There’s an alpaca wonderland near Grand Lake. Thanks to two former broadcast journalists who ditched the spotlight to pursue their love of the South American camelid, the state tourism map has an educational destination and a source for high-quality, alpaca-related products – all found at a business in Jay.
The alpaca, native to the Andes Mountains, is similar in appearance to the llama but has a prized, luxurious coat collected in a yearly sheering. Some fleeces fetch up to $6,000 from a single animal, says Kathleen Callan, who, along with her husband, Tom Callan, has owned and operated Zena Suri Alpacas since 2008.
The two types of alpacas – Suris and Huacaya – are classified by fiber types, with Suris producing a fine strand called lustre, which can be used in clothing, blankets and other textiles. Alpaca fiber is softer and finer than cashmere or angora and, because the fleece has no lanolin, it’s hypoallergenic, without the itchy prickle of wool.
“Because of the lustre sheen of their coats, they seem to glow from inside the fiber,” Kathleen Callan says. “Even on cloudy days, but especially when sunlight is shining on them, you can see that glow that shines in the sun.”
The Callans’ herd of 50 includes highly sought varieties, with internationally ranked prize winners among them. Fleeces are sold at up to $10 per ounce. Colors and patterns include gray, blond, browns, reds and whites, as well as the prized, uncommon black. Alpaca ranchers use generations of registered, online breeding records, and, since the mid-1990s, sanctioned importation from South America has ceased.
Some of the herd at Zena Suri are for sale, although Kathleen Callan laughs with a warning that if you want to adopt an alpaca, you need to take home at least two because of their herding instincts and need for companionship. For visitors – and the Callans – the alpacas’ affectionate nature is a constant source of adventure. On a typical day, an alpaca may take a special shine to a visitor and try to get in the car with its new friend.
The manure produced by the herd is also valuable, and folks arrive with trucks to take it home, she says. In one case, two neighbors came to the ranch – with one intending to fertilize his lawn and the other unimpressed by the idea. The Callans were not surprised to find the reluctant one return to collect some “black gold” fertilizer for his own property after seeing his neighbor’s results.
There is no charge to visit the refuge, but many visitors leave donations or buy heirloom-worthy coats, garments and gifts from the ranch store.
The Callans say they don’t miss their old life of delivering the TV and radio news in Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia. A bucket list item is to explore large alpaca ranches in Peru, home to some of their animals’ ancestors. Meanwhile, they continue to share their love of the alpaca with visitors from all over the world.