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Alpaca-lypse: Oxford’s favourite animal hates human touch

Andy Wei and Canqi Li report.

Do alpacas even like to be touched? Experts claim that these stars of Oxford welfare weeks don’t like the constant attention.

Alpacas have been warmly welcomed at Oxford as paragons of tranquility. Student welfare events featuring these fluffy, adorable animals have graced at least a dozen colleges in recent years. Sam Glossop told Cherwell that their appearance at Balliol College last Trinity created a “very upbeat atmosphere” and was “probably the most popular [event] of the year.” Although “stroking an alpaca isn’t going to solve anything serious,” Sam contends that “it fits in as a fun front to the more major welfare support provided by the college systems.”

However, new concerns are arising about the ethics behind bringing in alpacas. If you search “Do alpacas like to be petted?” on Google, you will find a near consensus among alpaca farmers that alpacas in fact do not like to be petted or hugged, especially by strangers. While it may be soothing for us, it is quite stressful for the alpacas even if they do not show it.

Several staff from local alpaca farms expressed disapproval with this popular Oxford event. Philippa Wills, the proprietor of Great House Alpacas in Oxfordshire, strongly believes that petting alpacas is “a bad idea”. Having handled and bred alpacas for the past 29 years, Wills told Cherwell: “There are two types of animals, the hunted and those that hunt… alpacas belong to the hunted class and can only defend themselves by backing off or flight.” Unlike predator animals such as dogs or cats, which are also brought in for student welfare purposes, alpacas have a completely different, fear-based relationship to human interaction.

Owner of Fairytale Farm, Nick Laister, also believes that the furry critters dislike human contact.  Laister told Cherwell: “The only thing we do… on occasional days, and with limited numbers, is walking with alpacas. Here, there is no direct contact, and they seem to be happy doing it.”

However, Laister also believes that with time, the animals can acclimatize themselves with humans. “Our alpacas are growing friendly with our visitors, so (they) now actually voluntarily go up to visitors who are standing by their enclosures, which is something they would never have done 10 years ago,” he stated. According to Laister, this behavioral tendency was gradually exhibited without any coaxing.

Lea Moutault, who organized last year’s alpaca event at Balliol College as the JCR welfare representative, told Cherwell that the alpacas were handled very delicately and let to wander on their own. In addition, they were reassured by Pennybridge Farm that the alpacas were comfortable with humans. However, Lea told Cherwell: “I personally think in terms of a balance between human and animal welfare, human welfare should not supersede animal welfare.” If she could organize the event again, she says that she would’ve done further research to ensure the wellbeing of the alpacas involved.

It seems like alpaca petting has made its way into the canon of ongoing animal ethics debates, alongside zoos, animal testing, and whale watching. So, when midterm blues strike, maybe let these gentle creatures be and opt for a relaxing walk with a friend or tutor’s dog, give some lettuce to your college tortoise or attempt to befriend the local cat.

Image credit: Jess Cullen/Ellie Moriuchi

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