Today my vet came and we neutered 3 alpacas. Yes, 3. There were Indy & Hayden, who are 6 year old Huacaya gents, unrelated but came to me as a pair, and then there was 2 year old Jesse, also a Huacaya, whom I just adopted this past fall.
When Indy & Hayden arrived at our farm over a year ago, there were no other alpacas and so it did not matter as much that they were 5 year old ‘studs.’ They had their peculiar ways, occasionally goofed off in their paddock, but mostly they co-habitated quite peacefully.
When the newbies arrived this fall – 6 of them, including one gal, “Olivia” – well, that was the beginning of the end of the peaceful cohabitation. Included with Olivia was her son, 2 year old Jesse, and 4 other gents. The 4 other gents had been neutered, but not Jesse. Apparently Jesse comes from some serious lineage, his dad being worth $40K. This means that Jesse could garner some attention as a stud as well, and he certainly is a looker.
But the facts are that I have fallen into alpaca-farming and am learning the ropes more slowly than I could probably keep up with were Olivia to conceive and give birth to a baby, a cria. Of course, wouldn’t that be the most adorable thing in the world? But around here, I am up to my eyeballs in sheep and goats that need attention during lambing & kidding season, and the many things that happen with a fiber farm in and around the calendar as well, to try to catch up on the confidence I’d want to have to breed alpacas.
The alpacas, in my brief history as an alpaca farmer, appear to have a more skiddish overall temperament, though there is a distinct difference in the way the ones that I recently became owner of and the ones that I’ve had for a year behave. The more you handle any animal, the more confident you will be with them, and vice versa. The recently acquired alpacas were frequently handled and so I’ve had an easier time working with them. Still, I am less confident to add more to our herd at this time, and possibly down the road.
I love owning them, I highly recommend them as easy keepers. They are extremely efficient grazing animals, require very little daily attention, and their fencing requirements are also minimal as compared to the goats or even the horses. When you vaccinate or de-worm them, when you shear them, then the handling can be tricky. But I think that if you are new to handling animals, that would be true for most any livestock. I have had enough livestock experience that I wasn’t afraid of taking on this new species on my farm, but hadn’t any particular experience with camelids, with an animal that can work itself up with anxiety and conjure a vile wad of spit to projectile vomit at you if it wanted to. That was a new thing for me.
As my vet said today, I’ve had worse things happen on a job.
Anyway, when you get past the potential for being projectile-vomited on, really they’re easy to manage. They’re not inherently dangerous in that if they move their hind legs in a kicking fashion, you’ve gotta be pretty slow to be at-risk. If they make an upward leap to escape, you’re likely strong enough to keep them where they need to be without having to lift weights. They’re not wielding break-your-knee-caps horns like some of the angry rams I’ve had here, they’re not 1,000 pound animals that have hooves that could flatten your cheekbone & skull if you were on the wrong side of them. They’re more of a flighty creature that thinks of spitting as their first defense. I can handle that.
I called the vet a few weeks ago when I realized that things weren’t going to change around here unless I took initiative. I didn’t like the way Indy & Hayden had gotten so territorial since Olivia showed up and their antagonistic and hostile behavior toward each other created a constant state of anxiety in the herd and in the flocks. The sheep wouldn’t be able to contentedly nibble hay or eat their grain or chew their cud because Indy & Hayden would be having knock-down, drag-out fights all around the paddock. Hayden is even so skilled he can jump over fences or stall walls if he wants to be somewhere when he’s enraged, so the overall atmosphere was not so tranquil as we all like around here.
Jesse, well Jesse was an afterthought and to tell the truth, I only asked Dr. Josh today, in a text on his way here, “Can we neuter my 2-year old stud also, while you’re here?”
It had been in the back of my mind to neuter Jesse. Eventually, his virility would threaten the peaceful coexistence of the flock as well. The testosterone would likely become an issue when he tried to defend his mother, or if he tried to breed with her. And I really don’t want to get into “line breeding,” as it is called. Even if his dad is a champ of some kind. So I thought that, what the heck, let’s do this all today and get it over with.
When Dr. Josh showed up, I waved at him from the paddock where I was throwing the horses & Angora goats some more hay, to keep them busy and away from the barn while we worked with the alpacas. When he stepped out of his truck in front of the aisleway, I asked “Did you bring anyone with you to help?” And he said, “Nope, it’s just me & you!”
What a guy. He had confidence. I cringed inwardly, but smiled and said “O.k.! Let’s do this, then!”
We were going after the gonads surgically. Josh had told me that we needed the outdoor temps to be higher so that while they were sedated, they (the alpacas) wouldn’t get too chilled, but that we could remove their “parts” right here on the farm.
