For the Love of Camels

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Anyone who knows me will by now have learned that I have an unusual fondness for camels.  As I’ve picked up some new readers (thank you all, by the way, for stopping by), I decided I should probably bring this up to, you know, put my cards on the table.

I love camels.

Of course, that fact in itself is not worthy of a blog post in anyone’s mind but mine.  What IS worthy of a post, though, is the inevitable response whenever this idiosyncrasy of mine comes up, which happens more than you’d think.  Except at the International Camel Conference (yes, there is one and yes, I’ve been) the next question is pretty much always, “erm… why?”

Why indeed.  The irreplaceable Sir David Attenborough was on the Jonathan Ross show on Saturday night – UK readers can catch up here for the next month (by which time it will probably be on YouTube anyway).  Although, as ever, he spoke many words of wisdom (Sir Dave, not Jonathan Ross, he rarely speaks words of wisdom), the exchange I found particularly interesting was this:

JR: “Would you call yourself an animal lover, or is it just an academic interest?”

DA: “I am absolutely fascinated by animals… I mean the word ‘lover’ is, you know, a funny old word… [laughter] – well it is, isn’t it? I don’t love snails, particularly, but they are very interesting.  Have you ever seen snails mating?”

This is more along the lines of what I mean when I say I ‘love’ camels, though not quite the whole picture.  The word ‘love’ has many of interpretations. I don’t, for example, love camels in the same way that I love the Crow (i.e. romantically), my parents (i.e. familiarly) or even the Masked Bandits; our love for pets, incidentally, is an interesting one as it’s almost a halfway house between the love for friends and family. There are elements of both bonding and of a desire to nurture… but I digress.

When we say we ‘love’ animals, then, what are we getting at?  Surely, as Sir Dave notes, we rarely love ALL animals.  I’m certainly not a fan of crane flies, or (as noted in my first blog) mosquitoes.  Equally, many people are not a fan of camels, particularly in the Western hemisphere.  In these parts, if I said, “I love dogs” or (slightly more contentiously at the moment) “I love cats”, many people would say, “Awww, me too.”  This is not generally the response with camels.

I have read, written and spoken at length on various camel-related issues and in this time have learned a great deal about them.  The more I have learned, the more fascinated I have become.  Did you know, for example, that camels can sense water from up to 3 km away?  That they have three eyelids?  That their milk naturally contains an insulin-type protein that can be used to treat diabetes? That they pee ‘backwards’ (i.e. between their back legs, in the opposite direction to cows, horses etc.)? That they are one of a select few animals observed to respond to music?  All true. However, I’m not here to try and convince you to like camels, but to ask you to reconsider why you might not ‘love’ camels like you do dogs, or cats, or horses. If you aren’t interested in animals at all, of course, there’s little for you here: sorry. If you already love camels, you’ll enjoy this post, so please continue!

Camel Face. Photo Credit: eNil I will grant you that camels smell.  That is inescapable, but then so do many mammals (wet dog, particularly, is not a pleasant scent, nor are various human… odours).  Some dislike camels because of their ability to spit a delicious concoction of partially chewed food, saliva and digestive juices.  Fair enough, if one has spat at you.  Has that happened to you?  What were you doing at the time?  I would put money on whatever it was being fairly irritating.  Still others see camels as ‘grumpy’, or ‘aloof’.  Well, if your eyes were similarly positioned in relation to your nose and your head was seven to eight feet off the ground, people might think you were aloof, too.

Western explorers in the 19th and early 20th centuries tended to be scathing and even vicious about the camels they encountered on their travels:

“In almost everything written on life in the desert the camel bears a bad name, and indeed he richly deserves it… he has the combined malice and stupidity of the worst kind of Georgia mule.  He is ugly as sin… his black heart is filled with melancholy hatred.”  – W. Seabrook, 1927

I sense Seabrook rode a rather bad-tempered camel; camels display the same amount of individual variation in personality and temperament as most species, especially social vertebrates.  However, his enthusiasm to denigrate an entire genus in this way suggests a certain cultural prejudice not necessarily related to real camel behaviour.  Fortunately, other explorers were more sensitive to their surroundings:

 “Many Englishmen have written about camels.  When I open a book and see the familiar disparagement, the well-worn humour, I realised that the author’s knowledge of them is slight, that he has never lived among the Bedu, who know the camel’s worth.” – W Thesiger, 1959

In news reports and on the internet at large, camels are still portrayed as a bit of a joke – long, gangly legs, droopy lips, interesting noises and, of course, the hump (or two).  In fact, their relationship with humans has been one of the most extensive and enduring of all such associations and their centrality to certain cultures can hardly be overstated.   Anthropologist Teka found that many Afar families in Ethiopia, were:

 “unanimous to endorse the idea that they prefer to lose a son than a camel.  According to them, if a son dies you bury him and you may or may not get another son, but life continues… but if a camel dies everything is left where it is, and there is no movement which means there is no life and the household collapses.” (Teka, 1991)

Al Dhafra Camel Festival.  Photo Credit: A RahmanSimilarly, until comparatively recently many Arabian peoples relied on the camel’s provision of transport, milk and general all-round assistance with a desert lifestyle. In the modern Middle East the dromedary is still considered a gift of Allah and its cultural history and symbolism continue to be celebrated through beauty contests, heritage festivals and camel racing, a modern form of an old Bedouin pastime.

If we all take a step back, though, away from our cultural baggage and projection of our learned ideals of beautiful and desirable characteristics, the true camel comes into focus.  As with cats in my previous post: camels are camels, they are this regardless.

When I think of camels, I think of an incredible, exemplar culmination of powerful evolutionary pressures, I think of the incredible (to me) feats of endurance they are able to achieve on a daily basis, I think of their individual, humorous characters and I think of their ability to form bonds with each other and with humans.  I think of their unique way of maintaining life in desolate lands.  I also think of Shilan, the camel so small, white and fluffy he was more like a large llama, who carried me uncomplainingly for days across quiet desert sands.  My research and experience of camels has extended my interest into something that is a form of love – interest, admiration, pleasure in their company.  I think that counts.

I don’t see love and hate as external forces.  I see humans as learners, absorbers, flexible and moulded by our experiences and the world in which we are immersed.  For me this is a connection with the camel, perhaps surprisingly given my cultural background.  I would not pressure or presume anyone else to feel the same.

Still: when the next person asks me why on earth I am so engrossed by camels, I will point them to this extremely self-indulgent blog and reply: why on earth not?

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