"We actually had a camel walk into the sanctuary."

All those bake sales and car washes must have paid off this year -- maybe it was my blueberry-nectarine pie. When our youth group broke open its year-end piggy bank, they found a little something extra, and they asked me to help spend it (it must have been my pie). The group does a nativity play every year, but seeing as how we've got this windfall, they want to take it up a notch this time: they want live animals around the manger. "Eve," they said, "get us camels."Riegler of Oasis Camel Dairy (760-787-0983; www.cameldairy.com), who runs the place with his wife Nancy Kobert, was there to help. Besides running the dairy end of things, he supplies camels and other animals for living nativities. "You make a nativity live by having live people and live animals in it," said Riegler. "We can supply everything. We did a living nativity at Paradise Hospital in Chula Vista, and we brought the backdrop, the music, the costumes, and the animals. I made the backdrop -- it's Bethlehem, a dark row of houses under blue stars. The northern star is up at the top. We costumed the kings with original costumes from the Middle East -- Israel and Jordan. We have a beautiful selection, from kings down to shepherds. The camels have beautiful blankets and pillows on the saddles. Their halters are decorated with beads and tassels."

Budget and space and what the people want dictate how much or how little Riegler sends to a nativity (call for prices and details). "The basic set that we send out is four sheep and a donkey, and maybe a baby camel. We have two in the herd right now. Last year, at Maranatha Chapel, we actually had a camel walk into the sanctuary. We used one of our shortest camels -- Clyde. He's seven and a half feet tall, so he can walk through a doorway." (Riegler noted that his camels are one-hump dromedaries -- "the original camel at the nativity.") "And this year, at another church, we'll have Mary riding a donkey through the sanctuary. I'll be Joseph, leading the donkey. We'll have three camels for the pageant at Skyline Church in National City; the kings will ride them in, and the camels will kneel down on the stage. The kings will get off, and the camels will walk off the stage. But mostly, we do outdoor nativities, where people can walk by and pet the animals." At Horizon Church this year, Riegler and Kobert will add a bird show to the festivities. Another church will get "some chickens, parrots, and turkeys on display, to give the feeling of an outdoor marketplace."

The animals get from place to place in a Clydesdale horse trailer. "It's extra tall and large. When the camels ride in it, they lay down." (Contrary to Rudyard Kipling's portrayal of the camel as a rude, antisocial beast, Riegler said that his camels "feel very calm in many situations. When we're getting the trailers ready, the camels are at the fence -- 'We're going to get some grain and have some fun!'") The other animals "travel in separate compartments. We wash them before they go into the trailer. If we're bringing goats and sheep and we'll be out all evening, we'll bring food. We always have water. There's hardly any animal waste to clean up, but whenever you see a camel walking in a sanctuary, there's always somebody behind them with a poop scooper. We pick up everything, even the blades of straw. We're heavily insured, and we stay with the animals to make sure that the client is happy and everything is safe."

Riegler started working with camels ten years ago. "I learned how to train them for physically handicapped people. From there, it gradually turned into the dairy. I started it because camel milk is just so healthy. There is a lot of research that shows it cures severe food allergies in kids. It's the closest milk to human milk. It's antimicrobial, antibacterial, and good for people with Crohn's disease. The Bedouins say that it's an aphrodisiac. I talked to a sheik in Israel and asked him if that was true. He said, 'Look at me! I have ten kids!'"

The camel milk tastes like cow's milk, said Riegler. "It's because we have them on sweet feed. Whatever they eat influences the taste. If they're eating salty or bitter bushes, that will influence the milk. I feed them at the trough, but we also have ten acres of pasture. The biggest problem is that they can grow fat on weeds. Most animals can't even survive on weeds alone, but camels have such an efficient digestive system, I've had to pull some of the females off the pasture and put them on a diet, because they were getting too big."

Sadly, you can't buy camel milk yet at Oasis Camel Dairy. What you can buy is a bar of camel-milk soap ( $4 ). "We sell it internationally -- it's the only one in the world. Because camel milk is so high in protein, it's very moisturizing. And it has alpha-hydroxide, which is good for the skin. The baby camels stay with their mothers -- in order to drop milk, the mother needs the baby to stimulate her. When we need to get milk, we share it with the baby."

Oasis Camel Dairy will be open on December 30 for a public tour ( $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $7 for children under 12). "It's the most intimate tour of camels you'll find anywhere. You get to pet Clyde on his hump, and you'll learn amazing facts about camels. For instance, instead of sweating, they raise their blood temperature. And the hump is all fat."

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