Before finding himself the owner of two camels, John Bonander had a 10-year career of selling computers to small and medium businesses in Arizona. He took a sabbatical and came up to Oregon to help a friend who had a private exotic animal farm. He ended up going back to his job.
“I sat down in my cube. It’s big, big room full of a bunch of cubes where you know people are getting their life sucked out of them, no windows, and maybe some making good money. But I sat there maybe an hour before I wrote my notice,” he said. “That was 14 years ago now. Never my wildest dreams did I think I’d ever be doing this. Never, ever, ever. I love it.”
From there, 13 years ago, he decided to get two camels of his own.
“It’s just what I fell into … dumb luck,” he said. “I’ve always liked animals, but I grew up in the South Side of Chicago. But I like it and I like learning.”
He acquired Frank and Calvin from Knoxville, Tennessee. They are both geldings and have always been together.
He said the climate here is great because it doesn’t get too cold. But even in the desert it gets cold at night, so they need a good shelter and windbreak. He said they also grow a thick winter coat. He said he doesn’t shave them with clippers, he just brushes them.
“They eat alfalfa, but they’ll browse anything. I mean, they’ll go eat blackberries, ferns, you name it,” he said. “They’re like a giant goat.”
He usually has a pocket full of alfalfa cubes for treats, but they also like carrots and watermelon. Right now, he just gives rides in the round pen, but for every ride he gives there, he has someone ask him about riding them on the beach.
He found a spot with a great view and he has a vision. That vision has amounted to hard labor and long days. But once he has the trails in place, he can lead folks up the trail on the camels, to the perfect spot at sunset.
“They can bring wine or whatever they want to do, and I can lead them back down when they’re ready,” he said.
The trail he’s making will get people out on a camel long enough, but not too long, he said.
“I think it’s gonna be perfect,” he said.
One barrier to this at this time is that there’s only one of him and he has two camels to be led. He said a person has to respect that they are handling a large animal that could hurt you. He said they get smarter every year and a person can’t be sheepish in taking care of them. For the outside observer, when they aren’t being ridden, they sit quietly and chew on their cud. And when they are being ridden, they follow Bonander’s lead.
He said even after he gets his trail set, he will still do the rides in the corral. He said he only charges $15 for the short ride because he wants the camels to be accessible.
“If you’ve got something cool like these guys, you should just share,” he said.
He said he thinks there are camels in every state except Hawaii, and he was required to get a United States Department of Agriculture Exhibitors license for the camels.
“If you had a camel in your backyard and that’s all it ever did and you didn’t – not even once - take it to a school, a church, a parade, or anything like that, you wouldn’t need a license,” he said. “But the minute you exhibit it out in the public. You have to have a USDA license.”
He said he’s inspected a couple times a year to prove his facilities are up to snuff and his equipment is OK, and he’s following his animal care plan and more.
He went to a camel bootcamp where he learned about camels and how to care for them. He said that in fact, camel’s humps are not filled with water as most people seem to think.
“I’m pretty sure when we were all young, we all saw this Mickey Mouse cartoon or something like that with Mickey or Goofy filling up the camel’s hump with water,” he said. “I think that’s where it’s from. Could be wrong, but that got in everyone’s head.”
In reality, it’s fat storage and the spot on their body where they store fat. But it’s firm with fat and gristle and connective tissue. A camel’s backbone is straight, he said.
This is only his second season in Pacific City, working alongside Green Acres Beach & Trail Rides: Horseback Rides, and he’s working on getting his new vision dialed in for next year, as the weather will be prohibitive to trail building and camel riding before long.
West Coast Camels LLC is located at 5985 Pacific Ave, Pacific City, OR 97135. Bonander can be reached at (602) 703-2663 or you can find them on Facebook and Instagram.