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Ralph Gardner Jr: Communing With Camels

Miyako Kinoshita with  a Bactrian camel

My family has this game we play. It’s not really a game; it’s more of a ritual. We call it “What’s Your Favorite Part of the Weekend?”

It started in the car returning to the city on Sunday nights. We’d go from family member to family member, in no particular order, and try to pinpoint our favorite part, aspect, moment, experience of the weekend.

It was a way, though not in so many words, of acknowledging how fortunate we were that we got to spend weekends in the country.

I believe my wife and I played “What’s Your Favorite Part of the Weekend” before our children were born. But we’ve certainly continued the tradition now that they’ve grown up and typically aren’t traveling with us when we return to the city.

It’s generally unacceptable for two people to have the same favorite part of the weekend. But a few weekends ago we did and there were no two ways around it.

So what was that charmed moment? It involved meeting Phoenix, a camel.

Camels don’t have the best reputations, even though I do recall that as a child I befriended a camel named “Artie” at the Central Park Zoo.

However, my understanding is that camels can be rather ornery and they spit. But Phoenix couldn’t have been more gracious as we petted him and touched his humps. For the record, they felt oddly spongy.

Phoenix, a two-humped Bactrian camel, native to the steppes of Central Asia, also happened to be a handsome animal. As camels go, definitely a “ten.”

As you may be able to guess we didn’t happen across Phoenix, and his sidekick Sage, during a walk in the woods since Bactrian camels aren’t native to the deciduous forests of the Northeast.

No, we encountered the even-toed ungulate when we stopped on our way upstate at Green Chimneys. That’s a special-education school that includes a farm and wildlife center, with campuses in Brewster and Carmel, New York.

The non-profit school is attended by over 100 residential and 100 day students from kindergarten through 12th grade. They’re drawn from eighty school districts around New York State. Green Chimneys is also considered a leader in animal-assisted therapy and educational activities for children with special needs.

The success of the program was evident in the care, interest and kindness the kids showered on our dog Wallie, who was along for the ride.

The farm has over 300 farm animals, as well as birds of prey and other wildlife, all of whom seem to be living the good life. A lot of them are rescues or they’ve been donated to the school and acclimated to interact with children.

Not all of them, however.

For example, the condors, whose idea of fun is to rip up old jeans as a substitute for the hides of animals they might have shred in the wild.

I asked Mikayo Kinoshita, the farm’s education program manager, whether she felt she a particular bond with an Andean condor, at that very moment, eviscerating a pair of distressed Levis. He’s apparently been around since she started working at Green Chimneys in 1997.

“From this distance,” she told me.

By the way, tomorrow, June 4th, is Green Chimneys annual “Birds of Prey” Day where you can visit the farm and smooze with some of the residents and wildlife experts. The stars of the show include local predators – such as great horned owls and turkey vultures – and others that are a good deal more exotic. For example, a kookaburra, a kingfisher native to Australia.

While turkey vultures don’t have the most appealing reputations or diets – when they aren’t circling the sky they seem to be feasting on road kill, Ms. Kinoshita told me they’re actually very sociable.

Indeed, she reported that she’s seen the farm’s resident vultures push food through their enclosures to cousins from the wild that happen to drop by.

Green Chimneys also has a bashful emu – when it was rescued it was tied to a fence along a highway – and a tortoise who managed to escape but was found traveling along one of the farm’s nature trails.

Learning to care for the animals isn’t just therapeutic for the children who attend Green Chimneys, giving them a sense of accomplishment and responsibility. The animals also impart wisdom:

For example, in observing the special relationship and living arrangement between Wilbur, a pig donated by a teenager who purchased him from a farm that raises pigs for food, and Vanilla, a goat.

When Vanilla was introduced to the farm she was placed in a pen with another goat and pig. But when it came time for her to reunite with the farm’s goat population it was discovered she preferred the company of pigs. So she was offered Wilbur as a roommate. And the animals have lived happily ever after.

Ms. Kinoshita told me: “They love each other. But Wilbur doesn’t like other pigs and Vanilla doesn’t like other goats.”

She added that there’s a valuable life lesson in their relationship for the children who help care for them: It’s okay to be different.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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