Meet Freddy, Sonoma’s new therapy camel

For over 10,000 years, Bactrian camels have roamed the Gobi desert, some of them domesticated but many still wild. A socially-intelligent herbivore prized for its longevity, the domesticated Camelus bactrianus is commonly purposed as a stalwart and affable pet.

That's not news to Robin and Rob Lyon or their daughter, Lynette, who've had camels underfoot at their Sonoma preserve for years.

But for the terminally ill children their camels visit in hospice, it comes as something of a surprise.

'There is no average reaction,' Robin said of peoples' response. 'We've had people shout, 'What kind of dog is that?' and others who just want to hug them.'

The Bactrian camel is an even-toed ungulate with two distinct humps for storage of water and fat. A mature male can weigh 2,400 pounds and live for more than 40 years. They are instinctively gentle creatures motivated by affection, and at Lyon Ranch, they get a steady diet of love.

A wonderland hidden at the top of Grove Street, Lyon Ranch is home to a sprawling menagerie of exotic animals. There are emus and fennecs, parrots and ocelots, Geoffrey cats, horses, and an ornery Ze-donk. Inside the main house, perched well above the shushing progress of two robot vacuums, is an uncaged serval cat, unnervingly leopard-like.

But the family's newest member is a baby camel named Freddy. He's a fancy tri-color with expressive, wet eyes and a gingery tuft of nappy fuzz on his crown. At 4 months, he arrived at Lyon Ranch weighing 200 pounds; today, not quite a year old, he tips the scales at more than 500.

Like most babies, Freddy puts everything in his mouth, the fleshy lips and soft nose snuffling all things within range. When he mouths a stranger's wrist, Lynette gently hooks his cheek with a finger, training him away from behaviors that might frighten sick kids. She does it again and again and again and again, an instinctive and patient parent to four-legged things.

Lyon Ranch uses their camels as therapy animals, trucking them to various locations to comfort the dying. One of their regular locations is the George Mark Children's House, the first freestanding pediatric palliative care facility in the United States. Located in San Leandro, George Mark gives terminally ill children and their families a peaceful place to say goodbye.

At their last fundraiser, founder Kathy Hull screened a TED Talk that included video of the Lyons' previous camel, Hump-free, nuzzling a dying child. There, among the accoutrements common to terminal illness — scrubs, rubber gloves, wheelchairs, tubing — was a huge, gentle animal, blind to the rest.

'What's that?' screamed one of the guests, on his feet at the back of the room.

That man, a wealthy 'Beverly Hills kind of guy,' according to Robin, was so moved by the reaction the child had to the camel, that — after learning that Hump-free had recently died — determined to replace it right there and then.

That same week, the phone rang at Lyon Ranch. An elite breeder in Southern California had a baby camel to give them, and its $18,000 cost had been covered.

The only thing the donor had asked in return was that the animal be made his namesake. So little Freddy, the domesticated Bactrian, arrived in July, and the Lyons have been spoiling — and training — him since.

Preparing a camel to mix in polite company is not a job for the impatient. With sick kids in the mix, there is no room for error. Compounding an already bleak situation is the last thing the Lyons would ever want to do. It will take many months more before Freddy is ready, but he's made several field trips, and is a quick learner.

Freddy recently learned how to ride elevators at the Sonoma Community Center. SCC Director John Gurney gave initial the go-ahead – and a few weeks ago, the camel lumbered in. He rode the lift up without batting an eye, crashed a math lesson at Crescent Montessori, then galumphed back down the hall and into the elevator, where he managed the descent like an urbanite. 'I thought he might react to the drop,' Robin said, 'but he was a champ! No problem at all.'

His predecessor was often seen around town, even caught bathing once at Jerry Marino's Chicken Car Wash. 'Jerry came around the corner ready to be mad,' Robin remembers, 'but then he saw Hump-free and burst out laughing.'

The Lyons expect Freddy will soon be ready for his role, delighting onlookers and soothing sick children. At their bedsides, in the midst of heartbreaking sadness, the gentle ungulate with the sad, serious eyes will do what is needed, and the hardest things will be eased.

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