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Lions and tigers and bears? No, but camels do nicely


This article was published November 28, 2013 at 2:32 a.m.


At Heifer Ranch near Perryville, guide Lyle Riebe introduces visitors to a camel named Abu.

PERRYVILLE - Camels, like people, may have very different personalities.

That became evident on a recent afternoon at Heifer Ranch, three miles south of Perryville, when wife Marcia and I were introduced by volunteer guide Lyle Riebe to dromedaries Abu and Gobi.

Along with four other visitors on the free tour, we met Abu (full name: Abu Dhabi) up close. The male camel eagerly stuck his head over the fence to take slices of apple while letting a couple of us pet him. Meanwhile, Gobi - a seriously shy female, we were told - hovered at the back of the outdoor enclosure, keeping as far away as possible.

We were meeting two camels with two very different attitudes toward strangers. We also learned from Riebe that these so-called Ships of the Desert are the focus of a Heifer International project in Tanzania.

In an arid East African setting where wells sometimes lie far from human settlements, one camel can carry as much water as a dozen or more women. And the camels’ milk is a major protein source.

That was among the visit’s numerous insights into Little Rock-based Heifer, which has been doing good work around the globe since World War II. It is a crown jewel of the Natural State, widely admired here and abroad for supplying animals - from camels to chickens - that can bring self-sufficiency and vitality to impoverished rural communities.

Before the tour, Marcia and I enjoyed a hearty cafeteria-style lunch for $10 each in a dining room shared with Heifer staff and volunteers. There was a welcoming feel to the setting, thanks in part to the room’s decor, themed with animals and the organization’s goals. The fresh vegetables we ate were among the 80 varieties grown in the ranch’s organic garden.

Riebe, a Minnesotan who has volunteered with his wife at the ranch since 1985, began by describing Heifer’s history since its founding by Christian-focused farmer Dan West.

Heifer has since distributed livestock free of charge in some 120 countries - the main stipulation being that recipients pass along to others the progeny of the animals they’ve been given.

After an introductory video that featured vignettes of clients on five continents, we boarded an eight-passenger tram that Riebe piloted for about an hour around the 250-acre site serving as Heifer’s rural education center.

He explained that the ranch was used for some years after its purchase in 1971 as a holding farm for animals to be sent abroad. Now the livestock is acquired mainly in the countries where recipients live, while the ranch has evolved into a learning facility.

From Heifer’s point of view, farm animals exist as a human resource, to be treated with kindness but no false sentimentality. Riebe enlightened us on “The Seven M’s” that livestock can provide to their owners: muscle, manure, milk, meat, materials, money and motivation. That’s a whole herd of alliteration, but it sums up what Heifer is all about.

Marcia and I will be tempted to return next month. As Christmas looms, the ranch will host a Living Gifts Market from 5 to 8 p.m. Dec. 14 and 3-6 p.m. Dec. 15.

Along with seasonal hot drinks and confections, there will be photo opportunities with the animals, gifts for sale in the fair-trade shop, and the chance to donate an animal for one of Heifer’s projects. Funding the gift of a camel - but not Abu or Gobi - is among the options.

Heifer Ranch, 35 miles west of Little Rock, is open to visitors 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday (closed today for Thanksgiving). There’s no charge for a guided tour, but donations are welcome. Parties of more than six should call ahead for tour reservations.

To reach the ranch, take Arkansas 10 west from Little Rock and follow that highway north after its junction with Arkansas 9. Three miles south of Perryville, turn left on Union Valley Road, marked with a Heifer Ranch sign. For more information, call (501) 889-5124 or visit

Weekend, Pages 44 on 11/28/2013

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