Since the first commercial North American importation of alpacas in 1984, breeders in the United States have debated whether to draft a breed standard for the Huacaya alpaca. Breeders of the Suri alpaca – the cousin to the Huacaya, whose long, lustrous fiber somewhat resembles dredlocks from a distance – have had a breed standard in place since 2006. At the time of this writing, there is no such standard for the Huacaya.
On the surface, the concept appears so rudimentary as to defy debate. Every year, thousands of Huacaya alpacas are shown at halter and judged. Any animal that is judged must, inherently, be judged against a standard. If this standard is not written, then the judging is arbitrary, subjective, and, frankly, downright absurd. I do not argue for a moment that anyone who participates in the show system has the right, perhaps even the responsibility, to demand a written standard to which their animals shall be held. What I am opposed to is the implementation and enforcement of a single show standard. I oppose any effort to confine the development of the North American Huacaya alpaca to one specific type and goal.
The sheep has been domesticated for an estimated 6000 years. It is a mid-sized, triple-purpose species; sheep may be bred for their fiber, meat, milk, or all three. The alpaca has, likewise, been domesticated for an estimated 6000 years. It, too, is a mid-sized, triple-purpose species; in its native South America, it is commonly used for fiber, meat, and occasionally as a pack animal. The sheep boasts more than 200 unique breeds that are or have been reproduced by man. The idea that modern alpaca breeders ought to confine themselves to a mere two (Huacaya and Suri) seems dramatically restrictive.
By the time of the Incan empire, the Huacaya alpaca had almost undoubtedly been developed into more than one breed. Mummies of pre-Incan alpacas have been unearthed, creatures whose fiber test out with a standard deviation of one (standard deviation is measure of fiber uniformity that directly correlates with softness). Even the most genetically advanced Huacaya alpacas of today cannot even approach that number – a standard deviation of five is considered acceptable; three is great, two and a fraction is “elite,” and below two is unheard of. Meanwhile, the majority of alpacas of the ancient Andean cultures were probably used for pack and meat animals. Their fiber was most likely very coarse, suitable for rug yarn and garments that will not touch the skin. There is little doubt that these animals were of a dramatically different variety than that of the royal alpacas. However, there is also little doubt that these coarse-fibered alpacas played a vital role in the survival of the average Andean citizen. These coarser Andean alpacas were not inferior to their royal counterparts. They were simply different.
In the 1500's, the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in South America and slaughtered its native inhabitants. They destroyed the Incan civilization, and with it, the refined Royal Alpaca breed as well as any other developed breeds of alpaca. The Quechua and Aymara peoples – the modern inhabitants of the Andes – have hybridized the llama and alpaca in an effort to increase their alpacas' strength, size and fleece weight. In so doing, the characteristics that made up the Royal Incan alpaca breed were lost. The creatures in their place are, for the most part, mutts. The modern alpaca is unique among beasts, in that it is at once unquestionably domesticated and largely unrefined.
How does this pertain to the modern alpaca? Can we not agree that the goal of all modern alpaca breeders is to strive for that lost breed, that paragon of Huacayas: the Royal Incan alpaca?
Well, no, we cannot all agree on this, and that is both the problem and the beauty of the developing North American alpaca herd. Many breeders are, indeed, striving to produce a modern reconstruction of the ancient Royal Incan alpaca. Others are striving for a more balanced breed, a modern production alpaca with abundant fleece that is uniform, yet stronger in fiber diameter than the Royal Incan. Some wish to produce an alpaca with a super-fine fiber diameter – and bone structure – that mimics the modern Vicuna. Though it has not yet emerged in much force in the United States, the time may well come when breeders turn their focus entirely to the meat side of the species, selecting for maximum heft with a minimum of fiber production.
Then, too, there is the show standard. The show standard appears to follow none of the above guidelines, for a majority of its awards are aesthetic. The show standard rewards a short muzzle, square frame, spear-shaped ears, a thick topknot and full coverage of the fiber down to the toes. There is nothing at all wrong with these aesthetic niceties. They are, in fact, critically important, for the aesthetic considerations – head shape, body type, fur, feather or fiber coverage – are a major part of what defines a breed. However, these niceties are just that – niceties. The show system also rewards some production considerations – density of fiber, fineness, uniformity – but they are hap-hazard. Density cannot accurately be judged by human hands, as has been demonstrated numerous times. A fine-fibered animal will always feel less dense than a coarse animal, because a thicker fiber takes up more space than a thinner one. The show system rewards fiber crimp, but not necessarily curvature, which is a more accurate measure of the elastic properties that contribute to its desirability in garment-making. More importantly, different fiber crimp styles are suitable for different end uses. All crimp styles have a purpose; one ought not be rewarded above the other.
