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More Kentuckians are falling in love with alpacas - and with good reason

Don't look now but there's a new exotic animal making inroads on Kentucky farms. Ostriches are so 1990s; it's all alpacas now.

Thousands of them, in fact. The Kentucky Alpaca Association has more than 50 members across the state, with devoted breeders who are "dyeing" to sell you some yarn.

Except, and here's the beauty of alpaca "fiber" as they prefer to call it: It doesn't even have to be dyed.

"Comes in 22 colors naturally," said Cindy Berman, director of public relations for the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association.

The group is bringing its national show to Louisville this week, where about 1,000 animals will be on hand, vying for ribbons in show rings and for a place in buyers' hearts. It isn't hard to see the appeal of an animal that looks like a cross between Bambi and a Labradoodle, with investment potential built in.

"They are a 'green' animal, very easy on the land," Berman said.

She ticks off their attributes:

■ They look like they have hooves, but those are actually padded paws with toenails. They won't tear up a field.

■ They have no upper teeth. They cut the grass they eat against a hard palate, so the grass grows back better.

■ They only have one baby, or "cria," a year, so they aren't multiplying like rabbits.

■ They communicate mostly by humming softly.

■ And they poop in communal piles, so clean-up is easy, Berman says.

Sure beats dogs.

Actually, they are more catlike, Berman said, shy but curious. "They love to come up to children, especially in strollers," she said.

Linda Salsbury knows. She was bit by the alpaca bug in 2005. After the tobacco buyout, she and her husband, Greg, needed a way to make their historic 52-acre property in Northern Kentucky a working farm again.

Their local extension agent made a few suggestions but nothing really appealed.

"Then he said, 'Or you could try alpacas,'" Salsbury said. "We both said: 'What is an alpaca?' "

Her husband began researching them and, almost as a joke, Linda picked up Alpaca Magazine. He read it cover to cover.

"I wasn't all that sold on it," she said.

Then she started reading as well, and now they have 130 alpacas and a farm store. Eagle Bend Alpacas in Burlington has become one of the largest alpaca farms in the state, selling fiber and breeding animals.

According to the Salsburys' Web site, their top sire, El Nino's Maximus, has a $4,500 stud fee. They are even in the state's Kentucky Proud program and give tours.

"We were just captivated with the people and the animals," she said.

The most sought-after alpacas, those that win blue ribbons and bear the best fiber, can sell for six figures, she said.

Two weeks ago, Eagle Bend sheared its alpacas and got 795 pounds of fiber.

"Our harvest is their fleece," Salsbury said.

As part of a national cooperative, Eagle Bend contributes half of its "clip" each year; the co-op processes it, blends it with everybody else's and has it made into gloves, hats, sweaters, socks and more. Eagle Bend sells the products in their farm store, and also has fiber spun at a mill in Tennessee to sell to spinners, knitters, crocheters and other fabric artisans.

"There's such a resurgence of the heritage skills like spinning and knitting," Salsbury said. "I was kind of amazed how many people are really into fiber arts. It's a much more luxurious fiber than wool, the best way I know to compare it."

Alpaca breeders are still working to establish a national market, she said.

But in the meantime, she said, her family enjoys having the animals around.

"They are so intelligent — I know you're going to think I'm crazy, but they actually understand what I say to them. I can say something to one and it will follow my direction as if it understood my signal," she said.

And they are a stress-reliever: Her husband sells pacemakers and other cardiac devices, which means he's often involved with gravely ill people.

"He comes home and says, 'I'm going down to the barn.' They just accept you," she said of the alpacas. "They're just fun to be with. You enjoy them. Even though it's a business, you find you get very attached to them and want to be where they are."

They are not without drawbacks, however.

"The worst they can do is spit on you, which is kind of stinky and insulting," Salsbury said. "They get in spit fights over food, and you can get caught in the crossfire."

Despite that, the popularity of alpacas is growing. Their fiber is highly sought-after by fiber artists and knitters because it is soft, lightweight, warm and naturally hypo-allergenic.

And, yes, you can dye it if you really want to.

Alpacas are cousins to the llama, guanaco and vicuna and are native to the Andes mountain range of South America. They were first imported commercially to the United States in 1984; now there are more than 170,000 registered alpacas in the nation, including 2,728 in Kentucky. Alpacas are biggest in Ohio, which has more than 1,000 breeders.

There are two kinds of alpaca: the Huacaya, which has a fluffy, extremely fine coat, and the Suri, with silky fiber that looks like soft, miniature dreadlocks.

About once a year, the hair is shorn, yielding 5 to 10 pounds of fiber per animal.

Breeders come together in shows, like the big national one in Louisville, to compete for blue ribbons and increase the value of their products.

And to buy and sell alpacas. There will be an auction Saturday afternoon.

So, unless you are entirely immune to adorable, doe-eyed, soft, curiously humming creatures, beware.

"There are going to be lots of examples people can get their hands on," Berman said. "You can find an alpaca in any price range." Just be careful or you'll find one in your car going home with you.

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. /

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