The Camel Whisperer of California
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Forget lolcats. These are the next animal craze.
Drive an hour east from San Diego’s wave-splashed coast to a remote ranchland of wildfire-charred hills, where the curved highway leads to an odd visual surprise. Tall and tufted, with necks like Roman arches, camels gaze placidly at the passing trucks and Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders. Open the hand-rigged gate to Oasis Camel Dairy and you enter the animal kingdom of a legendary camel whisperer.
Here is Gil Riegler, 54, a green-eyed olive-skinned American born to Yemeni-Canadian parents, who spends his life breeding and taking care of 18 tawny, groaning, half-ton beasts he calls “misunderstood.” On the sunny first morning of a newborn camel’s life, Riegler checks on the mother-baby bonding. “It’s a little girl!” he says, leaning on a fence. “Jamilla is a wonderful mother. Listen to them talking,” he says of a few snuffled grunts.
This Dr. Dolittle of dromedaries is no country eccentric; he’s a key driver of new interest in camels, the third-fastest-growing livestock behind goats and buffalo. Camel milk, which currently comprises less than 1 percent of global consumer milk, could soon double to nearly 6 million tons, says Bernard Faye, of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Already around 10 small U.S. dairies sell camel milk for $9 to $12 per wholesale pint — retailing at $20 to $28 each. Riegler started his business in 1997, and now around 300,000 people per year attend his paid events, including 15,000 who drop $15 to $35 each to visit Oasis on rare opportunities. Oasis “bulls” sire Hollywood’s camel babies at $1,000 per impregnation, and his camel-milk soaps and lotions sell in U.S. wineries and boutiques — hard-won income that supports his free advice line for 500-plus camel owners. Media appearances like TV’s Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern bring investment offers from Saudi royals and food companies, he says.
The camels see me as top bull in the herd.
Yet Oasis possesses an easeful rural grace. A rafter of penned turkeys moves en masse, like wind passing over a wheat field. A small donkey stands by the weathered Ramona farmhouse where Riegler and his wife, Nancy, a bird expert, live. In their homey living room, instead of graduation photos or Jesus portraits, the icons here are camels. Camel statues and dull-bright woven fabrics from India fade into the soft daylight. In the kitchen, Ringo, a tiny sparrow Riegler found blind and motherless in an empty trailer, splashes his wings in a thousand pulsing shivers under the faucet. A downstairs room resounds with Nancy’s cacophonous parrot flock. Pull back a bathroom shower curtain and a large turtle shines wetly in his moist porcelain world. Riegler is father, mother or even child to his interspecies family. “The camels see me as top bull in the herd. But I see them individually — Camelot’s my work buddy, Sampson’s my kid and Lily’s a great mother.”
Riegler’s camel life began at 20, as a young Army soldier chasing Sinai desert smugglers who’d loaded their camels with arms and hashish. “This helpful Bedouin tracker made us tea before we’d climb in the helicopter, and he’d point out faint camel tracks — like, this one was pregnant, this one was hurt and they passed by two hours ago,” he recalls. Ending his three-year stint, Riegler moved to Toronto before hitchhiking to California in 1983. After working as a nudist club’s waiter-gardener, Riegler learned quartz crystal-cutting under noted researcher Marcel Vogel, a career overlapping his 10 years as a Dragon Slayers camel therapist (the camel interaction enhanced disabled people’s motor and communication skills). Around 1996, “I was just sort of lost,” Riegler says. “I looked at a camel’s face and heard this voice saying, ‘If you have camels, your life will be a great one.’” His crystal-cutting money purchased four babies: two boys and two girls.
Two years later, Nancy, who met him at her bird show, didn’t believe he owned camels. “I’d heard that before,” she says, camels being the Ferrari of the exotic-animal world. People who know the animal-celebrity pair still praise Riegler’s gentle animal touch. Camel handler Lee Selman points to the sparrow, Ringo. “It sits on his hand, comes when called,” she says. “It’s how Gil sees the world: A creature, so common it’s invisible, has personality and intelligence for him.”
Riegler sensed those dimensions in camels as he labored over his business. “Nineteen years ago, people thought they were nasty, and the milk would be horrible,” he says. “But I just kept talking at shows. Now they know it’s good.” It’s true that accumulating scientific publications (on cancer, autism, diabetes and food allergies) show the milk’s potential. Still, the seven-employee Oasis, dreading regulatory hassles, doesn’t sell milk, especially the legal raw milk California consumers beg for. Meanwhile, market estimations of 100 million-plus have lured global players like Amul Dairy (with an Indian pilot project), and Dubai’s Camelicious is expanding its European sales. Riegler, ironically, may miss his long-sought money opportunity. Would he exit if he could? He chews over the thought, cud-like. “If somebody offered me $10 million for this place, I’d say yes, but I’d just start another one, so why?” Still, “part of me just wants to travel,” he admits.
For now, Oasis calls: A second mother has given birth. Awake for three days since ripping open the amniotic sac to save this squeaky newborn male, Riegler flicks the rigid collar of afterbirth on its plush gray neck. The hourly feedings and leg massages haven’t dimmed his smile. The top bull watches even in his dreams, his ears attuned to the sounds of his herd outside his star-streaked bedroom window.