Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Camel Wrestling For Fun And Profit

Okay, I'm kind of joking about the "Profit" part.

Thinking on my time at the zoo, we had this camel case. Their big bull camel (here we're talking Dromedaries) had bitten one of his offspring in the hump. Now, you wouldn't think it to look at them, nor would you think it when you consider that they're herbivores, but male camels have long, sharp canine teeth. These are a set of four big fangs used, one assumes, primarily for fighting with other camels - although every so often someone turns their back on an irritable bull and gets bitten fatally in the head, because I am assured that if a camel can get his mouth around your skull, he's more than capable of crushing it like a melon, and that the long daggers of his teeth can punch right through a human skull, particularly over the thinner temporal bone.

Hmm. THAT'S a vivid image, isn't it?

It seems a bit counter-intuitive, actually. Camels have a pacing gait - they use the two legs on one side of the body in tandem, rather than going left-right-left-right the way (say) horses generally do. This gives them an elegant, leisurely sway and a rather stately air, which is compounded by their long, gracefully-curved necks and the lofty height of their heads, from which they gaze down upon you through luxuriant lashes with their large, liquid dark eyes. This doesn't reconcile so easily with the idea of fatal head-biting. Nor does it seem to fit with the mental image of such an aloof, high-headed animal suddenly reaching down to bite a baby's hump completely through, but there you are.

Apparently the bull camel at the zoo felt that his young son was being a sufficient pain in the hump - er, rump - that he decided to indicate his displeasure in as unequivocal a way as possible, with the result that the calf had four deep punctures, two on either side of the midline of his little baby hump. Not surprisingly, this is the kind of injury where infection would be a real danger, with the potential for much resultant and disastrous sloughing, or possibly even the risk of death. So, this meant that every afternoon for nearly my entire tenure at the zoo, we assembled a crew of medical staff and went over to the camel house for a little camel wrestling.

The calf - and here I know you'll be surprised - was really not all THAT into being separated from his mother and treated every day. Hence a certain amount of trickery was involved.

First, four of us arrive at the camel house, armed with antibiotics and scrub and flush and dressings. The keeper meets us there. Before anything else can be done, the bull has to be separated from the group. The bull does not like this idea and lays his ears back and tightens his large, velvety lips with every evidence of annoyance. He paces purposefully forward, glaring down at us from an impressive height and making low, menacing rumbling noises in his chest. If you have never stood near a camel making this noise, let me tell you: It's a bit creepy. It apparently resonates at a frequency capable of penetrating your tissues and setting up a vibrato in your viscera. This is not at all painful, but it somehow ignites an intense desire to be elsewhere. Suddenly you are restless, twitchy, anxious to be gone. Once you realize what's happening, of course, you have control of it... but it takes you unawares at first, dumping adrenaline into your bloodstream, driving your heart and lungs, making the hair stir on the back of your neck.

Once the bull has been lured away and gated off (to his great displeasure), the cow and calf are coaxed into the barn. The cow is lured strait through and out the other side, and the calf is unceremoniously detained, with the help of our little camel press-gang. The keeper closes the barn door, trapping the cow outside, and our little gang nabs the calf, looping arms around his elegant neck, haltering his head, blocking his hurried backward shuffle, and (as quickly as possible) blindfolding him. This has the multiple purpose of protecting his large, expressive eyes from injury during restraint, making him less capable of escape, and of decreasing his stress as much as we are able to do and still treat him.

There follows quite a lot of scuffling and various breathless grunting and swearing as the camel calf - who cannot weigh above an hundred and fifty pounds - starts tossing the rest of us around, surging forward for freedom, swinging his head at us like a sledgehammer, kicking and stomping and bawling for his mother (who is bellowing herself, accompanied from the other side of the barn by the incessant gargling rumbles of the bull). I, as the smallest member of our crew, have the job of flushing out the wounds and then packing them with antibiotic ointment whilst the rest of the gang do their damnedest to make sure I don't get trampled to death in the process. Five adults it takes to compel this 150# calf to take his medicine, and we are barely enough. Five adults barely fit in a cluster around this little calf, not more than a few months old, but he is nearly equal to us even so.

I go as fast as I can and still get the job done. The holes in the calf's hump are so deep I can sink my index finger to the last knuckle and still not quite reach the end of the punctures. Two of them nearly meet in the middle, a centimeter from being a through-and-through puncture of the entire width of the hump. The first day was the hardest, both for this reason and because we had to clip the hair away from the wounds, so we spent much longer that day. But even after the punctures start to granulate in and grow shallower with the passing days, it's quite a chore to simultaneously brace my weight against the heaving sides of the calf and at the same time clean and pack the wounds, squinting against the dust we are raising, jostled and bumped on either side by vet and techs and keeper as they strain to keep the calf from running us all over as I treat the left side, and then as I hurry around to treat the right.

