Over the Hump

Banjo and Tango are head-turners. When people drive by our farm, they slow down, loop around the block, pause in the driveway, and pull out their camera. Camels are not a common sight in the Skagit Valley, so it’s a curiosity to see these large, humped animals calmly grazing in a field. Visitors naturally want to know “Why camels?” They are startled when I tell them it all began with hospice.

Three years ago, I left my career, home, and a community that I loved in Eastern Washington and moved west of the Cascades to be closer to medical treatment for my husband. We’d only been married a few months when he was diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma, and he needed to immediately begin chemotherapy at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance in Seattle. After caring for him through five months of chemotherapy and radiation, life dealt me another blow: My husband abruptly walked out of the marriage.

At 51, I felt unmoored. I wondered if I was on the right path—and how I might fill the open space in my life. I explored other career opportunities and got to know my new community through volunteering. About a year later, I met staff from Hospice of the Northwest at a fundraising dinner. They were honestly the most joyful people I’d ever met! Their dedication to providing end-of-life care resonated deeply with me, and I knew I wanted to be part of this tribe.

I was hired! And a few months into my new job, I was tasked with an interesting challenge: Find a camel for the upcoming summer fundraiser. Our theme was Ancient Egypt, and a camel at the entrance would provide an excellent photo opportunity as people entered the gala. I Googled “camels near me” and found Donny Miller, the owner of a petting zoo in Tacoma. He agreed to bring his camel for our event.

Around this time, I was four months into a new relationship and invited my beau to attend the event with me. We both dressed in costume and arrived at the same time as the truck and trailer from the zoo. Donny swung open the trailer door and I was shocked at the size of the animal inside. Tipping the scale at nearly a ton, Shawn was a true gentle giant—and, at 11 years old, a seasoned professional as well. This double-humped Bactrian camel posed with 350 people that evening. After two hours with him, I was smitten, and I knew my life was going to change: I needed a camel.

Most people are satisfied to bring home a kitten or a puppy, but saying “I want a camel” adds a whole new layer of commitment to a budding relationship. Luckily for me, my new sweetheart was up for it. “You know, I’ve never seen anyone glow with happiness the way you did with Shawn,” he said. “If you want a camel, let’s go get a camel!”

We spent months researching breeders, building fences, and preparing the barn in anticipation of our new addition. One snowy winter day, we brought home an 11-month-old Bactrian camel I named Banjo. Our learning curve was steep but luckily, camels are intelligent and forgiving creatures. With guidance from generous people on a camel Facebook group and new friendships in the camel community, we learned how to be good stewards for this beautiful animal.

This February marks two years since Banjo joined our family. My boyfriend has walked alongside me throughout this evolution, and I’m incredibly grateful for his love and support. Our friends and family all thought we were crazy at first, but they can see the joy these animals bring to our lives. Last spring, I bought a small farm and our menagerie now includes a llama, three Sulcata tortoises, and a second Bactrian camel named Tango. And Shawn, that handsome camel I met back in 2017, also stays with us for part of the year, sharing the pasture with his two camel buddies.

Living with these creatures has helped me rediscover the connection I’ve always had with animals, and I am grateful my life took such an unexpected turn. Inspired by our animal therapy partnerships at hospice, I’m now training Banjo to pull a cart; the goal is to offer rides to patients and residents at retirement communities. I never expected to be living this bucolic life on a farm, doing work that I love, but now I can’t imagine anything better. After an unexpectedly bumpy time in my life, a camel helped me find my true connection to the world.

Dana Brothers is the Outreach Program Manager at Hospice of the Northwest. Employing her extensive background in teaching to share realities of hospice care, she feels true alignment with the mission of providing compassion and dignity every moment of life. Accompanied frequently by one of her furry companions, Brothers is an engaging public speaker presenting on topics like Advanced Directives, Aging in Place and Hospice Myths.

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