LA CENTER — Curly the camel can sense that the busy Christmas season is about to start, according to his owner, Jeff Siebert.
“He’s all excited about Christmastime, just like everybody else,” Siebert said. As if to agree, Curly calmly let a visitor pet his hair that’s, well, curly.
Curly and his stablemate, Danny the donkey, will trot through downtown Longview on Saturday as part of the Longview Christmas Parade. Both critters will return, along with seven multi-horned Jacob sheep that Siebert also owns, for the annual “Journey to Bethlehem” pageant Dec. 12-15 at the Journey Kelso-Longview Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Curly is the second camel to appear at the Journey to Bethlehem. The first one, Rose Valley resident Gizmo, died in the spring of 2011.
A few days later, Siebert and his wife, Marilyn, attended Journey to the Cross, the Easter pageant also put on by the church. “We were just standing in line,” Siebert said, when they overheard news of Gizmo’s passing. “God connected the dots,” Siebert said, and Curly took over the camel role at Journey to Bethlehem. This will be his third year there.
Curly, Danny and the sheep spend most of their time at the Sieberts’ place near La Center, where the couple also have three full-sized horses, one miniature horse, dogs and cats, chickens and a coatimundi, a critter that looks something like a raccoon.
Of course, Curly is the star attraction in the roadside pasture. “People stop and park all the time,” Siebert said. “People bring up sacks of carrots and leave them at the gate.”
The Sieberts got their start in camel-raising by caring for a friend’s animal. When they heard that Curly was available from an exotic animal dealer in Missouri, they didn’t hesitate. They bought Curly, now 7 years of age, when he was 51/2 months old. “We had to bottle-feed him for four months,” Siebert said. “That’s why he bonded with us so good.”
Camels are herd animals and need companionship, he said. “Curly got depressed, so I bought a goat. That was Curly’s best friend for four or five years.”
Curly is an Arabian, or dromedary camel, with one hump. He stands 7 feet 7 inches tall and weighs between 1,300 and 1,400 pounds. He eats about half a bale of hay a day. “During the Nativity, I always try to give the animals a little more, like orchard grass,” Siebert said.
“You can tell what kind of winter we’ll get because he’ll hair up,” Siebert said. The hair on Curly’s neck is getting noticeable thicker, Siebert pointed out on a day when snow flakes mixed with the rain.
Some La Center area knitters even made Siebert a scarf and hat out of surprisingly soft camel hair.
“An intact male camel is mean,” Siebert said. Curly has been neutered to make him more sociable. In fact, he’s downright friendly, Siebert said.
“Curly! Curly” he called. Curly perked up and his big soft lips slurped up a handful of grass. When Siebert picked up a harness, Curly trotted over to him, anticipating a journey, even if it was only to the nearby barn.
“Camels are not born spitters. It’s a taught thing,” Siebert said. “Curly’s never been around camels or llamas that could teach him now to spit,” so in that regard his manners are better than that of some teenaged humans.
It’s OK to pet Curly. “He loves kids better than he likes grown-ups,” Siebert said.
Siebert will stay in a trailer at the Seventh-day Adventist church near his flock for the Journey to Bethlehem. Then he’ll load up the critters and head to Vancouver for a similar pageant put on the Living Hope Church in Vancouver. Curly can fit in a large horse trailer. “He’ll turn around and look right out at the cars going by,” Siebert said.
The Living Hope event is inside what used to be a K-Mart store. Curly has also hoofed into the Westfield Mall in Vancouver for a holiday event. “We had to have security walk us in” to keep people from swarming Curly, Siebert said.
“We do a lot of nonprofit stuff for people,” he said. Siebert, who talks excitedly about his menagerie, loves the celebrations. He has dressed as a tiger and a chicken for parades, though for this one he and Marilyn will dress as shepherds. In Journey to Bethlehem they play a couple who have been hired by the Magi.
Siebert worked 20 years as a railroad mechanic, but he retired on disability after breaking his back in three places in 1992.
“This is my ministry to other people,” Siebert said. “I love to do this. This is my way of sharing the Gospel.”