Debbie Dolittle Penwell can’t remember how she started collecting camels, as if adopting and housing six of the beasts were nothing extraordinary.
In her life, it wasn’t.
Penwell was raised in White Center, a King County community that embraces its nickname, “Rat City,” on the city website. It’s where her love of animals began.
“I had rabbits, dogs, cats, ducks, chickens and one goat,” she said. “I was always the kid with the animals.”
At 51, she still is. Penwell and boyfriend Don Miller share a 10-acre farm in Parkland and, if you count every little chicken, duck and camel, they have more than 100 animals.
“We met because both of us advertised goats for rent on Craigslist,” she said.
“I wanted to check out the competition,” Miller said. “When I did, I knew I was done,” he added, noting he found her very attractive. “If you met the two of us, who would you rent a goat from?”
Life, he said, has been happy chaos ever since.
“Debbie gets calls from people all the time asking if she can take this animal or that one,” Miller said. “She has a lot of connections, and she can help place most anything.”
A lot of times, that placement is at their own farm.
Just caring for so many creatures — both livestock and exotics — is a full-time gig. But that’s not the half of it for Penwell and Miller.
“We still rent out goats for brush-clearing, and we work with cities and landowners,” Penwell said. “We’ve got a contract now with the Point Defiance Zoo to do camel rides, and other zoos have expressed an interest.”
In addition, Penwell for years has taken her animals to children’s parties around the Puget Sound, packing up everything from rabbits to wallabies, providing zebra, pony and donkey rides.
It paid the bills — some months, just barely.
“Our business always dropped off in the winter months, because outdoor parties aren’t much fun in the rain,” Penwell said. “So we had to come up with something to bring in money in our off-season.”
Say hello to the Jozee Rooz Indoor Petting Zoo.
The couple rented a place in a tiny Tacoma strip mall behind a Jiffy Lube off Pacific Avenue, refurbished it and began loading it up with animals.
Last week, they passed their federal Department of Agriculture test. Their business license is in the works. And when they open — in late January or early February, they hope — they apparently will have the only privately operated licensed indoor petting zoo in Pierce County.
“When the USDA inspector came through, we had baby yaks, goats, rabbits, two wallabies, miniature pigs, sheep, an alpaca baby” Penwell said, the list going on and on. “He said we were cleaner than a lot of zoos.”
When the petting zoo opens, it will rely on walk-in visitors and parties. There’s a separate room for those celebrations, so no critter lands in the refreshments.
“We’re going to visit schools and preschools with some baby animals and try to work out visits,” Penwell said. “It’s about educating them about animals. We try to do that with everyone who visits the farm, too.”
Penwell, for instance, loves her maras, the fourth-largest rodent in the world. Explaining what they are to children delights her.
“She wants people to know about and love animals as much as she does,” Miller said.
Penwell adopts out some of her critters, especially baby goats, rabbits and ducks. The animals who live in the petting zoo will have their own pens and cages.
“There are shy animals, which end up being displayed, and if they get a little stressed they can retreat to pens, which are off limits,” Penwell said. “But these are sociable animals. They’re curious.”
As she said that, a baby yak nuzzled against her, and a goat nibbled at one of her shoestrings.
Penwell has three children — two grown sons and a 12-year-old daughter — and Miller has a 16-year-old daughter. The couple is also helping raising an 8-year-old granddaughter.
That’s only as many children as they have camels.
As for the name of their new venture, Penwell explained that Jozee Rooz is the name of her favorite wallaby.
“We’re talking about franchising and, if we do, every franchise will have at least one wallaby,” Penwell said. “We have two here, including Jozee, who could be pregnant.”