The scent of formaldehyde means one thing to me. High school biology.
Although I used to wonder how any knowledge of dissection would be useful later in life, I do admit the labs had some interesting moments. Probing about the insides of starfish, frogs and worms, although a messy, sometimes business, taught me things about anatomy I’ve never forgotten. And whenever I catch a whiff of that perfume of the laboratory, I’m instantly transported to the moment when one of my best friends and I had a serious argument over whose frog’s pancreas was the better one.
I had an opportunity to relive biology lab at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine a few years ago for one weekend, and the fragrance of formaldehyde that wafted about the room brought back memories. Only this time, I had signed up on my own free will to learn more about alpacas.
The first day’s topics centered on birth and neonatal care. The second day’s subjects covered things I’d been wondering about for months, like, the nutritional quality of my yard grass, what’s new with intestinal parasites, and neurological problems of camelids (when should I call the alpaca shrink?)
I spent the first six hours in a large auditorium with about 50 people, all alpaca owners, breeders and vets from as far away as Maine and Texas. Most were women. I couldn’t help but imagine that all of them had been far more serious about their biology classes than I had ever been. For some reason, though, I didn’t feel intimidated. I smelled the formaldehyde, opened my binder and began taking notes.
Seeing that the average price of a good, breeding female alpaca can cost several thousand dollars, I want to make sure I know how to care for my animals. I don’t want to walk into my barn one spring morning to find my investment in distress, struggling to birth her baby and not know how to best respond.
In class, we looked at photos and diagrams of what a normal birth looks like. Then we were shown positions of incorrect placement in the birth canal, and given instructions as to how long to wait before acting, and what to do when facing one foot and a nose, knowing that the other leg is preventing this cria’s entry into the world.
I’m not squeamish when it comes to birth. I had my first two children at home, and am familiar with birth’s risks and rewards. So, after the alpaca professor finished his lectures in the auditorium and escorted us into the lab, I expected to get dirty. He showed us some dissected internal organs, and explained how they functioned, but the real fun began when six baby alpacas (all had been donated by farms that had lost their crias) were wheeled into the room. We were divided into six groups, and told we would be extracting poorly positioned animals from a simulated uterus.
Two men left. One woman wearing a beautiful silk blouse said she would need to get back to the hotel to change. She never returned. I looked at my fellow farmers and vets. Compared to my one year in the business, these people were veterans. Many of them were in this lab because in their prior efforts to help animals during the birthing process, thay had instead hindered them, rendering them sterile or causing them to die. They’d learned something terrible about the delicate fabric of biology.
And here’s where I look in awe at our world. We live on a planet with billions of organisms. Given that one troublesome microbe can wreak havoc on an entire community, it’s amazing that we’re as healthy as we are. Given that one cancerous cell can wend its way through a robust body and wither it all too quickly, it can seem miraculous that life can teem with vitality. Given that so much can go wrong during birth, it’s remarkable that so much more goes right.
During my afternoon in the lab, I inserted my arm up to my elbow into a fake uterus, feeling for the differences between front and rear hooves, all too aware that if I chose incorrectly during a real birth, I could be placing a baby and mother in peril. I “delivered” four cria whose positions weren’t conducive to a normal delivery. My confidence grew.
Generally speaking, alpaca births are usually pretty smooth affairs. I know the probability that these animals will need my assistance is small. Alpacas give birth with incredible efficiency, usually in the morning, and with relative ease. Nonetheless, I believe that running any business requires a willingness to deal with potential problems. Given that over nine out of ten alpaca births are trouble free, it’s a good bet that I won’t have to do much. But there is a chance that problems will arise sooner or later. I took this class to minimize the risks.
Judging from the faces of my lab crew mates, they felt the same. We all smirked and smiled our way through the lab, groping in the dark at anything we could do to help nature. The scent of formaldehyde ed on me during my two-and-a-half-hour trip home, but I didn’t care. That was the best biology class I’ve ever had.
Sirius Alpacas is a family farm in Chardon, Ohio that raises and boards alpacas for fun, therapy and profit. The farm uses its fleeces in the production of high-quality yarns and felted goods. Sirius Alpacas also imports fair-trade Andean items from Peru and Bolivia, offering the style and culture of South American goods while helping the farmers, artists and craftsmen of that region.
For more information about alpacas and Andean and South American products, contact JR Weber at email@example.com.
More information can be found online at: SiriusAlpacas.com