Camel, the 1,200-pound female dromedary, ambled over to David “Junior” Phillips hoping for some shelled corn one morning this week, but when no handout materialized she got a mite belligerent.
Camel — that’s what Phillips calls her — let out a throaty growl and opened her sizable mouth, ready to sink her teeth into her owner’s wrist. Phillips, 85, wisely kept his distance.
“I should have brought some corn,” he told two visitors. “She’ll eat right out of your hand if you have corn. But she’ll bite your durn arm off if she gets mad at you.”
Caution also is wise around his shaggy buffalo when it’s in a foul mood, Phillips says. The llamas are more approachable, he says, but they tend to sidle away when humans get too close.
Farmers frequently have stock grazing in their fields along Leestown Road, but Phillips likes to be a little different. For nearly 20 years, people have been surprised to see camels, bison and llamas munching sweet grass alongside the cattle on Phillips’ sprawling farm next to the highway.
Phillips says. “A few years ago, a guy from Indiana was driving by and his daughter said, ‘There’s a camel in that field.’ He said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But he turned around, came back and said, ‘Why, there is a camel in that field!’”
As a rule, Kentucky farmers aren’t too sentimental about their animals. Cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep exist to help the farm produce a profit. If they don’t pull their weight, they’re gone.
But Phillips, who owns hundreds of acres of land hereabouts and used to raise 200 acres of tobacco every year, says he has never tried to make money off his exotic animals. He doesn’t shear the llamas for wool; he never slaughtered bison to sell their meat.
“They’re here just to look at,” he says.
Again, he likes to do things a bit differently.
Back in the 1970s, for example, he got interested in flying, started taking lessons and became a flying farmer. He eventually owned various airplanes, but he wrecked the last one some years ago when he hit a parked farm truck while taking off from a field behind his home.
“I forgot the durn truck was there,” he said, “and tore the plane all to pieces.”
In addition to airplanes and exotic animals, Phillips also tends to acquire stuff — lots of stuff — often on a moment’s inspiration.
He once accompanied a friend to a grocery store equipment auction and ended up buying $20,000 worth of shelving, coolers and other store paraphernalia.
“Didn’t need any of it,” he says with a shrug. Today, he has all the items stored away in case anyone wants to buy them.
Recently, he also bought an old bank building on Main Street in Midway.
“People ask why I bought it,” he said. “I don’t know. I just wanted it.”
On his farm, many barns and outbuildings are packed with eclectic collections of things that Phillips has acquired this way.
He owns two old fire engines, and he uses one, a ladder truck, to do work on his barns’ roofs. Walking around his farm, you might find a 350-pound blacksmith’s anvil next to an antique cream separator in one building. In another, a 32-foot cabin cruiser sits on a trailer that Phillips built himself. There are motors, stacks of steel, and numerous pieces of farm equipment, plus all kinds of vehicles, including pickups and sports cars, some like new. There’s even a hand-built drag-racing car that Phillips bought but never raced.
“I drove it on the road few times. But it was a little too fast for me, so I parked it,” he said. “I figured I’d just keep it. I tend to keep stuff, and then go out and get more stuff.”
Phillips acquired his exotic animals in much the same way
About 20 years ago, a man whom Phillips knew near Richmond owned some camels, bison and llamas but became ill and couldn’t care for them. Phillips took them in.
He started with two camels, two buffaloes and two llamas, and the herd gradually grew. At one point, he owned 30 buffaloes and 25 llamas to go with his two camels.
He lost one camel a few years ago when it was gored, either by a buffalo or by one of Phillips’ farm bulls, in a difference of opinion over a trough full of corn.
Later on, two of the buffaloes got into a scuffle, knocked down a fence, and ended up fighting in a neighbor’s yard. That prompted Phillips to sell off the bison, except one that had been born on the farm. Today, he has one camel, about 20 llamas, and the lone bison.
He says they get no special treatment. They eat the same grass and hay that he gives his cattle, and they drink from the same spring-fed pond, which never freezes over. He has never given them pet names. When he calls to them, it’s “Hey, Camel,” or “Hey, Llama.”
“I don’t fool with them that much,” he says. “Mostly, they take care of themselves.”
Passersby stop to look and take pictures of the animals, and Phillips seems to get as much of a kick out of it as visitors do. But he isn’t sure what it all means.
“I guess I’ve just always liked different kinds of things, or maybe I’m crazy or something. People do like to look at the animals, and I do, too.”