The Alpaca Whisperer

Washington man finds niche shearing alpacas.

| January/February 2008

  • LEAD-iAlpaca Stratford
  • shearing07
    Bruce MacLean works his shear magic.
    Betty Howe
  • Alpaca-shearer-3
    It must be love, as Singer gives Suni MacLean a kiss.
    Betty Howe

  • LEAD-iAlpaca
  • shearing07
  • Alpaca-shearer-3

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.

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