The following is a true story. This column ran in a local business journal in June 2007.
Three weeks ago, I had a vet visit my farm to geld a two-year-old male. This was not a fun call, but since this particular vet had mentioned a while back that performing castrations was one of her favorite veterinary services, I assumed she was the best lady for the job. “It’s fun!” she’d told me, adding that her husband finds her joy in this task to be unnerving. Yes, I wondered about this person. What kind of individual enjoys removing the testicles of another creature, and is she to be trusted? “The first time I did it, I was nervous, but it was pretty quick and easy,” she’d said. “And it makes non-breeders’ lives so much better.” She happily described the procedure to me, which I’ll spare you readers, as though she were detailing how to change a car’s oil to someone who’d never done it. “So, if you ever decide to geld any of your boys, give me call,” she’d offered. “I’d be happy to do it.” She packed up her stuff and drove off and I never thought I’d be taking her up on it.
But as the months have gone by, it’s become obvious that my first- born male, Adam, has a testosterone factory that thinks it should produce copious amounts of lusty and hoodlum-enhancing hormones. He loves to fight and pick up girls. I can only imagine what he’d do in a bar. He’s pretty big and although his fleece is nice, it’s not premium. I really don’t want him breeding to any of my girls whose fleece I want to improve, which means I wouldn’t be comfortable recommending that he breed to anyone else’s animals. Plus, his rear legs are slightly hocked out. These two negatives pretty much eliminate his contributing to the future gene pool. And sadly, this fate belies probably eighty or more percent of alpaca males. Most farmers I know only breed to the top ten percent, and this particular male just doesn’t quite make the cut.
But darn it, I really like him. He’s smart, he’s strong, and he’s easy to lead. As a gelding, he’d make a fantastic companion animal for any of my females during a transport or for young weanlings who need to be separated from their moms. Yet he’s got issues. He loves to fight and no amount of peer mediation is going to put my boys on civil terms with each other. “Why don’t you two talk about your differences over a nice trough of water?” Right.
Testosterone is one thing most non-breeders would be better without. It’s like a drug that brings out the thug within. My boys’ skirmishes are becoming more and more violent and they’re at the age where they’ll soon be able to inflict serious damage to each other. Somewhere at around three years of age, male alpacas grow their fighting teeth, which up until last week, I assumed were for self defense against predators. Sort of. These choppers, which usually grow on the lower jaw between the incisors and molars, are extremely sharp and, and like the bottom four incisors that never stop growing, they must be trimmed back every year or so. I visited a farm once where the owner had thought she’d trimmed all her males’ teeth, only to come home from a nice dinner to find one of her male’s ears ripped along the middle and its neck bleeding from a gash. She’d mistakenly forgot to trim one animal’s fighting teeth. A few stitches for the victim and good tooth trimming for the assailant fixed the problem, but she told me she’d gained a new respect for how sharp fighting teeth are. Since none of my males are three yet, I haven’t given much thought to fighting teeth, but I intend to be checking long before they’re of age.
I learned an interesting tidbit about alpaca evolution while waiting for a sedative to take effect on my poor alpaca minutes prior to his neutering. My gelding-happy vet told me that the supreme use of alpaca fighting teeth is castration. In the wild, the winner of a mighty alpaca duel goes after the testicles of its opponent and rips them off. “And in my world, that’s way, way cool,” she said.
I was leery of asking her what her world is like, but as she described the relationship between teeth and testicles, I watched my two other boys spar in the far pasture, and for a second, I feared for their privates. Neither of them has fighting teeth yet. And I am as interested in my show boy keeping his testicles attached to him as he is. He’ll be ready to breed this fall, and I’ll be offering introductory specials on his stud service through next spring. He must stay intact.
Which brings me back to my poor victim on the barn floor, who was not going to be engaging in any future promiscuity. My vet was experimenting with a new drug cocktail supposedly effective in dimming the world and reducing pain. It took forever to work. Adam kept wobbling and walking to the barn gate, watching his buddies munch grass in the pasture while we kept waiting for him to fall down into oblivion. Three shots and 25 minutes later, he zoned out and my vet produced a barbaric clamping instrument and launched into a play-by-play synopsis of castration basics. For some unknown reason, I wanted to watch her at work. I was impressed. She kept talking to Adam, telling him this humiliation would soon end and that he’d be far, far happier in a few days.
Before she left, she told me all the worst-case scenarios and things to watch out for – just in case. Again, I’ll spare you. But nothing bad happened. JR gave him a tetanus shot later that evening while I was en route toKentuckyfor an alpaca show. Yes, I felt guilty during the entire drive. I worried about whether I’d done the right thing, if there is ever a right thing, and if someday I’d regret it.
But by the time I returned home, Adam was pretty much back to normal. He was romping around with the other animals and even trying to fight a little. I guess some things never change. We’ve got a couple babies due this season, and depending on when they’ll need to be weaned, chances are good they’ll need a trustworthy companion – someone of good morals and virtue. I have all my faith in Adam.
If you are considering working with alpacas, you may find the following book helpful. We used it for reference when we were getting started: