One of our 2011 crias (a baby alpaca) was born deaf. It only took a day or two to determine she could not hear. I came into the barn and she was lying next to her mom, sound asleep. My arrival at the barn in the morning means it is feeding time and the alpacas all start letting me know they are ready to eat. This little girl, Shelby, slept through all the excitement. She didn’t wake up until I touched her.
I still talk to Shelby all the time, but I knew I would need to do something extra to communicate with her and let her know what I needed her to do. I began using hand gestures. When I would walk by, or into, her pasture I would wave to her and make eye contact. When I wanted her to go in or out of her pen I would gesture like a door man, pointing the way for her. I made sure to touch her gently while passing by so as not to startle her. To let her know she was doing well, I would massage her shoulder. Shelby is very bright and figures things out quickly.
My newest challenge was to lead train Shelby. I had been putting a halter on her for 20 minutes or so a few times a week for her to get used to the feel of it. Now came the big test; could I get her to understand walking on the lead. My normal words of encouragement and commands were not going to work. So again, I thought of the gestures I could use. The same procedure I use would work if I could get what I wanted across to her.
I gently pulled on the lead and when she moved her feet I would give her slack. Another pull, more slack. It took the length of the barn but she was getting the idea. Drawing her close to me I massaged her shoulder to let her know she was doing what I needed her to. We headed the other direction at the same pace. Now I am not going to say Shelby was exceptional and after 10 minutes was lead trained; but she did get the concept and our first session was over. A few more times and I know she will be all right with it.
An alpaca that is born deaf doesn’t know it is deaf. It thinks that the world is, as it perceives it. There are not sounds to distract it or alert it, so it has to rely on visual cues to stay safe and to learn what it needs. Shelby is just like all the other crias. She runs and plays, follows the herd, looks for mom to nurse, wrestles and spits at the other crias. Shelby doesn’t know she is deaf and I am glad she doesn’t. Her world is just as full and she is just as happy. It is the shepherd that has to adjust.