Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Alpaca Breed Standard

I’m going to give my two cents about the idea of an American Alpaca Breed Standard. I’ve done a little research, and these are the conclusions I’ve come to.

First of all, I’m not sure that we need a breed standard. Breed standards are useful in dog shows because they need to ensure that their animals are pure. ARI registered alpacas in this country are all DNA tested and their parents are registered and have been DNA tested. There is no reason to question the “purity” of registered American alpacas.

Second, if we accept that the ultimate goal of alpaca breeding is to create animals that are conformationally healthy and will produce ample commercially viable fiber. It has been shown that great fiber can come from any phenotype. That is, some very ugly alpacas can produce some very great fiber. What this means is that a breed standard which focuses too much on aesthetics may not contribute to the breeding of great fiber animals.

Third, let’s say that AOBA adopts a breed standard that favors a certain phenotype: for giggles, let’s say that the alpaca standard calls for a long, goat-like beard. Very few alpacas would show this trait, but those that did would instantly increase in value. In addition, everyone would want to breed to these animals in order to get the genes for this beard-trait into his or her own herd. What this means is that, because of the demand for the genes of these rare animals, many animals would be born that would be very closely related to each other. Alpacas have a limited gene pool in the first place compared to say sheep or cattle, and further limited their genes would make them far more susceptible to disease. Cheetahs have been held up as and example of what can happen to species with limited gene pools. With our closed registry, it seems like a very bad idea to further limit our animals’ genetic diversity for purely aesthetic reasons.

Some breed standards that are based on aesthetics are harmful to breeds. Take, for instance, English bulldogs. English bulldogs have been bred to have such big heads that the animals cannot give birth naturally; they must have Caesarian sections. These animals cannot reproduce naturally because of an aesthetic trait that humans appreciate. This is a not-so-extreme example of how aesthetics can overshadow the useful traits of the animals involved.

Part of the fear that small farms have expressed about the breed standard is that large farms who have a “trademark” phenotype will try to get that phenotype written into the breed standard. All joking aside, let’s take the Accoyo head as an example. I must admit, I love the look of the Accoyo head, with the fuzzy cheeks and fluffy topknot. However, this is a phenotype. Don Carlos calls it his “trademark.” The fuzzy cheeks and fluffy topknot are not the sole indicators of an animal with dense, fine fleece. This is an aesthetic characteristic. Period. There are people who breed almost exclusively for this type-y head. But because their animals have fuzzy cheeks does not mean that they have animals with great fleece. If an Accoyo head become part of the breed standard, though, then those animals become more valuable, and other breeders are left out in the cold.

I have identified two pros. First, an alpaca breed standard could make judging at shows more uniform. With a clearly-written standard, animals would be judged based on the standard, not just compared to other animals in the ring. Also, a breed standard could be used as a tool for breeders to evaluate their own animals, or for buyers to evaluate animals they are considering buying.

Second, if we accept the thought that the goal of alpaca breeders is to create animals that have good, healthy conformation and can grow abundant fiber, then we can design an American Alpaca Breed Standard that is reasonable. The Canadian Alpaca Breed Standard is pretty bare-bones, but it is a good start. It simply gives a description of correct confirmation and fleece type. There are no aesthetic attributes.

All in all, I am opposed to any but the most basic of breed standards. We don’t need to define different breeds since we have only two very distinct varieties of animals, I think there is a high probability that aesthetic characteristics will become the focus of the standard, and limiting the already small gene-pool that we have is a dangerous thing. Those are my thoughts. Please see the websites listed below for further information on the Alpaca Breed Standard.


Canadian Breed Standard: http://www.wakefieldalpacas.com/Breed%20Standard/breedingstand.htm
Comparative Analysis of Breed Standards: http://www.alpacas.com/AlpacaLibrary/ComparAnalyssBreedStandard.aspx
Tears of an Alpaca: http://www.gateway-alpacas.com/alpaca-breed-standard.php

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