That was a relief as the stress of trailering the 3 would’ve not helped them with any of the procedure. So I mucked and cleaned and played musical alpacas for the past week and a half awaiting Josh’s arrival. Depending on the weather as well as the vet’s schedule had us moving Indy here, then Hayden there, then Indy here, then Hayden there, then the goats here, then the sheep there and etc.. The other group of alpacas stayed together and did their usual musical-alpaca moves, and I tried to keep stalls clean in and around it all.
I knew that being the middle of winter, creating a surgical-sterile-stall environment would be challenging. Trying to keep the build-up of soiled straw and hay down can be difficult when the temps dash below zero for subsequent days, freezing and solidifying into webbed-straw-y-mats that won’t release from the stall floor. Then the temp would creep up and you’d wait with a pitchfork in your hand for the moment when you could dive in and haul out the manure and bedding, trundle it over to the huge frozen manure pile, dumping it on and repeating.
I managed to have two clean stalls so that when Josh got here, I’d have recovery rooms for Indy & Hayden. As Jesse was late to the queue, I didn’t have a chance to clean his stall.
The procedure was going to be that we’d halter the animal, lead him out to the front stoop of the barn and sedate them in the sunshine, then bring them back to their stall to be come drowsy before continuing the procedure.
Of course, none of it went down that way.
Indy was first. I haltered and led him outside. Josh, attempted to give him a sedative, Xylazine, intramuscularly in his hind quarters. Indy danced around and leaped up and backed up and kushed and moved and grooved in plenty of ways until we finally got the sedative into him. We put him back in his stall to await the effect.
We then went through the same moves with Hayden.
We went back to check on Indy, thinking surely by now he will be groggy. But no. He was not at all groggy.
So Josh decided to give him some more of the sedative intravenously in his neck. I learned a new thing about camelids, or perhaps all animals with long-ish necks. Because their necks are exposed and at risk of attack, alpaca’s spinal vertebrae are built in a manner to protect the vein running along the neck. That means if you are Dr. Josh and you’re trying to inject the sedative directly into the vein in the neck, then you will want to have a very still animal, a very strong handler, or a very good needle that doesn’t break or twist or what-not while you are trying to get through the thick, fuzzy neck hair and into the vein.
Each of the three alpacas did not respond to their initial injection of sedative intramuscularly and each of the three alpacas needed an intravenous injection additionally. And each of the three alpacas were not necessarily cooperative.
With Indy, the Xylazine injected in the neck brought almost immediate relaxation and then Josh gave applied a perineal analgesic. He moved and worked quickly, keeping the bottles of scrub and tools in a bucket of hot water he’d filled in the tack room.
By the way, a hot water heater in your tack room is a thing of beauty to have in the barn. There’ve been so many times we’ve had to grab hot water to defrost something quickly, keep something warm, help clean tools. It has been an invaluable amenity.
Josh finished Indy’s surgery in less than 5 minutes and there was a shiny, sticky blob of gonads in the corner of the stall when he was through. He then gave him a long-lasting antibiotic to help prevent infection and headed out to prepare for Hayden. A small patch of blood pooled in the straw at his hind end, but not much, and Indy had stood up and was shaking off his sedative in 10 minutes, mewing his alpaca mew and then chewing on the wreath hanging up on the outside of his stall in the next 10 minutes.
I asked Josh about the “jewels.” “Do you need them?” “Nope! You can do whatever you want with them.” I said, “Cool!” and found a plastic cup to put them in. I picked up the blob with a piece of paper towel and tried not to gross out. I’m always trying to learn something new and didn’t think I’d let this opportunity escape me, even though my initial reaction was to be repulsed.
Also, I’m a hoarder.
Hayden’s surgery went more or less as smoothly and quickly as Indy’s. There was very little stress after the sedative took effect, although Hayden’s temperament was a little less relaxed and he did move around a bit more. My job as restrainer went well for the most part. And I wouldn’t complain for a minute because the whole time I got to sooth and stroke and sweet-talk/nurse the most incredibly soft animals in our world. I collected Hayden’s “jewels” as well, in the plastic cup, but started to think my idea of studying them was less necessary than when I’d first grabbed Indy’s.
I started to think, I maybe need not be such a hoarder.
Jesse’s procedure went poorly as compared to Indy & Hayden’s. He had a strong reaction to the Xylezine that Josh injected into the vein in his neck(but had not had the reaction to the intramuscular injection we’d given him about 10 minutes prior) and Josh had to run out to the truck and grab some Epinephrine to counter the reaction.
What do you mean by strong reaction? I mean that his whole body torqued and spasmed and contorted and flopped. It was scary and pathetic but it was so instant that we were in the moment addressing and treating and correcting him, me soothing and petting and restraining and helping him to regain steadiness the whole time, Josh out the door and then back in the door and then treating him with the Epinephrine.
We waited while his breathing and heartrate stabilized. Then Josh quickly made the cut he needed, and pulled Jesse’s jewels out too. No more $40K lineage to pass along.
