FRESNO, Calif. -- You could spend a lifetime looking for an animal companion as friendly as a dog, smart as a fox and strong as a horse. Or you could get yourself a camel.

That's what Jennifer and Geoff Dean did three years ago -- and folks have been raising their eyebrows ever since.

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For the Deans, who live north of Sanger, Calif., owning a camel is as natural as grass and sunshine. To them, anyone who has to ask why camels are special hasn't looked into the eyes of one of these enchanting creatures.

The Deans own a rare two-humped Bactrian camel named Randell, who will be 4 years old in May. The big guy, one of an estimated 400 Bactrians in the United States, weighs 1,800 pounds and loves hanging out with the Deans' herd of eight llamas.

But Randell is much more than a pastoral focal point.

"He's a good buddy," says 7-year-old Megan Dean.

"I love feeding him carrots and grass," says 4-year-old Kaitlin Dean, Megan's sister. "And I like to pet him."

Jennifer Dean, who has an animal science degree, is the one who got her family interested in camels. Her parents, Paul and Marjorie Garin of Clovis, owned a single-humped dromedary camel when she was growing up, and she has always found camels fascinating.

Randell lives like a king and eats like a horse. But he also helps earn his keep by making personal appearances. Since coming to the central San Joaquin Valley, he has appeared in living Christmas Nativity scenes sponsored by the Riverdale Assembly of God Church and First Baptist Church of Clovis. In return for his work, Randell and his llama buddies have received trailerloads of hay.

"The big thing Randell brings to our living Nativity is authenticity," says Rev. Tim Brown, senior pastor at First Baptist. "Having the animals there takes people back in time. And it's very exciting for kids. A lot of them have never seen a camel up close and personal."

Brown says the Deans keep a close eye on Randell during the display, which draws about 2,000 spectators over two nights.

"People get to walk right by," Brown says. "And if he's having a good night, the kids may get to feed Randell some carrots."

Randell was born in Colorado, on the ranch of camel breeders Al and Terry Deutsch. The Deutsches, who have since shifted their operations to Fairfield, Mont., west of Great Falls, remember him well.

"We were delivering animals back in Iowa when Randell was born," says Terry Deutsch. "We had to use our OnStar system to tell the girl back at the ranch what to do."

Randell's grandparents and great-grandparents were from Germany, and his mother appeared in the Black Hills Passion Play in Spearfish, S.D.

"He was a big, strapping boy who wanted to please us," Terry Deutsch says. "He was really easy to work with and train."

Because of their height, which can exceed seven or eight feet, camels must be taught to kneel before they can be ridden or carry loads. Kneeling also is a must for traveling. Randell rides to personal appearances in a special trailer but has to kneel to fit inside.

"Camels are the most loving animals I've ever raised," says Al Deutsch. "They are very trustworthy if you treat them with respect. But if you're harsh, they'll remember that and get you back."

The Deans marvel at Randell's intelligence. He can use his split lips, which are perfect for snagging leaves and bark from trees, like fingers to unhook latches. And one time, he and all the llamas got loose when he lifted a fence gate off its hinges.

Camels can live 40 years or longer and have a number of attributes that enable them to survive in desert conditions. Their humps store fat and moisture that they can draw upon when food and water are scarce. And they are great at topping off their tanks. A thirsty camel can drink up to 30 gallons of water in 13 minutes.

The nostrils in a camel's nose can close to keep out sand, and each eye is protected by two rows of long lashes. Camels grow thick, shaggy coats that provide warmth in cold weather and have wide, flat footpads that help prevent them from sinking into sand or tearing up grassy areas.

The Deans say life in central California is a breeze for Randell. Neither hot summer days nor frosty winter mornings bother him.

Unlike horses, camels don't require much foot care. They don't have to be shod with metal shoes, but they do have nails that must be trimmed periodically.

Camels also like to pal around with humans.

"If the dog was the first domesticated animal, then the camel was a close second," says Al Deutsch.

For centuries, camels have been used to carry people and supplies.

"People still use Bactrian camels as beasts of burden in Mongolia," he says. "They can carry up to 600 pounds."

Although relatively rare in the United States, there are an estimated 1.4 million domesticated Bactrian camels worldwide, plus about 1,000 living in the wild in northwest China and Mongolia.

The dromedary, which is native to the Sahara desert, numbers some 13 million domesticated animals, primarily from Northern Africa to Western India.

The Deutsches have 30 Bactrian camels on their ranch in Montana, and at one time had a herd of 76 camels when they lived in Colorado.

"We call them gentle giants," Terry Deutsch adds. "If they could come into the house with us, they would."

Terry Deutch says actor Dennis Weaver was a client of theirs, and enjoyed how the camels greeted him when he visited their ranch.

"He called them his 'stress depressors,'" she says. "Why go to a psychiatrist when you can go to a camel?"