Alpaca owners donate shearings to Gulf of Mexico cleanup

Globs of crude oil from the blown-out BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico are washing ashore along with oil-soaked birds.

Volunteers are cleaning beaches and Audubon members have mobilized in Louisiana to help the birds.

And here in the Mid-Columbia, thousands of miles from the Gulf Coast, alpacas are helping too.

Sure, it’s really their owners, the six members of the Alpaca Breeders Co-op of the Greater Tri-Cities. But they couldn’t do it without their gentle animals’ fleece.

The co-op members are donating some of their shearings to people who are using animal hair to make booms to soak up the crude oil washing ashore.

Matter of Trust, a San Francisco-based environmental charity, has been collecting human and animal hair for 10 years to make booms and mats that sop up spilled oil.

The Matter of Trust website, www.matteroftrust.org, explains that the ridged texture that helps hair absorb body oils also makes it effective at catching crude.

The organization also stuffs old pantyhose with hair donated from hair salons and dog groomers across the country.

That is where alpacas come in. This is the time of year alpacas, like sheep, are shorn of their long winter fleece.

The first and second shearings from the back, neck, shoulders and haunches are considered the best fibers to be woven into fabric.

The third sheering comes from the belly and legs, which produce a coarser fiber.

“The third shearing is generally not usable in the textile market but highly usable in other markets,” said Jennifer Ely of Prosser, who uses the material to stuff dog and cat beds. She and her husband, John, own Sage Bluff Alpacas.

“There’s always a question of what do with our thirds,” she said. “Alpaca breeders nationwide are excited about getting to donate the least of our offerings to a very worthy cause.”

“After that first e-mail went out from Matter of Trust, the idea just mushroomed through the alpaca community,” she said.

Now hundreds of U.S. alpaca breeders and owners are boxing up the trimmings and shipping them to the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Canal Street in New Orleans.

Ely sheered 28 animals this spring and has about 20 pounds from the third shearings to send.

“It may not sound like a lot, but it’s not the weight, it’s the volume that matters. Alpaca fiber does not pack down like human hair, it keeps its loft and should soak up more oil than human hair,” she said.

Ely said the alpaca owners she has talked to and e-mailed are excited about the project.

“Finding this eco-friendly alternative use for our third shearings has really been a catalyst for this project within the alpaca industry,” she said.

You can see how the hair booms are made and used on the Matter of Trust website.

Hair mats and booms can be made with hair from other animals, including horses — which are shedding now — and feathers too.To collect it, line a shipping box with a large garbage sack.

Put the hair — it doesn’t have to be freshly shampooed, but should not be matted, dirty or mixed with garbage swept from the floor — into the bag. Tie the bag closed and tape the box shut.

Go to the Matter of Trust website, register and you will be e-mailed a mailing address.

These sites keep changing as the oil slick moves on the water, so check each time you send a box.

-- Loretto J. Hulse: 509-582-1513; lhulse@tricityherald.com