Arriving at Heartland Farm early Wednesday morning, volunteers were greeted by Lenny and Lilly, the pair of part Brittany, part blue heeler dogs that guard the Dominican Sisters of Peace homestead a few miles north of Pawnee Rock. Twice a year, they trim toenails and perform dental care on their herd of 18 alpacas. While sister Jane admits the process could be managed with two people, the more hands the better.
The alpacas munched on hay in their corrals, but soon became curious as the six women moved equipment into place and gathered close to the barn. Something was up.
Normally, alpacas are pretty gentle animals. They can be skittish around humans though, but if they are cornered in a confined area so a handler can hug them around their neck, they calm down and a halter and lead can be applied.
Each alpaca was weighed first. Records kept indicate if they are getting enough to eat, and if babies are growing at an expected rate. Then, it’s off to services. Once the “belly band” sling is in place, and the halter is tethered to keep them from thrashing about too much, work can begin.
Alpacas only have lower teeth, which grind against a hard top pallet. The teeth continuously grow, and are prone to breaking. To make it easier for them to eat and for their health in general, the teeth are ground to the point they are even with the top pallet. If they continue to grow, they pass the pallet, jutting out in comical and unhealthy ways.
Using a dremel tool outfitted with a grinder, Sister Jane Belanger quickly evened out the teeth, giving each alpaca an attractive camelid smile.
Alpaca toenails, too, grow continuously past the foot pads, filling with dirt and manure. They are clipped even with the pads. Luckily, in central Kansas, normally dry conditions mean the alpacas don’t suffer from foot rot, which could be a problem in moister climates if toenails were allowed to keep growing and collecting. Here, comfort is the primary factor. Ariel Aaronson-Eves, Heartland Farm’s new organic farm manager, worked with goats at her previous position on a farm in Arkansas, and took on the duties of toenail surgery while other volunteers calmed the animals to keep them from kicking. Working her way around the animal, she clipped the points and then the sides, cleaning as she went.
The alpacas were then released to their yards, boys on one side and girls on the other. After just under four hours, each alpaca had a fresh smile and pedicure and were enjoying their hay once more.