The story below is an excerpt from our May/June 2014 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Bill Crabtree Jr.
Lost World llamas
Lost World llamas greet visitors with curiosity.
Keeping animals native to other continents is a challenge in the southern mountains. Your ostriches can disappear under the snow; your female monkeys can throw poop, and nearly every creature is threatened by a native one, either large or tiny.
In Burkes Garden, Virginia’s mountain-ringed valley, retired physician Bill Jurgelski raises camels, donkeys and appaloosa llamas at his Lost World Ranch.
“It’s an isolated area, sort of lost in time, and the camels are an ancient animal, part of a lost world, too,” he says.
Burkes Garden is Virginia’s highest valley, accessed by a two-lane tar road with 52 hold-tight curves. The 300 residents have no grocery, no post office, no school, and only sketchy cell phone service.
Jurgelski’s 56 camels seem incongruous ambling across the mountain meadows – one of the nation’s largest herds of white Bactrian (two-humped) camels. His camels, 85 llamas, and 25 donkeys are a business venture as well as a labor of love. The ranch gives tours, camel rides, and sometimes sells a few. Jurgelski originally intended to raise only llamas, but was smitten by two lady camels he met on a llama-shopping trip.
“They walked up and began nuzzling my face with their large, butter-soft lips while looking directly into my eyes with their enormous black eyes. With that, I became a camel herder,” Jurgelski says.
With that, he took on the task of feeding and fending off dangers for exotic animals in a strange environment. Like the other owners of the Blue Ridge region’s small, privately owned zoos, Jurgelski had to do some Internet sleuthing to answer questions like “Where do I get camel chow?” and “Who’s the closest camel vet?” and “How do I take care of exotic animals out here?”
For some displaced critters from other continents, these tranquil mountains are fraught with hazards. What Jurgelski found was that weather was the least of the threats to his animals.
“Bactrian camels are native to the Gobi desert, where temperatures might hit 90 degrees at noon and drop to zero at night,” he says.
In fact, these camels do better in the extremes of Mongolia where parasitic worms can’t survive. Burkes Garden’s coyotes and bears pose no threat to the camels and llamas – it’s the tiny intestinal parasites they pick up while grazing that can kill them.
That’s where the donkeys come in – Jurgelski learned they aren’t sickened by these worms and can serve as vacuum cleaners, picking up parasites and ensuring they die without reproducing. He alternates his pastures between the donkeys and either camels or llamas every month, and is seeing some good results.