At the end of all that, Dr. K injects a wad of antibiotics into the calf and we all peel off like the gantries falling away from a launching rocket: the keeper mans the barn door, and we unhalter and un-blindfold the calf, releasing him as the keeper opens the door and we all melt as fast as possible back into the building. Camels are in general relatively calm - apart from when the bulls are rutting - but the last thing we want to do is hang around to see how forgiving (or not) the cow is.

The very last order of buisness is to open up the opposite side of the barn so that the pass-through is unobstructed and the bull camel is free. The bull, the moment he is released, wastes no time in striding through the barn to inspect his herd, gargling and rumbling, ropey green saliva trailing from his mouth as he grinds his lower jaw from side to side in agitation.

I felt bad for the camel calf, being trapped and wrestled every afternoon, although I did feel good about the fact that his hump neither became infected nor sloughed. I'm sure it wasn't fun for him, and of course he had no way to know that we were doing it to save his life and prevent permanent disfigurement. I will say my sympathies were squarely on him, most of the time - although I admit they were a bit strained from time to time, as (for instance) when he sidestepped and mashed me against the barn wall hard enough to drive all the breath out of me, or when one of his flailing knees caught me in the thigh.

Okay, so I guess I'm kind of joking about the "Fun" part, too - but I wasn't kidding around about the "Wrestling" part. The WWF ain't got nothing on us.


MaskedMan said...

The very first thing I thought of, when I saw "camel" was sputum. Cameloids can spit, and it's nasty. But then you mentioned biting, and I flashed back to Bahrain, and coming face-to-face with a large bull camel through the window of a tour bus; which bus has gone more than a bit sideways as the panicked lead-footed driver slewed the bus all over the place in an ultimately-successful attmpt to 1) not hit a camel (which belong to powerful people), and 2) not wreck the bus full of large, strong, healthy foreigners whom might object to their bus falling over. It's the middle of the night, and the wildly-slewing motion of the bus as it wallowed to a rocking, shuddering halt snaped me (and my fellows) out of our doze with a sudden alertness to danger. Adrenalin dumps are strange things, and leave strange memories... I can still see that bemused camel right now, as if he were looking in my window, magically transported across a decade and a half, still chewing whatever it is that camels chew as they wander about in the dark. Tour busses are moderately tall, and the passengers sit above the cargo, putting my eyes at about eight feet above the ground, and this camel was looking me straight in the eye.

That height, along with their long, sinuous necks, and I daresay there are rather few 'safe' zones anywhere in close proximity to a camel. Oh, and they kick, too - sideways. Scary-tough critters, camels.

Holly said...

"It apparently resonates at a frequency capable of penetrating your tissues and setting up a vibrato in your viscera."

this made me squinch my eyes together and wrinkle up my nose as I thought about how this must feel. Ewwwwww.

I did not know that bull camels had such BIG canines but I did know that the camel family in general are not sweet. Though I would have thought youngsters would be safe from an ugly tempered male....guess not!

Dragon43 said...

That was great. I was LOL for real....

I knew they were dangerous but I had no idea they could do that to you.

amazing what power is in the body of little animals.

Long ago I did a little calf roping and bull dogging.... I lost most of the time.

AKDD said...

Dragon, you're right: even a 10# dog can get the better of a big burly guy, given the right circumstances. The biomechanics of animals are amazing.

Holly, it IS a weird, unsettling feeling. I can't describe it exactly, but it's unforgettable. And no, the camelids are not generally sweet - male llamas and alpacas fight by knocking each other down and biting their opponant in the testicles, for instance, and there is that whole spitting thing.

MM, cool story. They ARE tough - hafta be, if you're going to make it in a desert, I guess. Ever ride a camel? It's interesting... for one thing, I'm not used to the pacing; I want to move like you do on horseback, and it's not the same. Plus the stride-length is SO long, and there's that whole getting up and lying down thing. But it's interesting. I was kinda getting sea-sick while we were crossing the river - and you know, me having lived on a boat, that sea-sick isn't my thing, usually - but it was the combination of the visual of the water moving one way, us moving a different way, plus the swaying of the pace. I expect I'd get used to it if I did it a lot.

Bill Fosher said...

You would think that with all the animals that they own and confine, and the high standard of care that most zoos (rightfully) set, there'd be more equipment around for humane restraint of their beasts.

Most seem to rely on brute strength to overpower animals -- a system that is stressful on the animals and dangerous to the handlers. The only other alternative seems to be sedation. Obviously, the ends justify the means but there's gotta be a better way.

