Erik Schweitzer drove his two pet alpacas, Sage and Rosemary, to a cathedral to get them blessed and to celebrate the day of the patron saint of animals, St. Francis, in October.
“There were lots of dogs and some cats but the alpacas were the standout attraction,” he said.
The cathedral isn’t the only place the now-blessed alpacas stand out.
Schweitzer, a faculty advisor at the UCLA Molecular Biology Institute, brought his alpacas to campus fall quarter to help his students de-stress before taking their pathophysiology final.
Taking the alpacas on trips is easy because they are small enough to squat in the back of his station wagon, though it can be difficult to get them out, he said.
Brooke Dickens, a student in Schweitzer’s UCLA Extension courses, said she helped him walk the alpacas across campus and Schweitzer was excited to introduce them to people. She added Schweitzer’s love for animals is evident in his teaching, because he often uses dog analogies.
Schweitzer said he bought the alpacas a year and a half ago as a compromise with his wife. She wanted goats but because he didn’t like goats, he began considering other pet options, he said.
He said he bought the alpacas from a ranch in Malibu, and drove them to his house in Topanga Canyon, California, in the back of his station wagon, along with his three golden retrievers, Odin, Gretchen and Arwen. Despite the tight fit, all the animals were happy to take the trip, he said.
When he first got Sage and Rosemary, they had Russian names that were difficult to pronounce. He renamed them after the Simon and Garfunkel song “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.”
Sage and Rosemary initially ran away from Schweitzer when he approached them to put on their harnesses. At first, the alpacas also resisted the friendship of Odin, Gretchen and Arwen. But after a few months, Sage and Rosemary warmed up to their new family and home.
Schweitzer’s house is on a hill and the alpacas climb up to poke their heads in the window for treats. When Sage and Rosemary aren’t looking for treats, they roam freely in Schweitzer’s grassy backyard.
“They’re not imaginative or bright enough to have any really interesting foibles, I think,” Schweitzer said. “They’re like cows. They mosey around.”
Schweitzer walks Sage and Rosemary around the neighborhood and curious strangers often come up to pet them, he said. They also stand out on trips to friends’ houses.
One day when the alpacas were sitting in the back of Schweitzer’s car while they were in a Ralph’s parking lot, an owner of a retirement home spotted them from across the lot. The unlikely encounter eventually led Sage and Rosemary to the woman’s retirement home, where they comforted residents.
Some of his neighbors like the alpacas for a different reason.
Alpaca manure is a valuable fertilizer because it can be directly applied to plants, he said. Some neighbors have taken advantage of the benefit and collect the manure to sell online.
Another person found his alpacas useful for their fur. Schweitzer sheers Sage and Rosemary’s fur once a year and sends it to a friend who lives on the east coast. She then spins the wool to make thread on a spinning wheel.
Schweitzer said he thinks alpacas are simple to take care of because all they need is food and water. They are also easy to clean up after because they set up one place in the yard as a toilet.
John Lewis, another student from Schweitzer’s UCLA Extension courses, said he met the alpacas on campus and thought Schweitzer cared for them the same way he cares for his students.
“He’s like (his) same eccentric self with the added motherhood around his alpacas,” Lewis said.
Schweitzer said he hopes to bring both his dogs and his alpacas back to UCLA as part of the ASUCLA therapy dog program during finals week.