Alpacas aplenty

Debbie Patonai of The Alpacas of Phantasy Pharm gives some love to one of her new, lighter-fleeced alpacas. (Photo by Damaine Vonada)

While driving to an alpaca show in Kentucky a few years ago, Debbie Patonai and Spencer Reames decided to listen to music on their cargo van’s radio. Among the alpacas they were transporting that day was Phlint, a male who spontaneously started singing along with the radio. “Phlint sang all the way to Louisville,” says Patonai. “He kept making his humming noise, and whenever we changed the station, Phlint hummed differently.”

Patonai and Reames are friends, business associates, and Holmes-Wayne Electric Cooperative members who breed alpacas on neighboring parcels of farmland near Burbank. Patonai operates The Alpacas of Phantasy Pharm (she channeled a family surname by substituting “ph” for “f”), while Reames runs October Skies Alpacas (he named it for October Sky, an inspirational movie about a coal miner’s son who becomes a NASA engineer). They often share facilities and equipment, and their combined herd has some 220 “yours, mine, and ours” alpacas.

The two are also award-winning educators. She has taught mathematics for four decades at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, and he recently celebrated 50 years of teaching biology at Bellefontaine’s Benjamin Logan High School. Patonai already owned alpacas when she met Reames during a Presidential Awards teaching conference in the late 1990s. While helping her with an international math and science study, Reames got a crash course in caring for the amiable animals.

“We were working on my report at the farm one day when Spencer took a break and went out to the barn,” recalls Patonai. “He was gone for hours and came back all dirty. Once you start cleaning alpaca stalls, you’re definitely hooked.”

Reames’s first alpaca, a bred female named Melanee, was imported from Peru. “Anytime she heard anyone speaking Spanish, Melanee perked right up,” says Reames. Patonai likewise originated her herd with a bred female — Shannon — from Peru, where Altiplano people developed alpacas about 5,000 years ago. Alpacas are members of the camelid family, but unlike their larger cousin, the llama, they were bred for their soft fleece, not as pack animals. In the textile-rich Inca culture, in fact, alpaca fleece was considered “the fiber of the gods.”

Alpacas come in two types: huacaya (pronounced “wah-KY-ah”), which have dense, wavy fleece, and suri (pronounced “SOO-ree”), whose lustrous fleece grows in ropelike strands. “Alpaca fiber is softer and stronger than wool and insulates better too,” says Patonai. She and Reames specialize in show-quality huacaya alpacas and have produced numerous champions. They’re known for breeding dark-colored animals, but a young, white-fleeced male — Phalling Starz — might broaden both their reputation and the hues of the alpaca yarn, socks, and apparel they sell at festivals and craft shows. “Phalling Starz has really exquisite fleece, so we’re going to use him for a herd sire next year,” says Reames.

Since alpacas’ gestation period is about 11 months, Patonai and Reames time the birth of crias — baby alpacas — for summer, and they devote their vacations to nurturing them. Both have taken alpaca birthing classes, and in 2018, they ushered 12 cria — six female and six male — into the world. Because alpacas are gregarious, they typically welcome human companions during labor. “Phinesse actually will come to get Spencer when it’s time to have her baby,” says Patonai.

Phinesse was Patonai’s first cria, and, at age 21, she is now the matriarch of the herd. The oldest male is 18-year-old Phortune, the sire, grandsire, great-grandsire, and great-great-grandsire of many of the farms’ alpacas. Alpacas are inquisitive and intelligent animals, and Phortune is quite the character, using his mouth to turn on the water faucet whenever he wants a drink. He also turns on lights and delights in pulling open grain bags. “Phortune isn’t hungry,” explains Patonai. “He just likes to watch the grain bags empty.”