What would a Bedouin do?

ChrisJ said...

Back in the early 80's I participated in a job exchange program with (then) West Germany. For 3.5 months, I worked at a zoo where I was able to vastly expand my poop shoveling experience.

For one two week stretch I was assigned to the Bactrian (2 humped) Camel exhibit. I learned that unlike their one humped cousins, the Bactrian camels are downright mellow & friendly. I was never allowed to work in the Domendary Camel exhibit because the keepers felt it was too dangerous but they had no worry about sending me to clean up around the Bactrians. I became darn fond of those camels - in fact they are probably my favorite animals from my zoo-keeping experience.

Pat said...

Oh, the places you'll go
Oh, the things you will see

Thanks once again for the story ma'am

MaskedMan said...

It boils down to, I suspect, money. Every specialist piece of equipment costs money to buy, install, and maintain. The equipment also takes up space, and the keepers will need to be trained and periodically recertified on its use, which ultimately means still more money. And how often will any particular zoo need the fairly specialized kind of equipment necessary to immobilize an immature camel? People, on the other hand, are adaptable, flexible, portable, and multi-purpose. It's probably much, much more cost-effective to use people, thus saving the budget for maintaining the rest of the standard of care.

AKDD said...

Hi, Bill.

The Bedouin have trained camels, since they use them as beasts of burden. In that circumstance, the camel baby would be used to at least some handling (unlike in a zoo population). However, given the type and location of the wound, it's possible that outside of a medical setting that could ahve been a fatal or disfiguring wound, so it might have resulted in the camel's death.

As for humane restraint, you're right that the wrestling was stressful - for everyone. However, even though it seemed way longer to us, it was about 10 minutes a day or less (except the first day, which would be about double), and we did what we could to minimize the angst for the camel. Toward the end it was easier, either because the wounds were better, or because the camel was getting used to being touched by people, or both.

Certain kinds of stocks - that would be used for domestic livestock restraint - would be tough to use in a zoo setting. For instance, the camelids have long, flexible necks, so the usual head-catch stocks would pose a hazard. The other problem is that you'd have to have many different sizes and shapes, and each habitat house would need its own, since transporting the animals (or the stocks) would be difficult to impossible.

Chris - how lucky you were! That sounds like an excellent job, and you can never have too many skills at shovelling poop! I never got to interact with the Bactrians - although I love their little fuzzy topknots. They're smaller, too, and just more approachable-looking in some way.

Pat - you're welcome!

Sarah said...

I own two camelids myself- the llama side of the family, and they earn their keep by protecting my goats from coyotes and local wandering dogs. They are pretty low maintenance, however, this summer, the smaller of the two got two fox tails in one of her eyes. We rarely handle this llama- she loves her stinky bucks, and is not so fond of people, so we generally leave her alone, but that also means that having to catch her was a bit challenging. Once caught, I then had to dig, um, I mean, gently pull the fox tail out. I was surprised at just how strong her little neck was, especially since she is on the small side for a llama. I was also surprised at just how different her eyes are from goat eyes- they bulge out more, and it was MUCH harder to get a handle on the foreign body in her eye, especially as it seemed like the eye had a bit more "play" in it than I was expecting. Of course, when the goats get a fox tail in their eyes, I just trap their head between my legs and pry the eyelid open and retrieve whatever is in there. It is not possible to do this with a llama.

I'm surprised you didn't end up covered in camel spit.

ChrisJ said...

While the Bactrians are shorter than the one humps, I don't think of them as smaller if you know what I mean. They have shorter legs, longer body and with that hair, they seem to be more substantial & solid than the relatively willowy domendarys.

What I think charmed me was that the Bactrians seem to recognize me as a separate person, not just a generic human. The keeper commented that that they had really taken to me. Even later, after I had gone on to shovel other pens in the zoo, whenever I walked past the bactrians they would notice, walk over, bat those big beautiful eyes and give me a little rambling hum.

After the zoo experience I went on to biological illustration as a career but maybe I missed my true calling as a Bactrian camel whisperer. ;-)

AKDD said...

Chris, the Bactrians do sound charming! I guess the reason I think of them as "smaller" is that they aren't as tall as the Dromedaries, although I grant you that they are still large, substantial animals.

Sarah - maybe you should get Bactrians! :D (And you're right - the camelids are notoriously spitty.)

AKColleen said...

Wow! I have a lot of catching up to do! If even half your posts have good stories like this I want to read them all. :P This is your friendly Wildwood farm girl, by the way. I'm inspired and have started my own blog... Not quite up to par with your writing! Hope to see you this summer!