By Savanah Mandeville • Photos by Mandy Edmonson
Did you know there are famous alpacas?
I didn’t know either until I chatted with Kathleen Callan, owner of Zena Suri Alpacas, and found out there was once a very magnificent champion alpaca named MacGyver who lived from 1996 to 2013.
Bubbling just below the surface of mainstream culture is an entire world of alpaca enthusiasts with wide-reaching expertise in breeding, competition, agri-tourism, fleece sales and more.
Kathleen and her husband, Tom, are part of that unique world.
The Callans loaded three alpaca juveniles — also known as cria — into their trailer Thursday, March 12, and began a journey of 702 miles from their 78-acre alpaca ranch in Zena, Oklahoma, to The Alpaca Owners Association (AOA) National Alpaca Show in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. This year, the competition took place March 13-March 15.
“People tend to bring the younger alpacas to the shows because they’re looking for direction for breeding them,” Kathleen said. “As owners, we wonder, ‘Is she a gorgeous alpaca because she’s mine or is she actually gorgeous?’ So, when we are choosing another registered alpaca for breeding, we want to get the best genetics we can.”
Not unlike the Westminster Dog Show, the AOA National Alpaca Show awards alpacas for qualities like bite, legs and skeletal structure plus fleece quality. The event is a wonderland for alpaca lovers with more than 600 alpacas in attendance and activities like alpaca selfie booths, alpaca costume contests and lots of vendors selling alpaca-related items.
“It’s always very interesting, unique and fun,” Kathleen said. “We get to see people at these shows that we don’t see between shows.”
Kathleen selected the three cria to compete from her herd of 48 based on their ages. The competitors — Zena’s Peruvian Rhett Butler by Kanui, Zena’s Peruvian Sapphire, and Zena’s Peruvian Woodrow Cloudpants by Kanui — are all under one year old. The “by Kanui’” refers to the award-winning father of Rhett Butler and Woodrow Cloudpants. “Kanui was a fairly famous fellow,” Kathleen said. “He’s down into his later years, so these may be some of his last babies.”
A big win could mean big things for Zena Suri Alpacas. For the Callans, alpaca life is about more than cute cuddly pets — it’s a profitable business with an intentional growth trajectory.
First, Zena Suri Alpacas is a major contender in the region’s agri-tourism industry. Kathleen estimates the number of annual visitors is over 1,000 with guests coming from all over the world to tour the ranch, pet the friendly animals and shop in the on-site store.
Zena Suri Alpacas also hosts events like “Lead a Llama to Lunch” as well as welcoming groups like Harvest Host, which allows visitors with self-contained RVs to spend the night in exchange for a helping hand. This spring, the Callans, along with their ranch manager Kelli Crawford, have been busy building a small cabin guests will be able to book for short stays.
“Most of the people who come are totally entranced. The animals are sweet and beautiful, and by the time people leave, many of them become friends. Nice animals like this seem to attract really nice people.”
In addition to the agri-tourism aspect of the ranch, the fleece is an industry in and of itself. Alpaca fleece — particularly Suri fleece — fetches a pretty penny with prices reaching $6 per ounce.
“For us, the name of the game is fiber,” Kathleen said. “Ours are Suri alpacas, which are the crème de la crème. Suri alpacas are about as common as being left handed.”
Suri fiber is softer and more lustrous than some other types of alpaca fiber. It’s often used for doll hair because its consistency is similar to human hair.
“Suris have beautiful locks. We have the tools to make batts, roving, yarn. There’s so much that’s possible. Every bit of alpaca fiber can be used.”
Alpacas are sheared once a year, usually in late April following competition season. Some of the fiber is processed on-site by Kathleen, but a great deal of it is processed and dyed in Utah, a state Kathleen describes as a “hotbed of Alpacadom” and where the Callans lived when they first got into the alpaca game.
On the Monday following the AOA National Alpaca Show, I caught up with Kathleen to learn about the results.
“There were ups and downs,” she said. “We took second place with Woodrow Cloudpants, one of the youngest and cutest alpacas in the entire show.”
Rhett Butler and Sapphire, it turned out, were not as comfortable in the ring, but the Callans have high hopes for the future of competition Suris on their ranch.
“We have five little ones in the oven as we speak,” Kathleen said. “Spring is a beautiful time at the ranch. It really is.”
Zena Suri Alpacas
35401 S. 580 Rd. • Jay, Oklahoma •804.389.2579
Please call before you visit.