There is a place in North American agriculture for numerous Huacaya alpaca breeds, all of which are just now in the latent stages of development. The establishment and codification of a standard for a show breed would be a logical and welcome addition to the show circuit; there is little doubt of this. The risk is that such a standard could squelch the development of nascent nonconforming breeds. To codify and promote one single Huacaya breed at this time would be to arbitrarily elevate certain aesthetic and production values over others (for example, a short muzzle over a long one, or a fine fiber over a strong fiber).
Perhaps the most important argument against the implementation and encouragement of a single breed standard is a genetic one. At the time of this writing, there are approximately a quarter of a million alpacas in the United States. (There are, by contrast, more than five million sheep.) The North American alpaca registry chose to close itself to new alpaca registrations in 1998, and so, with no more financial incentive to import, the importation of new alpaca genetics from South America came to a screeching halt. Our approximately 250,000 North American alpacas are all descended from approximately 12,000 originally imported animals. 12,000 is a lot of animals – this is more than enough of a genetic foundry on which to base our populations. However, we must realize that, of those 12,000 original founding animals, only a handful – perhaps a few hundred or so – have come very close to conforming to the ideal that has been implied by the show system. Thus, the founding population for that particular subset of alpacas (the ideal, or “elite” alpacas that are often promoted as the most valuable) is much smaller. This is by no means a problem for this population. Quite the contrary, genetic concentration – homozygosity – is necessary to ensure a consistent breed.
The problem could come if this show-type, “elite” alpaca is codified by the national registry as the only worthwhile breed in the United States. Breeders whose stock do not conform to these standards – but whose animals are otherwise sound of conformation and possessed of positive genetic attributes – may find that their stock has been further devalued by this public declaration of standards, and may choose to cull these animals from the gene pool. Once the genetic blueprints for a trait are lost, they are remarkably difficult to retrieve. Only a few bloodlines in the United States today truly and reliably conform to the exact requirements of the show ring; to establish a single standard at this point risks encouraging a genetic bottleneck at a very early stage of North American alpaca agriculture. I feel it again important to emphasize that I am in no way opposed to the creation of breed standards, nor to the practice of thoughtful line-breeding – quite the contrary; I encourage both. However, I believe that genetic homogeneity can be a boon to individual breeding programs – not to entire populations!
Returning to the sheep, it is worth noting that, despite their superior numbers, the North American sheep population is still at risk for serious and irretrievable genetic loss. 40% of all sheep registered in the United States are of one breed (Suffolk). 75% of our North American sheep hail from one of four major breeds (Suffolk, Dorset, Hampshire and Rambouillet). The remaining 25% of all registered sheep belong to one of forty-two other recognized breeds. One may ask why sheep breeders should care about the remaining 25%. In some cases, the answer may be clear; for example, Merino, the sheep breed that alpaca breeders are likely most familiar with due to its frequent comparison to ultrafine, elite alpaca fiber, is one of the least common breeds in the United States. The value of those genes for extremely fine fiber is difficult to deny. Other breeds, however, may seem to have little value on first inspection. The Gulf Coast Native sheep is not particularly fine of fiber, prolific, or meaty. It is, however, extraordinarily resistant to the ravages of internal parasitism – something that was of perhaps little apparent importance in the halcyon days of effective antihelmenthics, but which has become critical now that many sheep populations house parasites that cannot be killed by any chemical dewormers. Had a few breeders not chosen to cultivate those rare populations of otherwise apparently substandard sheep, these genes for antihelmenthic resistance would have been lost (and still may be; the Gulf Coast Native sheep is listed as critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy).
All North American alpaca breeders ought to be encouraged to establish and work towards a standard within their breeding programs. Likewise, show systems ought to be encouraged to publish a standard (for a show system is worthless without one), but only with the broad caveat that the specific alpaca type that it promotes is only one of many potential North American alpaca breeds. North American alpaca breeders are only just working to establish the place of the alpaca on the landscape of North American agriculture, and many of the markets are yet nascent for the products this species produces. Let us keep our minds open to the possibilities that the future can hold.