By EMMALEE C. TORISK
The newest addition to Farmer Casey’s Ranch still needs a name.
She’s a little more than 5 weeks old, weighs about 33 pounds and has the softest fur.
She’s also the first alpaca born on the Purple Cat farm, located on the site of a former car dealership at 4738 McCartney Road in the township, and joins four other alpacas — Beulah, Honey Boo Boo, Wally Castle and Dallas Winston — who have lived there for the past two years.
Also on the farm are five goats, two donkeys, almost 50 chickens, 30 ducks, two dogs, five cats and a rabbit, and they’re all cared for by a grounds crew of about 20 people made up of clients of the Purple Cat, which offers day-program alternatives for adults with special needs.
The 52-acre farm opened in June 2009 and has about 70 clients.
“It’s definitely about that sense of responsibility and accomplishment,” said Marc Saculla, site supervisor at Farmer Casey’s Ranch. “If those alpacas don’t have hay, it’s bad for the alpaca. It’s our clients’ job to feed them, to clean their pens. ... It helps them [develop] tangible skills that they can transfer into employment.”
Saculla noted that all Purple Cat sites, including the original location on Champion Street in Youngstown, focus on basic adult education, helping clients to maintain existing cognitive skills and develop new ones.
It’s “all pre-vocational kind of stuff,” Saculla said, with one of the goals being for clients to refine those abilities and eventually get jobs in the community. Another is for clients to simply have the best possible quality of life.
Jerry Lyda of Boardman is a client of the Purple Cat who got back into the job market a few months ago. He now splits his time between caring for animals at Farmer Casey’s Ranch and working at a local grocery store. At the farm, Lyda even helps train others who are new to animal care.
“I do everything with the animals,” Lyda said. “I like all of them.”
The original four alpacas — two male, two female — were the farm’s first large animals, Saculla said. But they weren’t arbitrarily selected. Instead, Jimmy Sutman, executive director of Iron and String Life Enhancement Inc., which operates the Purple Cat, and Jill Perencevic, Purple Cat director, researched animals that would be soothing to the program’s clients.
Alpacas are part of the camelid family, as are llamas and camels. They originated in South America and were bred for their fiber, which is lighter and more durable than sheep’s wool. In addition, fiber from alpacas lacks lanolin, a natural oil found in wool, making it less likely to cause an allergic reaction.
The alpacas at Farmer Casey’s Ranch are shorn once a year, usually in May, and their fiber is then used to make various products that are sold as a fundraiser, said Greg Boland, grounds coordinator and a day-program instructor.
Boland noted that alpaca pregnancies last almost a full year, usually resulting in a single cria, or baby alpaca. When Honey Boo Boo gave birth to the as-yet unnamed cria shortly after 2 p.m. May 29, it happened right at the ranch, and didn’t require much intervention from caregivers, according to Purple Cat’s website.
Nature just took over, Saculla said, though staff made sure the barn was as quiet as possible.
The healthy cria weighed 16 pounds at birth, and was standing and walking around in no time. Full-grown alpacas typically weigh about 150 pounds, and are “so powerful,” Boland said. He found their strength and agility most surprising of all.
Saculla added that caring for alpacas at the farm still is a learning experience, with staff and clients picking up something new every day. That learning has accelerated with their newest addition.
“She’s cute, though,” he said.