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The Eyes Have It

by Howard Hewitt
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Tim Talbott ’60 and his wife Jane share a love that dates back to the days before his Wabash grad-uation when they married. Their thoughts intertwine in nearly every conversation.
That shared love extends to their four adult children and their 150 big-eyed, furry, 150-pound retirement investments. Tim, a retired colon-rectal surgeon, started thinking retirement in his mid-40s. After an unpleasant foray into traditional livestock, they found the love of their retirement lives: alpacas.
The hectic and stressful pace of surgery has been replaced by the daily chores on their Grand Alpaca Farm just west of Grand Rapids, MI. It’s the couple’s 25th year in the alpaca business.
“When I retired I just turned my back and walked away. I have a different career now with a different boss,” Tim says, relaxing at the home he and Jane share. He glances toward his wife. “She tells me what my assignments are for the day…”
Jane can’t resist jumping in: “That’s true. During all his years of practicing medicine, I took care of the chores. Then he retires and wants to do it his way.”
Tim feigns anger and bristles, “You always said I call the shots and what I said would go…” 
“…at the hospital,” says Jane, finishing the sentence.
Alpacas are domesticated South American animals grown for their fleece. The fiber can be valuable. The annual shearing produces five to eight pounds of fleece per animal and can bring from $2 to $3 an ounce depending on the quality, according to the National Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association. The animals resemble llamas but are much smaller, and, the Talbotts agree, “are much better looking.”
“This is pretty much a female-driven industry,” Tim says. “The ladies come and they fall in love with their eyes. The ladies who come are the ones who get into it, but the husbands are the venture capitalists.”
Jane simply thought anything would be better than the cattle and chickens they had raised from 1985 to 1995. “These things had the most beautiful eyes and personality,” she recalls from her first visit to an Ohio alpaca farm. “We fell in love with them immediately. 
“They come up to me and give me kisses. They rub up against me and walk with me. They can be halter trained; they know my commands. They’re like big dogs and your favorite pet.”
Physicians make up 14 percent of alpaca owners. “It’s an ideal animal for a doctor,” Tim explained. “They’re expensive, unique, they have a product, and they’re a good tax deduction. It’s worked out just wonderful.”
Alpacas have a life span of 15 to 20 years, weigh just 100 to 150 pounds, and will produce fiber for their entire lives.
Another bonus: They are relatively low maintenance.
“Basically they are grazers,” Jane says. “We walk through the herd every day and give them a vitamin supplement…”
“Jane is their candy lady,” Tim says. Jane ignores the comment and notes each animal has a microchip for identification.
But the Talbotts don’t rely on modern technology. During a walk through the herd later on a hot July day, Jane will identify Lady Esquire, Gypsy Rose, Honey Glow, Summer’s Dream, Casanova, Cinnabar, Cinder Boots, and all the other animals by name at first glance.
While the Talbotts make visiting the farm great fun, it is big business. They breed only within their own herd and don’t take their animals off the farm so they can promote their business as bio-secure.
The Talbotts’ niche is selling breeding stock. Animals, proven and unproven, are a serious investment at $7,500 to $19,500 each. The national association notes some alpacas from superior stock have been known to sell for up to $40,000, although pet-quality animals sell for much less.
When the Talbotts bought their first six alpacas in 1995 it wasn’t much of an industry, with ap-proximately 350 animals in the country. Tim helped write the organizational papers for the first national alpaca association. He has been recognized as an industry leader. Today there are more than 50,000 alpacas with about 4,000 owners in the United States.
Talbot eased into retirement at age 65 when he quit doing surgeries but spent four years doing colonoscopies. He retired from the medical profession altogether three years ago and is now a full-time rancher.
“It’s been a wonderful transition,” Tim says. “Sometimes I think, I used to be a surgeon? It just amazes me. Now it’s a completely different lifestyle.”
But his previous career pays off on the farm. He took a pre-natal course for the animals and tends to minor medical problems. He often is on the phone giving alpaca medical advice to other owners.
Jane arranges the animals’ “dates” and the birthing. “We call ourselves alpaca pimps,” she says, as Tim rolls his eyes.
“When pregnant, they do get a little crabby,” Tim says.
“Now some are sweet and some do get a little attitude,” Jane says, in a defensive tone that has Tim laughing. ”But, as a woman, I understand.
“We have a passionate love for these animals. We really enjoy them or we wouldn’t have been in the business this long.”
After nearly an hour at poolside talking about the alpaca business, it’s time for that walk through the herd. The couple listens intently about the plans for this story to appear in an issue of Wabash Magazine built around a theme of milestones and transitions.
“Who cares about transitions,” Jane leans in and whispers. “We’re here to sell alpacas. How many do you want?”