By Tim Puet
When Father Rodric DiPietro needs a break from the stress of being in charge of a growing parish with more than 3,000 families, all he has to do is cross the road and spend a few minutes with his boys.
“The guys are so cute, gentle, and inquisitive, and they’re always happy to see me,” he said. “I just call them and they’ll literally eat out of my hand. Visiting them every day is the most relaxing thing. Being with them always takes my mind off problems and makes me feel better, and when I bring other people over to see them, they feel the same way.”
Father DiPietro, pastor of Hilliard St. Brendan the Navigator Church, was referring to his pair of alpacas – Lord Matthew of London, age 6, nicknamed “Specks” for the black circles around his eyes when he was born, and The Amazing Sir Wilson, age 5, better known as “Niblet” for the way he nibbles at food.
He purchased the animals about a year-and-a-half ago from Michelle and Kent King, of Radnor, who have about 30 alpacas available for sale and breeding on a farm known as The Humming Kingdom. They have operated the farm for eight years in addition to having full-time jobs as a teacher and a computer security specialist respectively.
Father DiPietro’s alpacas are kept on the property of parishioners Bill and Jeanie Igel, across Dublin Road from the church. “You can tell Father loves animals by the way he’s so tender with the alpacas,” he said. “I think they’ve gotten used to him, too, because they don’t spit on him any more, the way they used to when they first came here.
“Father always brings them treats, but they can get along fine with just water and the grass on the property. They’re really gentle, but they tend to keep to themselves and keep their distance from the horses on the property. When they’re out front, the horses are in back, or sometimes it’s the other way around, so I think they’ve all figured out how to get along.”
Animals, mostly dogs, have been a part of Father DiPietro’s life throughout his 33 years as a priest and his boyhood in the north end of Columbus. He also has a 9-year-old African gray parrot.
“When I first came here to Hilliard seven years ago, I raised some mallards in the rectory basement,” he said. “I remember how Bishop (James) Griffin enjoyed them after I told them I was planning to release them to a pond on the church property after they grew. Eventually, they flew off, but came back here every year for several years.”
Father DiPietro decided around 2006 that since he lives in an area that has both urban and rural characteristics, he’d like to raise some larger animals. The Igels agreed to provide space, so he began to research alpacas and was impressed with what he found.
As Father DiPietro put it, “I wish it was as easy to take care of my human flock as it is to work with my other flock.”
“Alpacas don’t bite, are not predators, get along well with people, need comparatively little space, and make very little noise,” he said. “The sound they do make is kind of a humming noise, so you have to get pretty close to them even to hear that.”
Alpacas originated in the Andes Mountains of Peru, Chile, and Bolivia more than 6,000 years ago and are thought to be descendants of a similar animal called the vicuna, also prized for its fleece. They are members of the cannelid family, along with llamas and camels.
There are two types of alpacas. Specks and Niblet are both Huacayas, the more common of the two. They have more fleece than the sleeker Suri alpacas. On average, they are four-and-a-half to five feet tall and weigh 150 to 175 pounds.
Alpacas are social animals who normally live in family groups. Father DiPietro bought two males because he did not want to have any additional animals, but said neighbors have offered to purchase a female and raise the resulting offspring. Female alpacas normally give birth to one child a year.
The fleece is the most valued product of an alpaca. “I’ll bring them over to school once a year, and the kids just love to touch the fleece,” Father DiPietro said. “The kids say it feels like carpet. It’s about eight inches thick when cut, and it’s hollow, with no natural insulation and no lanolin, unlike sheep’s wool.
That’s what makes it considered a luxury fiber.”
“There’s no question that the fleece is why they are raised, but they also are just very enjoyable to have around,” Kent King said. “I’d hesitate to describe them as pets, because I wouldn’t want people to think of them that way. They’re really good, hardy farm animals, as a lot of people have found out.”
The raising of the animals in the United States is an industry that’s only three decades old. The first 10 alpacas in North America to reside outside of zoos were imported into the continent in 1980.
Today, there are more than 134,000 alpacas in the United States, according to statistics from the Alpaca Registry, Inc., based in Lincoln, Neb. That number is expected to remain relatively stable because of the closing of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Key West quarantine facility in 1999, combined with the registry’s requirement that a registered alpaca be the offspring of two registered parents.
Ohio is the nation’s leading alpaca-growing state, with more than 22,000 of the animals registered with ARI. Nearly 200 farms across the state are members of the Ohio Alpaca Breeders Association. Several farms have more than 1,000 alpacas, with the largest number of large operations and of farms in general being in the Cleveland area. There are about 30 alpaca farms in the central and southern Ohio area covered by the Diocese of Columbus.
“People think that because alpacas come from South America, they’d prefer hot weather, but summer is the hardest time of the year for them,” Kent King said. “They’re quite happy in the wintertime, because the weather then is similar to what’s it like in the South American mountains.”
“Last year when we had our record snowfall, they were romping in it like human 5- and 6-year-olds would,” Father DiPietro said. “They don’t need much shelter and their fleece keeps them warm.”
Since Father DiPietro is likely to be at his current parish for another five years. “I’m looking forward to seeing the guys grow up,” he said. He also anticipates having his parrot around for a long time, since such animals have an average lifespan of about 60 years.
“One day, I’ll be moving, and of course I don’t know where that will be,” he said. “Wherever it is, I hope I can bring the animals with me. My new parishioners will just have to be comfortable with the idea that the pastor has some unusual friends.”