By now we were watching Jesse to see if he would come out of his state of lethargy, waving in front of his eyes to get a reaction, attempting to allow him to stand or hold his head up on his own. His breathing was greatly slowed, his heart was slowed, he wouldn’t hold his neck on his own. I photographed him in front of his face, because he hates the camera, to see if I could get any rise out of him. We wanted him to start moving, to mobilize or show a little energy, because the sooner he would do that, the sooner he would come out of his sedate state. Josh ended up having to inject him with a reversal to try to get him up again.
Scary thing about the reversal: Jesse contorted and torqued and twisted and flopped over, recreating the frenzied scene we’d witnessed at the application of the Xylizine earlier. I started to become pretty anxious that my whim to have him neutered wasn’t well-thought out, well planned. That by not waiting and wanting to have him “fixed” today, I was being punished for impulsive decisions. I doubted my ability to care for the animals that I have been blessed to care for. I didn’t doubt Josh’s ability, but I worried that we were setting up for one of those horrible outcomes that happens on farms. One of those stories that I’d tell to someone one day, about the time I meant to have my alpaca neutered and how he died instead.
The time we waited to have Jesse return to consciousness and hold his body on his own seemed interminable to me, but Josh maintained confidence. He went out to clean his tools and told me that he thought if I didn’t mind holding his head still, he’d be on his own feet in a few minutes. Of course I didn’t mind holding him. I stroked him and cooed the entire time, and what was on my mind that whole duration? If he dies, how quickly can we get his hide off him so that we can salvage this gorgeous creature’s fiber, so as not to waste what was a beautiful animal because of my mistake.
That is how I work. I am such an extremist. But not always. Only when it is the first time your alpaca appears to be dying.
And who is to say what I should have been thinking anyway?
Meanwhile, Indy & Hayden were up in their stalls, mewing and chewing, as though they’d not just had their testicles of the past 6 years snipped. That provided some (comic) relief for me as I managed my own private drama in Jesse’s stall.
And then, I felt Jesse’s energy change, a shift in the muscles of his neck and shoulders, and I rubbed his body and encouraged him. “Come on, buddy! You can do it! Come on! Let’s try getting up!” and I pushed him and pulled him into a standing position and stroked him all over, telling him he’d be fine. As soon as I could see that he was able to stand and he moved his neck voluntarily and “normally,” I stepped out of his stall and opened the barn doors to tell Dr. Josh that he was back.
Josh is one of the chillest vets I’ve ever worked with. Most of the time, the vets I’ve worked with are slightly animated in some way or another, making an easier read of how to proceed. I’ve got to say that this young vet, a dairy farmer as a kid and student, a Cornell grad, just maintains a pretty steady composure whether the animal is in a crisis state or having a routine check-up. Josh responded to my news with an “O.k., let’s note that this one responds negatively to Xylizine” and carried on with his clean-up.
We had some work to do with some of my sheep – a couple of the big girls have lost some fleece on their hind quarters and I wanted to rule out lice. Which we did. And then we applied a topical to their bare patches to help counter a bit of the inflammation that had occurred as a response to them rubbing their backsides.
But what I didn’t tell about, yet, is the color commentary provided by our American Guinea Hog, ‘Princess Peppermint’, during the entire several hours of time that we were in the barn this afternoon. The Governor, as she is known, had refused to be relocated to her small house by the garden at the onset of our duties in part because she was frightened to walk across the ice that had formed a huge rink in the yard between the garden and the barn, and in part because she is very social. Poor Peppermint had gotten herself stranded on that ice patch earlier in the day, and I had to push her splayed, marooned body across the slick surface while I crawled on all fours to slide her little trotters to a snowy spot where she could get some traction and climb onto a bank.
So Peppy just cruised the aisleway the entire time that Josh and I were battling tight vertebral columns, convulsing camelids, bloody bits and sticky testicles sacks. And then there were the buckets of hot water and iodine that were set down for a moment while something was being fetched or applied, and we’d have to dash out and remove the bucket from the ground lest she would knock it over in her investigations.
Or juggling the writhing alpacas and calling out, “Got this?!” while dashing off to shut and latch the tackroom door before the piggy pushed her way in and knocked all of the grain bins over. Or pushed her way into the stall you were in and decided to frighten the already freaked out alpacas. Or push her way into the stall where the sheep were gathered, awaiting their check-up, peacefully munching hay.
Cruising 150 pound pigs can do a lot of undoing while you’re trying to neuter three alpacas. The great news is that all 3 of the boys are recuperating in their stalls, Jesse coming to his feet again when his mom and buddies re-entered this evening when I fed them dinner. I will continue to watch him for improvements over the next couple of days, but I’m feeling comfortable about Indy & Hayden.
For now, we’re in a ‘cautiously optimistic’ position. I think I can sigh with relief that there will not be any ‘accidents’ and Josh reassured me that I had made a good decision. He cited many more complications in alpaca birthing than in sheep and goat birthing. So, that is that.
But now, brace yourselves.
In the end, guess who got that plastic cup?