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.