can't tell you what it's like to come here on a rainy day and see them all sitting down humming," Mark Palumbo said, acknowledging the gaggle of mopheaded animals staring like curious children. "It's like therapy you could never pay for."