Meet the cowboy who's mainstreaming camel milk
Gil Riegler has been called the "Dr. Dolittle of dromedaries." He's shepherding a bizarre (and healthy) new food trend that makes camel milk seem like the new almond milk.
Gil Riegler performs at county fairs across the country to tens of thousands of people each year. As part of his act, he has a "Laurel and Hardy" bit that always gets the biggest laugh. In the Vaudevillian routine, somebody keeps surreptitiously removing Riegler's hat from his head and taking things out of his pocket. His partner in comedy? A camel named Samson.
Riegler and his wife Nancy opened the Oasis Camel Dairy just outside of San Diego 18 years ago. "At that time, we were the only people in the United States thinking about milking camels," said the 55-year-old Riegler.
So how did a guy who cut high-end quartz crystals for a living instead choose a career in the camel industry? Riegler grew up on a family farm in Israel, milking goats and riding horses. He always had an affinity for animals and even had a pet crow. He moved to the U.S. while in his 20s and began volunteering at an organization that used therapy animals to help disabled children. "And then I met a camel and a voice in my head said, 'If you have camels in your life, your life will turn out great.' So that's what I did."
We caught up with Riegler one recent morning while he was setting up his show at the Santa Cruz County Fair to find out more about being in the camel business. "They're like big puppies, just really big dogs that are very, very sweet and affectionate," he told From The Grapevine.
While his line of work may seem odd, camel dairies are sprouting up all over the world, as are camel milk cafes.
But before you start thinking about opening one up yourself, you should know something: milking camels is a tough job. Why is that? Because they only lactate for a blink-and-you-miss-it moment. Riegler explained: "You run in and milk as fast as you can, because camels only give milk for 90 seconds and that's it. If you're not fast and not on top of it, you missed the whole thing."
There are many health benefits to drinking camel's milk. A professor in Israel's Ben-Gurion University, Dr. Reuven Yagil, discovered that camel milk contained insulin and was good for diabetics. Researchers from India’s Birla Institute of Technology and Science found that camel milk can help fight inflammation and infections and even lower cholesterol. Camel milk is also high in mineral content and has been shown to reduce lactose intolerance, combat hepatitis and decrease kidney and liver damage. Considerably higher in vitamin C, vitamin B6 and iron, demand for camel milk is growing, with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recognizing it as a nutritious resource with vast potential.
Some parents of autistic children say it helps their kids. Riegler brought back frozen camel milk from Israel and gave it to a mother in the U.S. with an autistic son. "She said within 24 hours of drinking just one cup, the next morning, he was doing more eye contact, he had less nervous ticks, he was more relaxed, and he was more communicative," Riegler recalled.
There's a Facebook group called "Healing with Camel Milk" that has thousands of members. "It's close to human milk as there are no known allergies to it."
Unfortunately for Riegler, he can't actually sell his milk. California, where he lives, has stricter rules than other states when it comes to the sale of raw milk. But the sweet nectar of the humped mammal is available in other parts of the U.S., mostly on the East Coast. "There's some Mennonites and Amish that have camels there, so they sell the milk," he pointed out.
Instead, Riegler turns his camel milk – which is surprisingly moisturizing – into skin care products and cosmetics. On their website, you can purchase soaps and serums, lotions and lip balms. "It doesn't dry out your skin and you don't get addicted to it like you have to keep putting it on because your lips are dry. You put it on once and it's great." For those who still are hankering for a taste, they sell camel milk chocolate bars in a variety of flavors.
Riegler, who's been called the "Dr. Dolittle of dromedaries," also hopes to educate the public about camels. In addition to the shows at county fairs, the couple open their ranch to host monthly workshops where they demonstrate the ins and outs of working with the animals.
"They're super intelligent and they're very, very sensitive," Riegler told us. "They love being petted, they love being scratched. They'll take their big heads and put them in your lap. When we go out in the pasture, they just all hang around us and push each other out of the way for petting. They want to be around you and they kind of seek you out."
Along with the 20 camels, a menagerie of animals lives on their 35-acre ranch, including chickens that provide them with eggs, sheep that are hired out to mow lawns and miniature donkeys that used to work with physically handicapped children but are now retired.
Oh, and then there's the turkeys. At the country fairs – amidst the sword swallowers and carnival rides – Riegler runs "The Wild West Turkey Stampede," an hour-long show that features turkeys running around a race track in hot pursuit of a remote-controlled car full of food. The concept gives Meals on Wheels a whole new meaning. "It's just goofy and stupid and funny," he said with a chuckle.
When he finds time, Riegler gets back to Israel as often as he can; the majority of his family still lives there. "They love everything that we're doing over here. They come and visit and they work on the farm. It's neat. It really is."
As for the future, he hopes to be able to develop the ranch more and create new camel milk products. "And having more people coming to the ranch and enjoying it, maybe have overnight trips at the ranch. Things like that," he said. "That's our focus – really being more with our animals and our critters at home."
That, and practicing his comedy routine with Samson.
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