Alongside the common barnyard animals at the Orange County Fair, such as pigs and chickens, are dromedaries of the Sahara, by way of San Diego.
The animals from the Oasis Camel Dairy are at the Costa Mesa fairgrounds to exhibit the versatility and sociability of the towering, 1,500-pound creatures, which do more than toil in far-flung, windswept deserts.
“Camels are like big puppies,” said Oasis owner and camel aficionado Gil Riegler, who is in his seventh year showing at the fair. “They love being petted.”
The travel team — consisting of females Knuckles and Cleopatra and their calves, Latifa and Rocko, plus a gelded male named Samson — comes from a herd of about 20 on a farm near Ramona, outside San Diego. The farm also is home to turkeys — the fair’s turkey races are run by Riegler’s wife, Nancy — and parrots, sheep, donkeys and horses.
With their long, curved necks, fluttering eyelashes and gangly, knobby legs, camels are goofy yet graceful, with the playful nature of a Labrador. Those in the Oasis crew are hammy with people, affectionate among one another and can produce a commodity: milk.
“The milk is delicious,” Gil Riegler said. “Absolutely delicious.”
Riegler said camel’s milk is like skim cow’s milk. It’s a little salty and a little sweet, hypoallergenic and nutritionally similar to human mother’s milk. He said the dairy doesn’t sell raw milk because of extensive state regulations, but it does make and sell bath and beauty products including fizzy bath bombs, lip balm, soap and lotion.
For visitors who want to consume the milk in some form, Oasis sells camel’s milk chocolates imported from Dubai.
A milking session can release 2 liters, but you’ll have to act fast. The sessions are only about 90 seconds long.
“If you’re texting or you’re talking, you don’t get any milk,” Riegler said.
For his demonstrations at the fair, he does what he can to ensure some product. Between shows Wednesday, Knuckles wore an udder cover to prevent the calves from feeding, conserving milk.
“This is the regular, day-to-day utilitarian udder cover,” Riegler said, holding up a simple brown cloth sack secured with straps around the camel’s back. Then he held up a black model with shiny buckles.
“This is the Victoria’s Secret one.”
To demonstrate the udder cover to the audience at the early show, he distracted Knuckles with a bucket of grain and positioned himself close enough to her hindquarters where a kick would hurt less because she’d have less momentum. He asked his assistant, niece Tricia Krussow, to tell him if Knuckles started showing the whites of her eyes — “If you can see the whites of their eyes, you know they’re thinking about something,” something iffy.
He then secured a cover to help encourage some accumulation of milk before the next show.
A couple of hours later, with new spectators, Riegler removed the cover — the utilitarian one — and 6-month-old Latifa nuzzled her mother’s belly. Knuckles sniffed Latifa to confirm that she was hers and then allowed the baby to proceed with feeding.
The crowd cheered. The rest of the camels slid their necks between the pen bars and grunted merrily. Latifa lunched.
Welcome to the drome-dairy.
Samson obviously can’t lactate, but he can do tricks on command and give kisses. His repertoire includes removing hats with his prehensile lips, sitting, and twisting his neck 270 degrees like a bendy straw to receive treats.
Latifa is boisterous and mischievous — “full of beans,” Riegler said — while her half brother Rocko, a few weeks younger, is a good boy.
With no natural predators, camels are laid-back, docile and trusting, ambling sunnily if slowly through life, giving rides and flirting with humans.
Unlike horses, they don’t spook easily, Riegler said. And they don’t spit as much as people think.
“If you treat them well, they never learn how to spit,” he said. “If you treat them badly, they learn how to spit. If you go to a zoo and there’s a camel that’s still spitting, he probably learned it a long time ago and he’s bored and he has a great sense of humor, because he goes, ‘Aha, look at this!’ ”
Krussow, 22, grew up with these camels. She’s now a professional camel wrangler and soap maker and adores the beasts as much as any pet owners would fawn over their furry “children.”
“They’re very big animals, but they love us,” she said.
The camels give daily shows at the fair at 1:30, 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. and are on display all day through Aug. 13.