The Alpaca Whisperer

Washington man finds niche shearing alpacas.

LEAD-iAlpaca Stratford

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At an age when most people are still sorting out careers, young Bruce MacLean was already sure he wanted to spend his life with animals. As a horse whisperer in Florida at age 8, his compassionate temperament made him an ideal candidate. But as a cowboy and horse wrangler in Colorado, he got important saddleback advice from Papa Joe, an aging rodeo cowboy and mentor. “Get yourself a college education. Otherwise when you’re 65, you’ll wind up like me with nothing but aches and pains and a lame horse.”

Bruce took the advice seriously and put himself through the University of Northern Colorado by caretaking several households of disabled students. With a degree in rehabilitation, he developed the first fully wheelchair-accessible guest ranch. Then he married like-minded high-school sweetheart Sondra (nicknamed Suni) and founded Equal Access Inc., in Denver, training businesses to work with special-needs customers. But Bruce was no city boy, and it wasn’t long before he and Suni began looking for the right place to put the rest of their lives.

The right place, after a two-year search, turned out to be 180 acres of wildly beautiful mountain pasture on Washington’s Canadian border (post office address Oroville), four hours from the nearest bus station to Seattle. For the past eight years, Bruce and Suni have lived in self-sufficient harmony with their environment, building a tin-roofed straw-bale house; growing their own vegetables; and depending almost entirely on natural resources like rainwater and solar energy. They also look after a bunch of angora and cashmere goats, half a dozen alpacas and a few horses.

Shearing school

To support this growing wild kingdom, and noting that the hair on his goats was beginning to drag the ground, Bruce took himself off to sheep shearing school. There, he learned that raising sheep in the western states is a big industry and shearing them could keep him profitably occupied from March through October. He also learned he wasn’t comfortable handling the short-legged animals.

Fortunately for Bruce there was an alternative. When an enterprising promoter brought an alpaca to class to demonstrate the ease of shearing its fiber (preferred term for fleece), Bruce sensed an epiphany. Recalling the experience, he becomes almost reverent. “From the moment I saw how delicate and gentle the alpaca is – from the moment I ran my hand through its fluffy fiber and made eye contact with those deep brown eyes – I knew I had found my future.”

There were also practical positives. Alpacas, imported originally from South America and cousins to llamas and camels, are smaller than llamas, often more agreeable, and definitely easier to work than sheep. They also produce an undeniably upscale product. As one of the world’s finest and most luxurious natural fibers, alpaca fiber is soft and light as cashmere, yet capable of confronting the coldest clime. Depending on size, one alpaca can provide 6 to 10 pounds of fiber valued from $2.50 to $6.50 per ounce. After washing, carding and spinning, it’s ready to turn into expensive fashion statements: sweaters and scarves so soft they can be worn directly against the skin; or suits, coats and blankets lighter, stronger and seven times warmer than wool.

These same qualities also enable alpacas to live in cold climates. People think of them as too delicate for cold weather, Bruce says, but nothing could be further from the truth. At 15 degrees, he insists, they don’t even shiver. Heat stress, on the other hand, is a real killer. “Even in Washington, alpaca owners put out water sprinklers to help keep them cool during the summer.”

On reflection, Bruce thinks the alpaca attraction is based on the fact that they make wonderful pets. “They know their names and come when they’re called. They play with each other the way kittens and dogs do. They’re affectionate.”

Comfortable niche

At 52, Bruce is tall, fit and sure of his place in life as one of the most respected and sought-after alpaca shearers in the country. As one client describes it, “Bruce communicates with animals in a way that’s almost mystical. He knows exactly how to calm a skittish alpaca.”

Bruce’s technique for calming an animal before shearing is unique. Through observation, he learned that alpacas like floral fragrances, so before he leans in he slathers his cheeks with shaving lotion. Shaving lotion? He grins. “One good whiff, and right away they relax and go groggy.”

As with all species there’s a pecking order among alpacas, and the shearing process is likely to temporarily disturb it. “Without their fiber they don’t recognize one another at first,” Bruce says. “Until all of them are shorn, a small alpaca looks exactly like a small deer, an unwelcome intruder to be bullied and run off by its mates.” His usual practice is to shear the weakest member of the herd last.

Bruce’s reputation for shearing closely without drawing blood is widely respected. A nicked alpaca loses trust in the shearer and becomes difficult to handle. Beyond that seeming minor inconvenience, cantankerous animals can spell economic gloom for an owner who may have invested anywhere from a few hundred dollars per animal up to hundreds of thousands for a top stud. No operation needs a fight at harvest time.

Since alpacas were first imported to the United States in the mid-’80s, more and more western ranchers have realized that there’s money to be made. Bruce is on the road with five pair of electric shears throughout Idaho, Oregon and Washington from snowmelt to snowfall. He is also building his own herd and soon expects to expand his shearing territory into Colorado and California. He could venture farther: Alpaca farms can now be found coast to coast and border to border, and alpaca breeding and owner associations schedule workshops, shows or auctions nearly every week of the year. But Bruce has no intention of expanding eastward. “My life’s not about making money; it’s about living in harmony with nature and a gentle spirit.”

During the winter months, Bruce has plenty of opportunity to prove his capacity for living his philosophy, but less time than ever to reflect upon it. Recently he spent three days bulldozing snow off the road so Suni could get through to visit her parents on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. “Between cutting and splitting firewood and breaking ice in the stock tanks, there’s always work to do, inside and outside,” Bruce says. “And when you’re dealing with animals, the outside stuff takes priority.”

Bruce’s empathy for and ability to communicate with animals, especially alpacas, is becoming legendary. As one satisfied rancher recently wrote, “Our animals are gentler with your handling and shearing than they are with us.”

Another client summed it up even more succinctly. “Thanks for the great experience, Alpaca Whisperer!”

Derrie Frost wrote for a number of publications from her home in Winter Park, Florida. Just before Grit went to press, we learned of Derrie’s passing, and we send our deepest sympathies to her husband, Jack, her family and her friends.