PORTLAND — The strangest one, Robert Morrison says, was the woman who insisted on lying next to her alpacas while they were being sheared. The cuddling calmed them, she insisted. You're in the way and might get cut, he thought to himself.
But he let it pass. After all, this was a woman who wore extravagantly long false eyelashes in what Morrison figured was an attempt to mimic the dewy-eyed look of her livestock. Best to bite his tongue and get on with the job.
"Understanding an animal is half the battle," Morrison says in a clipped New Zealand accent, laugh lines crinkling at his eyes. "The next half is getting along with the animal owner."
In a niche economy, Morrison, 61, occupies one of the narrowest slots. The United States has an estimated 200,000 alpacas — long-necked members of the camel family like llamas, but smaller and meeker — and they need to be sheared once a year. Morrison estimates there are 15 to 20 itinerant shearers like himself, who travel a circuit from farm to farm.
A good many are from New Zealand or Australia, where extensive sheep ranching resulted in a corps of experienced shearers who've found seasonal work in North America.
Morrison has sheep shearing in his background and took up an alpaca route after the building supply store where he worked folded during the recession.
For 21/2; months each spring, it's a life of motel beds, restaurant meals, and $10,000 worth of Swiss-made shears and blades to lug around. It's a life that will see him drive his diesel Ford F-250 from Oregon to Oklahoma City, West Texas, into Arkansas, through Arizona and back home by early June to Colorado, where he's taken up residence and recently became a U.S. citizen.
"It is a nomadic life that I like," Morrison says. "I can lay my head anywhere and go to sleep. I'll be in a motel on the Kansas line somewhere tomorrow."
But for now he's on the floor of Greg Mecklem's immense wooden barn off Helvetia Road in Washington County. Farmhands lead into place the next alpaca, a pregnant female named Stefani. They quickly fasten rope loops to her front and back feet, lower her to a floor mat and take up the slack on the ropes, immobilizing her.
Kyle Rapp, the "head man" — a literal job description because he holds the alpaca's head during shearing — kneels into position to prevent Stefani from thrashing.
"She's not very attractive and you'd never enter her in a show," Mecklem, the ranch owner, says, "but all of her babies are first rate."
And that's the element that separates alpaca shearing from mundane livestock care. These are valuable animals; it's not unusual for breeding stock to sell for $25,000 per animal. Owners register their alpacas' DNA, and lineage is carefully traced. The animals' conformation and fiber quality are judged at shows.
The fiber removed during shearing is highly prized for sweaters, hats, jackets and socks. It's soft and strong, lighter yet warmer than wool, contains no lanolin and is hypoallergenic. Raw fleece sells for $15 to $20 a pound and is snapped up by small spinning mills and home crafters.
"Anyone who spins covets alpaca like they would cashmere," says Fred Kraft, marketing director for Northwest Alpacas in Hillsboro.
Naturally, alpaca owners don't want a shearer who is rough with their animals, cuts them with the shears or miscuts the valuable fleece.
All of which is in the back of Morrison's mind as he sets to work. "I don't want stories told about me when I've left," he says. "You manhandle their animals and you'll never see that ranch again."
Shearing takes six to eight minutes per animal. Morrison begins at the rib cage and cuts in strips from rump to neck, over the back and around to the other side of the belly. The first cut, called the "blanket," contains the most valuable fiber. It's gathered and kept separate as Morrison cuts the "seconds" — down the legs, up the tail and neck.
The work is a terse ballet. "Turn," Morrison says, and Mecklem's farmhands turn the animal in place so Morrison can complete the blanket cut. "Release," he says, and they loosen the ropes so he can get at the legs.
It's a noisy show, with the electric rattle of the shears accompanied by the alpacas' high-pitched screams. Shearing doesn't hurt them, and some lie quietly, but many don't like being restrained. Those animals scream and spit green globs of half-digested cud. Prolific spitters get a cotton sock over their mouths.
Alpacas are gentle herd animals, curious as cats and given to humming. They are native to South America and were first introduced into the United States in the early 1980s.
Alpaca ranching has enjoyed a slow, steady growth since then, and the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association counts 4,500 members in North America, with 150,000 registered animals. Alpacas are popular with hobby farmers because they don't need much room — five to 10 animals can get by on an acre — and are relatively easy to handle.
They weigh 140 to 200 pounds, but lack upper teeth and have padded toes instead of hooves, so bites and kicks aren't a serious threat. But the spit is foul and the screams are ear-piercing.
"Once they start screaming, there's nothing makes them happy," Morrison says. "The same ones will spit every year."
Shearing can be a grind. Over the course of five days in Washington County, Morrison sheared 150 alpacas at Mecklem's farm and 75 at another ranch nearby.
But it's a decent living, paying about $25 an animal, and a good fit for Morrison. He enjoys travel, banters easily and doesn't require much in the way of accommodations. He's also free to hit the road: He's been divorced many years, has a daughter and three grandchildren in South Africa, and a son and 94-year-old father in New Zealand.
Morrison is good-humored, competent, easy on the animals and respectful of the farm's permanent crew, Mecklem says. Morrison has a standing invitation to return.
Morrison prides himself on maintaining good relations with ranchers, even if they want to snuggle with the alpacas during the shearing.
"I know a lot of guys who will say the animals are the easiest thing to deal with," he says. "But I say, 'You know what, the alpaca doesn't sign the check.'
"People are happy to see me and happy to see me go," he says. "If I can drive away with that thought, I'm happy."