There she was, sitting in a northern Arizona restaurant, thumbing through a local magazine while waiting for her meal to arrive.
That's when Jamie Flores saw the article on alpacas. The wooly-headed Huacayas that looked like Muppets, and the Suris, resembling Jamaican rock stars with their pencil-thin dreadlocks.
How adorable! she thought. She talked her husband, Bob, into visiting a nearby ranch to see the llama-like animals up close.
"And that's how it all began," Flores says.
The couple were so taken with alpacas that when they returned home to Largo, they plowed their one-acre property and started shopping around to add one or two to their backyard menagerie. They liked the idea of having some exotic animals to join their dogs, goats and miniature donkey.
Today, the Floreses — she's a nurse manager at Largo Medical Center Hospital; he's a retired firefighter and gun shop owner — own 31 alpacas. The females are boarded at two other farms; the males live with them. She lovingly refers to them as "The Boys in the Backyard."
"There's nothing like coming home to my boys after a stressful day at work," she says.
Even though Flores has great affection for some of her favorites, she acknowledges they're not supposed to be cuddly pets. Bottom line, they're livestock, and they've become potential money makers as the demand for alpaca fleece grows. For now, she sells fiber goods made from alpaca shearings at her husband's store, 'Pacas and Pistols.
The animals give the Floreses something else: a dream. The couple plan to move one day to the 40 acres they bought in Arizona and run a big alpaca ranch. Raising livestock for breeding, shearing and enjoyment is far more palatable to them than raising them for slaughter.
"They'll be our retirement income," Flores says.
The love affair in America for alpacas is a relatively new phenomenon.
It began in 1984, when importers brought the first alpacas here from South America, the ancestral home of these hardy, graceful creatures from the camelid family. Inca tribes that lived with them in the Andes Mountains called their dense, luxurious fleece "the Fiber of the Gods."
Modern-day humans love it as well. It's hypo-allergenic with no lanolin, soft like cashmere, lighter than wool and doesn't scratch. As the world's largest alpaca breeders, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, owned the market. The United States and Canada wanted to get in the act.
Because they're considered "easy keepers" and provide a small-business tax incentive, alpacas got the attention of start-up farmers. But as interest heightened, so did prices, with top stock fetching tens of thousands of dollars. The bubble burst when the recession hit, sending costs downward.
"A lot like the real-estate market. And now it's leveled off to where it should be," says Jean Riley. She, her son and daughter-in-law are the owners of Alpaca Magic USA in Homosassa, one of Florida's first alpaca farms. Riley remembers a time not so long ago when well-bred females sold for upward of $30,000; now she says you can purchase one for as little as $4,000.
"Prices are more realistic," she says. "It's affordable for people who truly enjoy alpacas and want to get into the business." Another upside is that there's more attention to genetics and breeding animals that produce the best-quality fleece.
Riley used to raise miniature horses and donkeys, different breeds of cattle, zebras and llamas. The gentle, easy nature of alpacas won her heart after she purchased two pregnant females in 1996, and now that's the only livestock she has. The farm's herd is more than 100, making it among the largest in the state.
Unlike some owners who consider their stock a hobby or a side business, Alpaca Magic is a full-service operation – breeding, showing, raising and marketing. For owners who want the "alpaca experience" but don't have the land or the time, Riley offers boarding for $3.50 a day and visiting privileges seven days a week. The ranch also is home to a store filled with alpaca products, a plant nursery, and individual and group classes in spinning, weaving and felting taught by Riley.
As one of the founders of the Florida Alpaca Breeders Association, Riley encourages prospective owners to educate themselves about the business before taking the plunge. The state group has about 60 members, coming from all walks of life. Use them as resources, she suggests. Do your research and don't be afraid to ask questions.
Alpaca Magic does its part by giving people an up-close-and-personal experience with the animals. Riley's partner, Larry Startzel, ended up in the alpaca business by default. He's a longtime golf professional who makes his living as a PGA rules official. When he's not on the road at tournaments, he helps out at the farm.
