A 1994 news release from Children’s Fairyland read: “Coming to join Woolly the sheep, MilkDud the cow and Japhar the cockatoo, Children’s Fairyland’s live storybook animals, is a beautiful 4-year-old alpaca. This new arrival, born and raised in the United States, will bring delight to Bay Area children and their families who have never seen a live alpaca.”
Unlike our sheep (“Mary Had a Little Lamb”), our donkeys (“Pinocchio”) and rabbits (the stories of Beatrix Potter), our alpaca didn’t tie into any fairytale or storybook that we knew of. But it didn’t matter: Señor Juan’s soulful face, liquid eyes, beautiful lope and quirky personality endeared him to staff and guests of all ages.
|Juan the alpaca|
Because of an insurmountable health issue, we had to say goodbye to Juan last week. He was 25 years old, well past the average lifespan of alpacas, and his passing resulted in an unprecedented outpouring of love and appreciation.
As we celebrate Juan’s life, here are few things you might be interested to know.
As part of what is now known as animal enrichment, Juan was trained to sink a basketball into a net, pick up trash and deposit it into a can, ring a bell, rear on his hind legs, and sail over hurdles. During his little shows, the crowd would go wild.
On special occasions, kids were treated to Juan’s carrot kisses: his velvety lips would gently take a carrot offered from their mouths. Okay, so maybe staff members participated in this ritual as well.
|A carrot kiss from Micah, a former assistant animal caretaker.|
But Juan also had a mischievous side that you should know about. “Being naughty” is how our animal caretaker Allison Shafer politely refers to it. Whenever he saw an opportunity, Juan would make an escape and head directly for our organic garden. He particularly loved the sorrel. And the camellias. And the roses. One of our gardeners was convinced that Juan gravitated toward plants from the breed’s native Peru.
Even when he became mostly blind in his later years, Juan could still find his way around the park by memory. And he always remembered the best-tasting plants.
And so, before Juan left us, we treated him to a breakfast of anything he wanted to eat. Carrots, sorrel, pineapple and even a cookie were downed with gusto.
|Juan's last run through the Fairyland sprinklers.|
Camelids, which represent the family of mammals that includes alpacas, are known to spit when angry or upset. In the 14 years I was privileged to know Juan, he spat at only two people that I know of. One was a boy who had been warned against provoking him. The boy responded to the warning with something like “My dad could buy this place.” Juan got him right in the face.
The other was a woman trying to take a selfie with him. Juan did not like to be touched. He hit her good, and she came into our office to complain. “Your #$%&* giraffe spit on me,” she said. We gave him extra carrots that night.
I wasn’t the only one who treasured Juan. Kids – millions of them during Juan’s 22 years with us – seemed to be drawn to his unusual appearance. The love expressed on our Facebook page after his passing moved all of us on staff.
But Juan will live on, and not only in our hearts. You may know that alpaca wool is highly prized for its softness and durability. Here is how Juan, through his soft wool, is helping Ron Zeno, Fairyland board member, friend, and Fairy Winterland Santa Claus, through a tough time right now.
“In my association with Fairyland for over 20 years I've had some wonderful friendships, but none like I had with our recently passed alpaca, Señor Juan.
“I'd lean on the fence of his corral and talk to him, sometimes in Spanish. We'd also share a carrot or two. I'd look directly into those large, dark eyes of his. And I knew Juan understood me, word for word.
“Recently I was diagnosed with a serious problem and learned that I'd have to have 80 sessions in a hyperbaric chamber for two hours at a time. Well, I'll be damned if Fairyland staffer Maria Rodriguez didn’t crochet me a dragon made from the fleece of my good buddy Juan. Yes, a dragon! I suppose it was because I’ve done the voiceovers for three dragons in three different puppet shows!
“Well, folks, guess what? That dragon, whose name is Juan, comes to all of my medical appointments and chamber sessions!
“I'm so blessed to have Juan in my life ... forever. ¡Te quiero mi amigo Juan!”
|Juan's wool lives on in this crocheted dragon.|
Our goofy guy is gone now and cannot be replaced. My favorite tribute to him is this one from Michael V. Flores, an admirer and former park employee: “He was an alpaca who played basketball and spat at bullies. The world may never know the likes of him again.”
-- C.J. Hirschfield
C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park.