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Have you ever wanted an alpaca? Perhaps you don't even know what an alpaca is. Well, let me warn you before you read this article that you may fall in love with these South American cousins of the llama. Proceed with caution!

I guess you can say that this is all my dad's fault. My infatuation with alpacas began when he was asked to build a Web site for an alpaca farm called Windy Meadow Alpacas. As soon as I saw the photos of their fluffy bodies, huge doe-like eyes and long necks, I started thinking of ways that I might someday be able to own one of these cuddly creatures.

I did my share of Internet research on the subject and now consider myself to be somewhat of an authority on the phenomenon of alpaca ranches in America. First, let me explain that the initial investment required to purchase one of these special animals may seem a bit overwhelming. An average quality alpaca can run anywhere from $10,000 up. I even heard that one alpaca sold for $444,000. Fortunately, there are many favorable tax advantages, as well as a potential for significant income generation if you get involved with raising and breeding alpacas. One convenient feature about alpacas is that you do not need a lot of land to raise them. Typically in Western New York, you could have 10 or more 140-pound alpacas per acre because fresh pastures are more readily available for grazing. In drier climates where there are "dry lots" with little or no vegetation, you could raise two to six alpacas per acre.

Over the Columbus Day weekend I had the opportunity to make the hour-and-a-half drive to Cuba, N.Y., in search of the Windy Meadow Alpaca Farm. We were a little late in arriving since we took a wrong turn; however, the rolling hills and outstanding foliage even made our mistake enjoyable. When we arrived, it was just as I had imagined it! I can't picture a better way to spend a beautiful fall day. The alpacas were in a fenced area with a backdrop of hills and valley filled with autumn colors. THirteen alpacas were contentedly chewing on grass and the newborns, or crias, were playing and leaping around.

The farm is owned by Rob and Ann McNeill. A veterinarian by profession, Rob is more than qualified to help raise and care for their herd. Ann trains the animals with halters and brings them to visit schoolchildren and the elderly in nursing homes. Their three children help with the chores and get to name the newborn alpacas. During our visit, I was lucky enough to meet the two brand-new additions to the herd and even got to hold a cria who was only three days old. At three days of age, and about 19 pounds, the cria was already taller than my golden retriever!

Crias learn to walk just hours after they are born. As soon as I held it, I figured out why alpaca wool is so expensive. These were the softest creatures I had ever felt!

After spending some quality time with my furry friends, Ann took me inside and showed me how to spin their fleece into yarn to make clothes. All I can say is thank goodness I was not born a century earlier! Making clothes for the whole family was the woman's responsibility and required a lot of time, patience and skill.

If you are interested in owning an alpaca but live in a suburban area, fear not! You can board your alpaca at a nearby farm and still enjoy the benefits of ownership. Alpacas are originally from Peru and it has recently become illegal to import alpacas to the United States. That makes it more important to breed and keep alive our population of these special animals. Perhaps your family might even decide to help out with this endeavor! You can visit the Windy Meadow Alpacas Web site at for more information.

Meghan Dougher is a student at Nardin.