His chief job: Giving free educational tours. Watching the curious alpacas meet children and people with disabilities face-to-face is enough to bring him to tears.
"I find their behavior very, very interesting," he says. "What they just know to do naturally is pretty amazing. They don't have any defense mechanisms, so they're constantly on alert. In the wild, if they snooze, they lose."
Like people, each one has a distinct personality and has a spot in the pecking order in its particular group. Some will let you in their space, others never get too close. He rattles off names like they're old friends: Max, Cappuccino, Jack in the Box, Adam, Sterling, Manitou.
Why did he get involved in the alpaca world? "Jean," Startzel responds quickly. Where would he rather be, golf course or farm? "Golf course," he says, with no hesitation. Then he breaks out in a coy smile, as a friendly Max nuzzles up to him.
"OK, I do love being here. It's peaceful. Every day is a learning experience," he concedes. "I like the science of the genetics, and the excitement of seeing what that brings when the baby finally arrives. Will this one be the next herd sire champion?
"It's more fun than the stock market, that's for sure."
According to Alpaca Registry International, the worldwide population of registered alpacas is 183,266. Florida claims 3,570 at an estimated 100 farms. (That figure is misleading, because not all alpacas and farms are registered.)
Some of the biggest producers come from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Idaho and Washington. When it comes to raising alpacas, Florida's climate and conditions put it around the middle of the pack.
"You adapt," says Alicia Chivers. "Kiddie pools, fans and shelters get you through the summer months. Other than that, this is a good place. We don't have to deal with the snow."
She and her partner, George Castro, are raising 26 alpacas — three are up north for breeding — on their green-belted, 3-acre property in the middle of Largo's industrial section. They also have a dream of moving their operations to North Carolina to run as a full-time business one day.
Next month, they'll take a step in that direction, with the opening of their first free-standing store, Criativity. Cria is the name for a baby alpaca.
"As romantic as it may sound, and as hard as heck as it is, we're determined to build this industry by producing top-quality alpacas with the best fleece ever," she says. "That's the only way the United States will get competitive in the fiber market. We want this to be a local market, rather than completely dominated by importers."
Chivers used to be a chief financial officer for a telecommunications company. These days, the Venezuela native is the chief caretaker of her herd. She's learned how to worm, give shots and attend births. She's also studiously learning the textile arts, such as spinning and knitting.
Now instead of going to cocktail parties in her business attire, she hosts "farm days" at their property. When the spring shearing season opens, friends travel from all over the country to help with the shearing.
"I think some people might be just a little jealous," Chivers says. "Our kids get a country experience and we get to work with these wonderful animals. If I missed anything about the corporate world, it would be the air-conditioning."
Like Startzel, Castro got into alpacas for the love of a woman. At first, he was dubious, thinking it was nothing but a glorified pet industry for consumers who had disposable income to buy exotic animals.
With time, he's learned it can be a profitable business if you are cautious, educated and patient. He says breeders who made a killing in this market in the early years did it on the ignorance of new purchasers.
"At 48, I'm too old to have a hobby like this," he says. "This is a business. We're not raising Great Danes here. We're trying to produce livestock that will give us a beautiful sweater."
Brenda Crum gets that. But what she likes best is that it's a livestock business that doesn't require killing the animals for meat. Although alpacas are consumed as food in South America, they're rarely eaten in the U.S.
Crum started with four alpacas six years ago; now she has 150 on 100 acres in Odessa. After years in the nursing profession — working in the operating room, editing a magazine and teaching education programs — she's transitioned into a full-time alpaca farmer. She and her business partner, husband Frank, president of a successful professional employer organization, have three grown children.
"This is an industry based on sustainability," she says. "I love that. These guys just keep giving back, year after year. Yes, it's hard work, but the joy they bring is worth every minute of it."