Camille Graham from Runyan Ranches Rescue Zoo said one of the comments she hears most from customers is how well the animals at the zoo get along.
Gentle giants Runyan the camel and Wallace the Asian water buffalo live in the same pen with several goats less than a fourth their size. The animals get along well with people, especially children, and that’s the biggest thing that draws people to this stop along U.S. 82 on the way to Cloudcroft.
“This is our favorite place to stop,” said Carlsbad resident Michelle Hernandez. “We count down the miles.”
Hernandez was traveling on a recent Sunday afternoon with her daughter and several members of her daughter’s softball team on their way back from Las Cruces.
On any given day, weekends and school vacations especially, cars with travelers from local towns such as Lovington and Carlsbad, along with tourists from across the globe, will stop at the roadside attraction. It started out as an apple stand. Along with fruit, jellies and jams, the stand now sell sother goodies like soft drinks and snacks.
“In the summer there is not one spot to park,” said Graham, who lives on the property in a historic house.
The rescue zoo, which has existed for about 12 years, evolved as farmers and ranches in the area needed a place to turn over animals they couldn’t keep.
During their brief moments of down time, Graham and the Runyans can be found sitting in the three well-worn upholstered chairs inside the fruit stand. Of course, they have to compete for those chairs with felines Jacob, Goat and Simba.
The rescue zoo, which allows visitors to feed and pet the animals, is a veritable United Nations of critters of all sizes, colors and species.
Though the numbers are constantly changing, Graham said the animal population averages around 200. Graham said she does a lot of networking on the internet. Animals can call the zoo home for their entire lives or a short period of time.
“We rehome more animals than we keep,” she said. “We try to have a good variety of animals from farm animals to exotics.”
Graham said the animals at Runyan Ranches are well-cared for, but it’s always a happy moment when an animal can be moved to a new home where it will get more personal attention.
A special license is required by the USDA to raise and sell exotic animals, Graham said. A USDA inspector does random checks on the zoo.
Living at the zoo are sheep, goats, cattle, pot belly pigs, llamas and their close cousin, the alpaca, axis deer, a yak and a capybara, which looks a bit like a javelina but is the largest rodent in world and from South America.
Other animals include Zipper the zebra and Monkey the donkey, who loves attention.
There is a bit of mystery surrounding Monkey, whose abdomen appears to be a bit swollen.
“Is she pregnant, or is she just fat?” Graham speculated.
The only things Runyan the camel and Wallace the Asian water buffalo seem to have in common is their large size and insatiable appetite for food pellets. But if you could speak to them in animal talk, the big guys would tell you they are “twin brothers.”
Graham said they were brought to the zoo as “bottle babies” on the same trailer from different locations in Texas. They bonded right away on that long, dusty drive across Texas.
At one time, Runyan Ranches was a working cattle ranch established in 1918. Along with cattle, the ranch raised goats and angora sheep.
The ranch is now owned by Tom and Pam Runyan. Graham is a close family friend who is like a daughter to the couple. The trio work together to operate the concession stand, rescue zoo and two fishing ponds that are fed by a natural spring.
Graham said the spring water is cold, around 55 degrees near the surface.
The ponds are stocked with rainbow trout, black bass, blue gills and catfish, and fishing is permitted.
The trout are catch-and-keep while all the other fish are catch-and-release. Graham said that she cleans and guts the fish for free the customers.
“I call myself a fish caddy,” she said.
There are camping areas with “dry” sites (no hook ups) along the Rio Penasco. Visitors can commune with nature on the hiking trails.
Much of the ranch property has been sold off over the years. On the remaining patch work of land, Graham and Runyans breed livestock such as sheep, mini horses, pigs, rabbits and chickens. They also own orchards where they grow apples, cherries, peaches, pears, plums and apricots every now and then.
Most of the fruit sold at the concession stand is seasonal, but Graham said they try to keep some fresh fruit available for customers year-round.
Tom Runyan’s grandfather, also named Tom, came to New Mexico in the 1870s during a cattle drive from the sprawling Y.O. Ranch in Texas. The house on the property was built in the 1880s by J.F. Hinkle, the sixth governor of New Mexico.
At an elevation of 5,400 feet, the ranch has nearly ideal weather — not too hot in the summer and not too cold in the winter.
Though Runyan Ranches is located in the middle of nowhere, it is ideally located in the middle of nowhere at the halfway point between the drive between Carlsbad Caverns and the White Sands National Monument.
“People will stop here to stretch and use the restrooms,” Graham said.
Tom Runyan added: “We get visitors from all over the world — Germany, Switzerland, Australia and Israel.”
One day a group of South Korean tourists stopped at the ranch.
“None of them could speak English well, which made it difficult to do business with them,” Tom Runyan recalled.
Fluent in Spanish, Tom Runyan asked the South Koreans if any of them could speak Spanish.
It turned out that one of the South Koreans was well-versed in Spanish and everyone was happy.
Graham said that along with the international tourists, they also get visitors from the surrounding area who make Runyan Ranches their destination.
“People will stay here for 10 minutes or for the entire day,” she said.
Community News reporter Timothy P. Howsare can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or email@example.com.