Alpacas

La Canada Flintridge residents Sandra Wallace and Michael Frankel, both physicians, visit an Agua Dulce ranch where they raise alpacas. (Photo by Peter Day / January 16, 2013)

If things go as planned by La Cañada Flintridge investor Dr. Sandra Wallace, there will be a run on shoulder-high, two-toed, furry camelids.

“This is a business,” said Wallace, a neurologist who owns 51 alpacas of various hues and two varieties with her husband, Dr. Michael Frankel, a psychiatrist. “We really want to develop this industry.”

In fact, said Wallace, an infectious disease specialist at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, good alpaca buys are out there. For example, one of Wallace’s show animals was previously purchased for $80,000, but she bought it “for a fraction of that.”

Like others who have discovered the satisfaction of raising and breeding alpacas, the couple are banking on an increased demand for the animal’s fleece, which is known for being silky, soft and durable. Similar in structure to sheep’s wool, the fine fleece is often made into men’s and women’s suits by high-fashion designers. Alpaca fleece also contains no lanolin, making it hypoallergenic.

“It’s a luxury fiber, and we want to keep it a luxury fiber,” Wallace said.

While Wallace and Frankel tend to their busy medical practices during the week, the couple’s alpacas are well-cared for at Tanglewood Suri Alpacas, an eight-acre ranch in Agua Dulce. The ranch, which is located across from several scenic vineyards, is owned by L.A.-area transplants Sonia and Glen Marygold.

“[Alpacas are] friendly in their own way, like cats,” said Sonia Marygold as she gingerly pet one of the more genial ones. “They don’t spit at you, but you can get caught in the crossfire.”

During a recent Saturday visit, Wallace extolled the Marygolds’ boarding services.

“We learn from Sonia, and she takes care of our alpacas,” Wallace said. “Alpaca people are the nicest people.”

As Wallace affectionately pets Carlotta, a light fawn alpaca, her words defy her expression. “Oh, I don’t have a favorite,” she said with a smile.

Wallace and Frankel board other alpaca at ranches near Sacramento and in Marin County, where they expect to retire next year.

Ten years ago, the couple were watching TV’s “California Gold,” starring the late Huell Howser. In the episode that was airing that evening, Howser met Pat Meade and Jon Robbins, a couple that gave up parachuting for another adventure — raising a small herd of alpacas. Wallace and Frankel were intrigued by the story. Later, the La Cañadans took a vacation to the 15th-century Inca site at Machu Picchu in Peru. While there, they saw countless examples of the colorful indigenous animal.

“We fell in love with alpacas,” Wallace said.

Upon their return, the couple visited several California alpaca ranches, and in 2006 they made a decision.

“Let’s do it,” she said.

Wallace decided to raise huacaya alpacas (pronounced wuh-kai-ya) while Frankel decided on suris. Huacaya, which are the most popular in the United States, have fluffy fleece. Suri alpaca have shiny, long locks that sometimes curl as dreadlocks.

But just as they were getting started, the U.S. economy declined and so did the value of alpacas.

“The bubble burst,” Wallace said.

High-quality alpacas that might have cost $20,000 to $30,000 per animal before the slide are now worth $7,000, or even as little as $2,500.

“But it’s coming back,” she said.

The value decline enabled the couple to purchase more animals at relatively low prices. As a result, they are helping the alpaca breeding community to boost the number of alpaca to create a viable alpaca fiber base.

“We’re developing our herd,” Wallace said. “It’s kind of a passion.”

Wallace is not only enthusiastic about her alpaca business, she is encouraging others to get started in it.

On Feb. 16 and 17, the couple will be showing several of their alpacas at Southwest Regional Alpaca Show at George Ingalls Equestrian Events Center in Norco. The event, which will feature hundreds of alpaca of all varieties and colors, provides an opportunity for those who are curious about alpacas, to see them first-hand and meet members of the alpaca breeding community.

“This is a perfect time to get in,” Wallace said. “This is about lifestyle, and it’s just so much fun.”

For more information on breeding alpacas: www.calpaca.org.