Sometimes, being a researcher is repetitive and boring — all those lab tests and mice studies. And sometimes, being a researcher means shearing alpacas for science.
If you’re not familiar with alpacas, they are camel-like animals native to South America, and they are known for their high-quality wool. To collect this wool, of course, you need to shear the animals, just like you do for sheep. In a study published today in Veterinary Record, researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna tested three different ways of shearing alpacas and recorded how the animals reacted, all in hopes of finding out the least stressful way to do the deed. (The study was partly funded by organizations that I did not know existed but am glad do, like the Alpaca Association of Germany.)
So, how do you shear an alpaca? You can shear the animal while it’s standing, and get a bunch of assistants to hold it in place. You can restrain it on a mattress on the ground and shear it. And you can tie it on a special shearing table that’s shaped like a bowtie.
And how do you figure out if an alpaca is stressed out? Part of it is looking at how heart rate, body temperature, and breathing rate change during the shearing. And part of it is analyzing the level of the hormone cortisol — a stress indicator — in the animal’s feces and saliva.
First thing, the scientists wanted to know if simply being restrained stresses alpacas out. So they restrained the animals in each of the three ways — standing, tied to mattress, tied to special table — but didn’t shear them. These animals didn’t seem any more stressed out than if they were just standing around. Their heart rate and respiratory rate didn’t change. (And in all parts of the experiment, body temperature didn’t change.) But the animals’ cortisol levels were higher when they were held down. So, big surprise, being restrained is probably stressful for the alpacas.
Then, the researchers repeated the tests while shearing the animals — to see which method of shearing and restraint was the most stressful. For all the methods, the animals’ heart and respiratory rates went up, as did the levels of cortisol. But being restrained on the mattress on the ground led to the biggest increase, while being left standing the least.
So there’s our answer. Unfortunately, the researchers note, it’s not possible to just shear all of the alpacas while standing. Some of these creatures are feisty and fight the assistants and might hurt someone. These more aggressive animals should still be restrained, though maybe a shearing table should be used in these cases, the study says.
The findings aren’t terribly shocking — but at least now we have evidence, and we know that a few Austrian scientists sheared some alpacas so we could know this.