As Patty Morrison arrived at the Hernando County Fair over the weekend with her 3-year-old granddaughter, Brooke Carver, the young girl immediately knew what she wanted to do. "I want to ride the camel," Brooke told her grandmother.
She took the hand of Dave Morrison of Palm Bay as he helped her up the six steps to the camel mounting platform. Yes, that's the height of Eli the dromedary's back.
"No fear of nothing," Patty Morrison, of Spring Hill, said with a smile as she watched Brooke slide onto the color blanket that padded the saddle.
"She saw (the camels) when we drove in," Morrison said.
Brooke grasped the front rail of the three-quarter enclosure for the rider. She alternately ducked her head beneath the rail or raised her chin over it to smile at her grandmother as owner Will Caton led Eli around the small track for a $5 ride.
Dismounting, the shy tot whispered, "It was fun."
Camel rides are a new feature at this year's county fair, and they're proving quite popular.
Caton said he provides the platform rather than allowing riders to mount the animal from its sitting position because camels "spring up," and novice riders often fall off.
Plus, repeated sitting and standing tires the beasts.
Caton brought 8-year-old Eli and 5-year-old Sampson to the fair from his Bar C Ranch in Berryville, Va. It was a good excuse to visit his dad, Dave Morrison, and for the two to take the attraction to the Brevard County Fair in Melbourne, near where Morrison lives.
"I handle the camels; my dad handles the people," Caton said.
At his ranch in Virginia, Caton keeps a third camel, plus more than 100 other animals of 42 species. The family's usual fair circuit, including a petting zoo and pony rides, takes a path through Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, with New York and Massachusetts added this year.
"This far," Caton said of the trip to Florida, "I decided just to bring the camels. I like the smaller fairs. I like the agricultural fairs."
Eli and Sampson could have walked here. Informational placards explain that a camel's foot design enables endurance, how multiple eyelashes and eyelids keep out grit, and the difference between dromedary and Bactrian camels.
The ride sways front to back.
"It's bumpy. That's what everybody says," Caton said.
The hard seat precludes a long trek. A more comfortable utilitarian saddle is employed for longer rides.
Each of Caton's steel saddle frames is hand built to fit each camel's hump, the handler explained.
"If they go without food or water, the hump will shrink," he said.
Caton's dromedaries never go lacking, which is obvious from their healthy coats of hair and pleasant demeanors. Camels, notorious for spitting, "only do it when they're mad," Caton said, and Eli and Sampson don't spit.
Instead, they nuzzle a visitor's hand with velvety, tactile lips, especially if the hand offers up feed pellets, available for 25 cents at the stand.
Their friendliness also is fostered in early temperament training, which begins with bottle feeding as young as 10 days. Sampson's introduction was at 10 days; Eli's at 3 weeks.
At home, the gelded male stablemates munch on treats of apples and carrots. When multiple 2-pound sacks of Stouffer's animal crackers are loaded, the camels know they're going on a trip.
They are rewarded with an animal cracker after each lap around the ring.
Beth N. Gray can be contacted at [email protected]