Animal Tales from the Santa Ynez Valley
“Household animals, wild animals, commercial animals, working animals, and competitive animals all exist side by side with humans,” notes Brooks Firestone in his recently released book Valley Animals: True Stories About the Animals and People of California’s Santa Ynez Valley. Firestone has lived with his family in the Santa Ynez Valley for the past 35 years; during that time, he’s been a winemaker, a cattle rancher, a California State Assemblymember, and a Santa Barbara County Supervisor. He has also witnessed many unforgettable animal adventures, which he retells within the pages of Valley Animals.
The following excerpt, titled “Wookie Drama,” is from Firestone’s book.
Anyone who stumbles on alpacas to be animal friends has made a lucky decision. In the late ’90s, our daughter Hayley acquired two bred alpacas as a project. In ten years the herd grew, with outside boarders, to include 120 alpacas, living on a piece of land owned by our winery. …
Alpacas are a South American animal similar to llamas, but smaller, kinder, and gentler. Their dispositions are universally benign and they grow a fiber that can be made into warm and wonderful clothing that has kept the chill off Peruvian mountain people for centuries and has also supplied the fashion houses of the world. They eat little, poop in one place, and have soft feet that leave no pasture impressions. With teeth only on the lower jaw and no inclination to bite, they are perfectly safe to be around, although occasionally they may spit. The wooly creatures emit comfortable noises and stare with enormous gentle eyes. Alpacas are so universally pleasant that they seem to come from another planet and that is why our family calls them Wookies, out of the Star Wars strata.
Alpacas pretty much take care of themselves. … When birthing time comes along, they just do it, producing adorable littles called “crias” that are soon up on wobbly legs and then dashing around the pen in days. …
However, the happy Wookie world does have drama, and one Sunday a birthing mother alpaca provided more than enough. Hayley had noticed a very pregnant and overdue alpaca showing signs of discomfort. … Usually birthing problems involve the cria turning the wrong way inside the mother and foiling the usual easy exit. When the alpaca lay down, Hayley knew she would need to go into action.
Birthing help requires a mild sedative for the mother alpaca, gloves and lubricant for the helper to go in and set things straight, and a person to hold the mother’s head. The only person available to assist was Hayley’s brother Andrew, who luckily happened by, unfortunately dressed for town. …
The spruced-up brother had recently come off a reality show, The Bachelor, where the format involved getting to know 25 gorgeous young ladies and, hopefully, selecting one as a potential bride. In Andrew’s case, the show did not actually work out into a marriage, but everyone had a great time. He now had a very special steady who the family adored named Ivana, unconnected to the Bachelor production, whom he was courting. On the day in question, he was still full of show business and fashion, but he was needed now for alpaca assistance, and like a good brother, he responded to help his sister.
Soon, the mother alpaca, slightly zonked but very anxious, was lying with her drooling head held in Andrew’s lap while Hayley began to explore the positioning of the unborn baby. Andrew had been brought up on a cattle ranch where he had seen a lot, but the sight of his sister reaching inside an alpaca up to her elbow was a source of astonishment.
Andrew brought out his cell phone, and he thought he might as well share the moment with Ivana, so he rang her up in Los Angeles, and the conversation went something like this: “Ivana! You won’t believe this! I am sitting in a pasture, holding a furry alpaca head. She is slobbering on my new clothes and making groaning noises. Hayley is reaching into her backside, and I’m not sure whether a baby is coming out or Hayley is going in! There are a couple dozen of these creatures standing in a circle staring at us. Hayley is never getting cleaned up from this one. It’s disgusting!”
The narrative continued in graphic detail while Hayley carefully repositioned the baby, pulling the front legs from under and placing them in the lead to channel out first. She could feel the contractions and, with the unborn in place, she removed her arm and watched with satisfaction as the cria’s feet and then legs appeared. Finally, the head followed, and the rest just slipped out. Andrew continued on the phone to the nonplussed Ivana, describing blow by messy blow with graphic detail.
Soon the baby was standing and breathing with vigorous new life. The released mother licked the baby as though this was just another day in the country. The damp cria unsteadily began to nuzzle the mother, looking for milk. The other alpacas in the field went about their business. All was right with the Wookie world, and Hayley beamed with pride of farmyard accomplishment.
Brooks Firestone’s book Valley Animals: True Stories About the Animals and People of California’s Santa Ynez Valley is available now at area bookstores.