Skip to main content
Shipping alpacas for breeding purposes and for their fleece is a small but steady business. (PRAIRIE SPIRIT ALPACAS)

That pets and livestock are regularly flown in passenger planes may not come as a surprise to many. But one recent animal delivery featured an unexpected group of flyers – a herd of cuddly alpacas.

In May of this year, over a five-day period, 40 alpacas from farms in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec were transported in groups of six to eight onto flights bound for Europe. At their final destinations – Austria, Germany and the United Kingdom – the animals were sheared and their fleece spun into yarn for socks and garments, as well as a lightweight filling for duvets.

In addition to being raised as breeding stock, alpacas are farmed mostly for their soft, durable fleece, which is hypoallergenic and not itchy like wool, says Carmen Jadick, who owns Prairie Spirit Alpacas, a farm in Sturgeon County, Alta.

Gaining a reputation as a luxurious material, alpaca fleece has now caught the attention of leading European design houses, according to a 2016 market report by the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI), a non-profit organization based in The Hague, in the Netherlands. And while alpaca products comprise a small niche market, European demand is growing, the CBI reported, specifically in “the highest fashion segments.”

Alpacas are kept as both high-end breeding stock and for their fleece, according to Carmen Jadick, the owner of Prairie Spirit Alpacas, a Sturgeon County, Alberta farm that has experience exporting alpacas to Europe. (PRAIRIE SPIRIT ALPACAS)

Llama-like but smaller, these cuddly-looking camelids, which belong to the two-toed, ruminant camel family, are also “quiet and cute,” according to Wayne Morgan, a livestock specialist at SeaAir International Forwarders. “Who [wouldn’t] want an alpaca sweater?” he adds, laughing.

Based in Mississauga, Ont., SeaAir regularly helps transport live animals around the world, and the company says that it typically ships alpacas a couple of times a year. Unsurprisingly, it remains a small part of its export activity compared to the other animals that comprise the bulk of its business.

Transporting alpacas – and other live animals, for that matter – by air involves a standard and strict procedure. The global standard for transporting animals by air is set by the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Live Animal Regulations, which ensures all animals are moved safely and humanely by air.

Transporting alpacas is relatively easy because they’re light in weight and can be led easily. (AIR CANADA CARGO)

First, the animals undergo tests to ensure their health according to the specifications of the recipient countries.

In Canada, for example, shipping alpacas has been limited to seven months of the year since 2015, when the bluetongue virus was found in Ontario cattle by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), an intergovernmental group headquartered in Paris. The European Union and Canada then negotiated an agreement allowing alpacas from Canada to be exported between November and May, a time of year when the animals are free of the viral bluetongue disease, which is insect-borne.

The owners of the animals provide the freight company with essential information – in the case of the alpacas, how many animals in total were being transported; each one’s size, gender and, most crucial for the airline, weight.

Alpacas are herded into their crate to wait for their flight overseas. (AIR CANADA CARGO)

“The weight balance of an aircraft is exceptionally important because [we have to] make sure we can accommodate the live animals [on the departure] date,” explains Mickey Sague, Air Canada’s strategic account manager for import and export.

The preparation time for shipping live animals takes four to six weeks for everyone involved in the undertaking. When a freight company, like SeaAir, receives a booking, it sends a request to Air Canada with a ship-by date. Monitoring capacity for every plane scheduled to leave within that time frame, the airline then picks the aircraft that can accommodate the animals.

On the day of the flight, the alpacas arrive by truck at an Air Canada Cargo warehouse accompanied by handlers. They are then taken to custom-built containers at a secure animal facility close to the airport runway. Typically, animals are kept in their travel containers upon arrival and moved into a warehouse, but some animals are also transferred to hay-filled pens.

Live-animal shipments are also required to have a representative from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) present to monitor and certify the transfer. Then, after being given plenty of water and a complimentary pre-flight meal of hay, the alpacas are loaded onto the planes in their containers.

Travelling alpacas are taken to custom-built containers at a secure animal facility close to the airport runway. (AIR CANADA CARGO)

Transporting alpacas is relatively easy, says Morgan, because they’re light in weight and can be led easily. They’re also curious animals that like to explore their surroundings, which helps them adjust to plane travel. And from thereon, it’s mostly smooth sailing – or, rather, flying. Unlike humans who react poorly to turbulence and jet lag, most animals, including alpacas, tend to cope well with air travel.

“Animals are quite resilient,” Sague points out. In most cases, he says, they prove to be in better condition or in just as good a condition when they get off the plane as when they got onto it.

When the plane encounters rough weather, alpacas, for example, will go down into a resting position, on all fours, and wait it out, Morgan explains. He notes, however, that horses have a difficult time with air turbulence.

There is one challenge unique to shipping alpacas however. If they’re upset, he says, they might spit on you.

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Edge Content Studio, in consultation with an advertiser. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.