Prompt: Witnessing a Birth
[NOTE: So I'm skipping a prompt from my book of prompts in order to choose a prompt from my new deck of "conversation cards." These seem a lot more interesting right now. I'll pick these at random, mostly.]
"Have you seen a birth? Tell the story."
So there was a time when I was younger, going on 10 years ago now, when I considered raising alpacas. I'd been curious about the animals ever since I'd visited the state fair and had seen several in an exhibit. I took a brochure, and marveled at this animal, which I described at the time, as looking like "a long-necked teddy bear."
After that summer, the idea still stuck with me. Realizing I had no idea what it would be like to raise any kind of herd animal, I hatched in my brain the idea to volunteer at a local alpaca ranch for a year, working there on weekends. I put the call out to a handful of local ranches - there were actually more than I expected - and eventually one not far from my hometown took me up on the offer. It was actually an excellent arrangement: I would work every other weekend, and instead of driving all the way back home I would stay overnight at my mother's house, which was much closer. So I could volunteer, learn something every day I was at the ranch, and visit my relatives at the same time.
It was an excellent year of learning. My duties started off with basic feeding and watering, scooping manure... Alpacas all shit and piss in the same spot, did you know that? They will literally stand in line, and go one after the other, taking turns. It makes cleanup surprisingly easy. Duties expanding to herding and directing the animals to different pastures, to administering vaccinations (under the head rancher's supervision), operating a zero-turn mower and a 35 horsepower tractor with a scoop bucket on the front (to haul more manure, of course).
At certain times of the year, breeding would take place. A thing about the "alpaca industry" is that - much like other farm animals - certain prize males would be carted around to different local and not-so-local ranches for breeding purposes. Males and females were selected for certain desired qualities, primarily revolving round the quality of their fiber. For humans, alpaca wool is the most valuable by-product of the animal.
As soon as the female goes into heat (and holy smokes, is it obvious) the breeding male is ushered into the same pen as the female. She's usually already nestled on the ground in a submissive position and exuding all manner of hormones and pheremones that the male instinctively interprets flawlessly. Female alpacas have two birth canals within their uterus, so the male has to launch its sperm cells up each one in the same session. If everything goes as planned, eventually one of the ovaries becomes a fetus and begins to grow.
Eventually, I crossed paths with a few pregnant females. The head rancher and I would occasionally take aside one of them to perform a sonogram. Basically, a wand was lubricated and inserted into the female's birth canal. Eventually, everything worked out for one of the females on a weekend I was working, and I assisted with the birth. Basically, all I had to do was stay nearby and assist the baby with a little tug here and there, wrapping it in a towel as I did so. The mother would walk, then "cush" on the ground: sit gently with its legs enfolded underneath it. I'm fairly certain the head rancher explained to me the process of natural endorphins providing a palliative effect on the mother, easing the birth process. Somewhere I have photos of a tawny blonde mother birthing a chocolate-brown baby boy alpaca, with me behind her and my hands wrapped in towels like I expected to catch a fastball or something.
I learned about all sorts of things that year: what a placenta looked like and what you do with it (toss it in the manure pile, apparently...); how young alpaca are walking within an hour of birth; how you have to stratify and segregate the different age groups of alpacas to protect the young -and- the old (alpacas are very hierarchical, apparently); how male alpacas chest-butt one another and engage in all manner of bullying and aggression to prove their supremacy. Well... as much as a skittish, otherwise mild-mannered herd animal that defends itself primarily by spitting would.
Although most mammals grow the most before they are born, it was still a wonder to watch those young alpacas grow up. By the time my year was over, I'd seen likely over a dozen newborns grow to at least a few months old. The babies would be in their own pen, eventually separated into the little girls and the little boys. There was one day when the young males somehow were intermingled with the older males, and that was utter chaos. It was a mass of screeching, squealing camelids careening down the hill to the pasture where I waited, dumbfounded, my mouth agape. The head rancher followed behind after chirping incomprehensible, panicked words to me over the short-wave radios we used. The young boys were being mercilessly bullied and brutalized by the older males, who were apparently desperate to assert their supremacy.
What a weird, interesting time that was. Of course, the desire to raise alpacas was shaken out of me and my head descended from the clouds. I learned a tremendous deal. And I became abundantly familiar with the scent of alpaca poop. I didn't realize just how much I had learned during my time there until the annual Open Farm Day happened, close to the end of my year there, and I proudly wore my official alpaca ranch-branded polo and escorted people around to visit several of the friendlier animals, pet the babies, and ask questions to which I amazingly knew the correct answers.
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