When you think of camels, pictures of hot, sandy deserts come to mind. What doesn’t come to mind is the lush farmland of inland Washington. But that’s precisely where you will find one.
Izzy is the resident camel of Waitsburg, a town roughly thirty minutes outside of Walla Walla. For owner Mickey Richards, Izzy is a blessing. “He just makes people smile. It’s kind of an honor to be a part of that,” Richards says.
Richards bought Izzy from a petting zoo in Boise about five and a half years ago. Izzy had been bottle-raised by his previous owner, who lived in Texas near an elementary school where Izzy got lots of attention from the children.
“At the end of the day all the kids from the elementary school would swarm Izzy, so he was around kids very early,” Richards says. Izzy has been handled well his entire life. He’s used to the attention, and the commotion of being surrounded by crowds of people. He never grew up around adult camels and therefore never learned any bad camel habits –biting or spitting.
In case you were wondering – yes, Izzy is a he.
“His name was Lover Boy and I didn’t know if I wanted to walk out in the pasture calling ‘Lover Boy, Lover Boy,’ so I thought we’d wait and get used to his personality before naming him,” Richards says. After he brought the camel back to his pastures, everyone kept asking, “Is he going to step on me? Is he going to spit on me? Is he going to bite me?” So many questions beginning with “is he…?”
And that’s how the camel ended up with the name “Izzy.”
Though he stands nearly eight feet tall, Izzy is relatively small for a camel. There’s no denying this Waitsburg celebrity brings joy to people. With his permanent grin, long eyelashes and soulful eyes, he wins everybody’s heart.
“We’ve become his herd,” Richards says. “He would rather be with people than anything. He loves having people around.”
Northwest Public Radio’s Cricket Cordova remembers her encounter at the Richards property: “I was hanging out with my back turned toward his pen and all of a sudden I felt a big fuzzy head on my foot…Izzy was looking for a little affection and maybe a carrot.”
If you do visit him, make sure not to bring any greens, though. “He doesn’t like spinach or broccoli much,” Richards says. “But he gets really excited about carrots.” Other food to bring to get his attention: apples, dates, and peanuts in the shell – he’ll eat the shell, too.
“Anytime you’re around Izzy, he makes you laugh. He’s quite the character,” Richards says. He then shared the story of a woman who was going through a severe illness that led to vision impairment, depression and suicidal thoughts. She had to drive through Waitsburg every time she went to the hospital. On one of these trips, she saw a horse in a pasture, so crippled by arthritis that his back was severely curved and deformed. “She thought if that horse could still keep going so would she,” Richards says. “As long as that horse is alive I’m going stay alive too.”
And sure enough, she got better. “Later on, when she told someone about the crippled horse, they said, ‘you know - that’s not a horse. It’s a camel,’” Richards says. “She credits Izzy with saving her life.”
Izzy is also a good luck charm. Richards says there’s a group of friends that begins each fishing trip by driving significantly out of their way see the camel. “They say if they see him in his pasture, they’ll have a good fishing day. If they don’t see Izzy, they don’t catch any fish.”
Who would’ve thought that owning a camel would be akin to having a dog? Richards takes Izzy on walks downtown. The walks aren’t a scheduled regimen, just something they do for fun whenever they feel like it. And walking a camel down the main road of a small town gets a lot of attention.
One of Izzy’s favorite things is to acknowledge everyone who gawks at him. When they stop their cars and roll their window down, “he’ll go right over to them and shove his head in,” Richards says. No one ever gets hurt or angry. Izzy is gentle with them, and just wants to touch and smell them – and give kisses, of course. Richards says Izzy knows he’s getting attention and loves it.
This camel especially loves carrots – they’re his favorite treat. Izzy has about 20 to 30 cars visiting him at his pasture a day. There’s a place to pull off right beside the road where people can jump out and beckon Izzy with snacks.
The average life span of a camel is 40 to 50 years, which make 7-year old practically a baby. It’s safe to say the city of Waitsburg and all its visitors will be able to enjoy Izzy for many years to come.
“He just makes people happy. It doesn’t matter their situation or age - he just makes people smile,” Richard says.