- Associated Press - Sunday, February 12, 2017

PELAHATCHIE, Miss. (AP) - Frank the Camel has become a local celebrity, especially around Christmas time, when owners Tonia and James Godby take him to street festivals, nativity scenes and choir performances across central Mississippi.

The Godbys purchased Frank three years ago when James’ mother was interested in renting a camel for her church’s live nativity scene and the couple found that it cost just as much to buy a baby camel from Texas as it did to rent one for a few hours from Georgia.

The popularity of Frank led to an expansion at their farm in Pelahatchie. For the first time this past holiday season, two other camels joined Frank on the appearance circuit.

There are a total of six camels roaming the 88 acres of pasture on the Godby farm, which includes three pregnant calves - the key to becoming what the owners claim is the only camel dairy farm in the South.

“I never dreamed what we started to do with a little extra money around December would turn into a dairy farm,” Tonia Godby said, looking over her flock while wearing a rhinestone hat adorned with a camel brooch.

Camel milk is highly sought-after, with anecdotal support saying the milk helps with a variety of maladies. The United States approved camel milk for human consumption within the last decade, but the country only has an estimated imported population of about 5,000 camels. California is currently the only state that allows camel milk to be sold over state lines.

Unlike cows, camels need their babies to be present to produce milk, which makes female camels all the more difficult to obtain.

“We need female camels, but everyone is sitting on them because they’re waiting to see what the federal guidelines are going to be and then jack the prices up,” Tonia Godby said.

An adult camel sells for $18,000 to $20,000 and “camel rent” is $1,000 per month. Once the latest litter of camels is born, it will become the farm’s second production of milk.

The first year the Godbys owned Frank, two women in Madison - who used camel milk to treat one child for diabetes and another for autism - approached them.

“They were almost in tears, so excited that there was a local camel,” Tonia Godby said, noting that the diabetic child went from four insulin shots per day to one, thanks to a natural insulin boost provided by the milk.

“After 30 days, the child with autism looked up and said, ‘I love you, Mama,’ and it was the first thing he said at 7 years old.”

Much of the research into camel milk benefits has been done in the Middle East, but nascent research in the United States based on small sample sizes suggests benefits for diabetes and allergy management.

“If you cure the gut, everything else follows,” Tonia Godby said with conviction. “A lot of autistic kids have emotional outbursts, and it’s because their gut is hurting and they can’t tell you because they don’t have the communication skills. If you take the pain and the hurt away, maybe that part of the brain can function on something besides dwelling on pain.”

Once the new babies arrive, production in the Godbys‘ sterile milk facility will run for 12 to 18 months. Each batch is tested for bacteria and can be purchased through a few local retailers, including Aladdin Grocery in Fondren.

After their first milk production, the Godbys were barely able to keep the product in stock, just from word of mouth. A shocking fact, considering 16 ounces of the milk retails between $18 and $40.

“It completely floored us,” Jimmy Godby said. “It’s the poorest state in the country buying the most expensive food item that I know about. It’s up there with caviar.”

Many of the preconceptions around camel ownership melt away when you see Frank and Friends in action. The demeanor of the camels, Frank in particular, is more like a dog than a pachyderm.

Jimmy Godby is adamant that the only time one of their camels has spit was when it was sick.

“A happy camel equals no spitting,” he said.

Healthcare for the camels can be tricky at times. Vets and large-animal doctors don’t have the experience. The Godbys have had some luck with a vet at Mississippi State University and another at Auburn. Locally, they met a Jackson State chemistry professor from Sudan who has volunteered to provide diagnoses.

Frank happily saunters about the farm and knows that when spectators pull out their cell phones, he gets extra attention and treats. The farm is open for tours on Sunday afternoons, especially now that the Christmas season is in the rearview.

“If we go get gas and Frank is with us, it takes at least 45 minutes because everyone wants a picture,” Tonia Godby said. “We’re never going to tell anyone no.”

___

Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, https://www.clarionledger.com

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