Meet Ollie, a camel in Vermont
EDITOR’S NOTE: Ollie the camel in Ferrisburgh has died in late February 2020. We are pointing readers to this profile of Ollie that we originally ran in our 2017 Summer Guide.
FERRISBURGH — It’s easy to travel around the Green Mountain State and get used to seeing the same familiar sights over and over again. No matter how beautiful those rolling hills and winding valleys with clear streams flowing through them are, no matter how peaceful the wide acres of pastoral farmland dotted with cows and sheep and horses are, it’s not very common to come across something wildly different.
That’s why it’s understandable when so many people are taken aback when they spot Oliver.
Oliver, you see, is a Bactrian camel who lives with a herd of Merino sheep just off Route 7 in North Ferrisburgh.
Thousands upon thousands of cars pass “Ollie” on their way north or south on Route 7 every day. Even while cruising at 50 mph down the highway, it’s tough to miss the seven-foot-tall, 1,500-pound, two-humped camel.
Theories abound and speculation is common about what Oliver is doing among a flock of sheep in Vermont, but the answer is really quite simple.
Judith Giusto moved to Vermont in 1993 after deciding to leave her hometown of New York City and busy career in advertising and public relations working for large pharmaceutical companies.
She and her three-year-old son moved north and bought an old farmhouse in Ferrisburgh, home to a historic round barn and plenty of acres for raising sheep.
With an education in art and design and one giant leap of faith, Giusto committed to a flock of Merino sheep and a second career in fiber arts.
“For me it was the animal component that drove me to choose what I chose. I wanted it not just to be a way to make a living, but a way of life.”
Giusto’s flock numbered nearly 200 at its peak, with each sheep producing 15 to 18 pounds of yarn every year. This fiber was cleaned, processed, dyed and spun, and Giusto employed spinners and knitters to produce beautiful handmade sweaters, stockings, blankets and scarves, which she sold both to other retailers as well as straight to consumers out of a small shop in her Route 7 home.
Now, back to Oliver.
A few years into Giusto’s fiber endeavor, she started getting curious about fiber animals other than sheep. She had alpacas for a little while and enjoyed them, but they weren’t a perfect fit for the farm and didn’t last.
Then she heard about Bactrian camels. This species of camel is native to the rocky Gobi Desert and the high grasslands of Asia. They are hardy animals able to tolerate extreme warm and cool temperatures and in the wild are adapted to harsh desert conditions.
Native Bactrian camels are an endangered species, but there are camel breeders around the world who supply the demand for these gentle animals for riding, shearing, or even racing (popular in many Arab countries).
Giusto was intrigued. Bactrian camels have both hair (popular for making things like camel hair coats) as well as down (which can be sheared or plucked and spun into a yarn very similar to alpaca). A natural fit, she thought.
“I look back at the decision about having a camel and sometimes I think I was delusional. But at the time it felt like it would be easier to integrate a camel into our life than a cat or dog would have been,” Giusto recalls.
The camel would live in the barn with the sheep, eat what the sheep eat, roam where the sheep roam and produce in the same way the sheep do. Moreover, with a long history in advertising and PR, Giusto recognized the marketing potential of a camel for her business.
“Of course he couldn’t have been any exotic animal to have the same marketing value,” she said. “He had to be a fiber-producing animal to make it work.”
After a short bout of Internet research, Giusto found a breeder in Wisconsin and started looking at pictures.
“You don’t have to look at too many pictures of baby camels before you’re sold,” she said. Before she knew it, Giusto had a check in the mail and was preparing for the delivery of a three-month-old camel.
Oliver was the last stop for the exotic animal delivery driver (who just happened to reside in central Vermont), in September of 2002. Camels weigh about 125 pounds when born and nurse out of a bottle holding a gallon of milk. Ollie was a gentle and friendly guy from the start and warmed quickly to his pasture-mates as well as to Giusto and her son.
Ollie sheds each spring and is sheared and plucked for his down, which gets spun into Giusto’s products. The most coveted pieces she sells are inevitably his.
“I cannot keep his fiber in stock,” she says. “People eat it up. They come in all the time and ask me if I have anything from the camel.”
Granted, the yield from Ollie is significantly less than it is from the sheep, despite his size advantage. In an average year, he will produce around five pounds of wool, compared to the 15 to 18 from the sheep. But his wool blends well with Merino, and Giusto’s team has done very well with camel-alpaca scarves as well as yarn.
Plus, according to Giusto, yield wasn’t part of the deal with Ollie:
“Was it a cost efficient fiber choice? No. But that wasn’t required.”
Instead, Oliver is a fun and affectionate companion on the farm. He knows his name and comes when called, hoping for the reward of a sweet carrot or veggie scraps from the kitchen.
When he approaches, he’ll lower his massive head close to your face, which Giusto says is because camels distinguish humans by the scent of their breath. He enjoys being pet and will snuggle against you with his velvety-soft snout.
The ewes in the pasture with Ollie gather around his giant, padded feet, seemingly loyal to their benevolent friend.
For Giusto, the choice to bring a camel to Vermont was one that sometimes feels spontaneous or delusional, but also one that she’ll never look back on.
“I believe I had to have my life in New York before I could come here and find this,” she said. “But when I look at Oliver in the face, I can ask myself if it gives me the same satisfaction as when I would complete a giant marketing proposal for an important client; I can confidently say, ‘yes, it does.’
“Everyone would do well to check themselves and their life choices with the question of ‘Am I doing something that gratifies my soul.’ The answer should always be ‘yes.’”
While Giusto’s career in fiber arts is winding down and she’s now looking for another new chapter of life to begin (she’s been dabbling in silversmithing), she says the sheep and Oliver will still have a home on her farm, at least for a while.
“Camels can live to be 40 or 50 years old,” she said. “So Oliver will likely outlive me. I’ve therefore got some planning to do around that, but I have no doubt that we’ll be able to find another loving home for him when the time comes.”
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