Part One: Riding a Camel to Reach the Donkeys

Part One:  Riding a Camel to Reach the Donkeys

Today I’m visiting John Schreiner, owner of Shreiner’s Exotic Animal Farm in Dallesport, Washington.  I have an appointment to meet a Bactrian camel named Calypso.  In my search for an animal companion to join us at Mule Springs, I’m considering a double humped camel.  Unlike the dromedary or single humped camel known for having an irritable temperament and for spitting its stomach contents at you, the Bactrian camel has a reputation for being affectionate, gentle, and easily trainable.  The Bactrian do well in cold and hot dry desert climates, such as we have here in The Dalles.  And, they are covered with a wooly fur possessing qualities like cashmere. The fiber can be spun into yarn and knitted into soft, warm non-itchy garments.  Resembling cashmere, camel’s wool is expensive and does not felt easily.  A camel’s coat sheds up to fifteen pounds of fiber annually.  Perhaps I can start a business selling camel wool?

[photo by George F. Mobley —] bactrian-camel

For several months before making the appointment, I repeatedly drove my Jeep very slowly through the public access road traversing Schreiner’s farm.  I saw huge, calm moving, shaggy ruminants grazing in the pasture.  In the afternoon they would lie down near the fence with their legs tucked under themselves and chew on grass they had eaten earlier in the day.  Like cows, camels regurgitate the food they eat in the morning for re-chewing in the afternoon.  I tried to imagine how a camel might look lying in the prairie grass at Mule Springs.

The Bactrian is the last camel remaining in the wild.  It stands six to eight feet tall and is seven to eleven feet long. The Bactrian often weighs over 1000 pounds.  Its cousin the single humped camel of Arabia has been thoroughly domesticated.  The Bactrian is a native of the Gobi Desert and the Mongolian steppes.  Bactrian numbers have declined, and it is listed as critically endangered in the wild.  This is due to habitat loss and hunting pressure.  In areas where they might compete with the domestic single humped camel (Dromedary), the Bactrian are destroyed.

I like the idea of helping preserve a rare animal, and John Schreiner says camels are wonderful companions; they don’t kick; they can be ridden; they can be trained to do all sorts of tricks, and; they have distinct and engaging personalities, which also makes them great subjects to write about.  I’m excited to meet an animal that looks like a character from one of Dr. Seuss’s children’s stories, so here I am pulling up to Shreiner’s neatly kept farmhouse to meet Calypso.  John bustles out of the house and vigorously shakes my hand.  He’s short and in his mid-fifties, strong, and has a ruddy complexion.  He’s also got a lot of energy, and isn’t shy about telling me I  “need to speak up,” because he has significant hearing loss from years of shotgun blasts near his head.  Like most farmers in the West he’s done his fair share of culling ground squirrel and coyote.  John and his partners bought the farm in 1977.  The Dallesport location is one of many farms Shreiner co-owns.  He raises and sells exotic animals such as Bactrian camel, giraffe, wallaroo, yak, muntjac deer, Sardinian donkey, and zebra.

Calypso is not for sale, but according to John he is a fine example of what one can do with a Bactrian camel. As we walk over to Calypso’s paddock, I’m struck by how large the animal is.  I thought our mules were big, but Calypso towers over Burtina.  Calypso and a female camel are pacing back and forth in front of the formidable enclosure.  John tells me the female is just beginning her training, “but you simply won’t believe what Calypso can do.”  John snaps the lead line onto Calypso’s halter and leads him from the paddock to the spacious lawn.

John commands, “Calypso cush. . . Calypso cush,” and with a groan the camel’s chest heaves forward as his front legs fold under and he drops to the ground while his back legs fold under bringing his rear end down.

John Schreiner and his Bactrian Camel -- Calypso

“Cush means to lie down, but he can do more –watch this.”

John gives another verbal command and Calypso rolls over on his side.  When he rights himself, John says another word, and Calypso begins to crawl on his knees across the lawn toward John.

Calypso rolls over for John.

Next John asks Calypso to talk, and a guttural roar springs from the Camel’s mouth.

Calypso and John talking.

At this point I’m beginning to feel a little uncomfortable as this performance is reminding me a of a circus act; whereas I am used to training animals to work – to perform as athletes–instead of do tricks.  I raised and trained homing pigeons in Alaska to fly across mountains and wide expanses of water to come home, and Bruce and I trained bird dogs to perform in partnership with the hunter in field and water work.   This performance is not quite what I expected.  Yet, it’s obvious John reveres the animal, and I can see he has put a lot of time into training Calypso to lie down, roll over, crawl, and talk.  John has already mentioned twice how he loves these animals, almost, more than his biological children.

Calypso is still lying down, and John says, “Now it’s your turn—hop on.  He’s no problem to ride.  I often give children camel rides using Calypso.  A camel would be a pleasure to ride around your property.”

I place my camera carefully beside the fence, and I’m wondering if I really want to “ride,” but I did come out here to experience what it’s like to be around a camel.  I guess the experience includes riding.

“Sit in between the humps. When he gets up, you will fall forward, just hold onto his neck and go with it.  You’ll feel unsteady for a moment, but you won’t fall off.”

I feel his coarse thin mane beneath my hands, and then my body lurches downward, forward, and up.  He’s standing, and I’m perched way up in the air. In fact I’m about eleven feet up in the air.  John leads Calypso toward the other end of the yard.  Riding Calypso feels much like riding a horse except I have never ridden an animal that is so tall.  As we approach the other end of the yard, I notice a group of what look like kangaroos hopping toward us.  I find out later they are wallaroos, a cousin of the kangaroo, and what John calls the “best pets” on the farm.  My body tightens, and I wonder if the camel is like a horse in that it can sense my fear.  What if Calypso rears, and I fall to the ground?  I’ll break my wrist again—may be killed. The fall on the ice this past January that put me in the hospital twice for multiply surgeries on my wrist and thumb is simply too close in my memory, and I feel anxiety welling up within me as Calypso steps closer to the hopping creatures.  But John turns Calypso, and we walk back.  When Calypso lies down so I can dismount, I am thrown forward again and momentarily feel like I might be hurled over the camel’s head, but it’s over quickly.  I safely dismount.  I’m glad I didn’t have any time to think about riding the camel—I just did it; otherwise, I might have declined.  But would I do it again?

Finally, John takes me to see the baby camels.  When we walk into the pasture five mothers and four baby camels surround us.  The babies are fluffy, and I like their smaller size, but they are definitely nippy.  They nip at my hands and my clothing, and John says, “just push them away.”  Though the babies could be adorable, I feel uneasy again, because all the animals are pressing in upon me, and I actually can’t wait to leave the pasture.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I’m not bonding with the camels.  I find them interesting, but I don’t feel as attracted to them as I should be.  To buy a camel is a serious decision, because they live for thirty to fifty years, and they cost upwards of twelve thousand dollars apiece.  I don’t have the heart to tell John right now.   He’s been so gracious with his time, and I imagine he expects I will need a few days to think about the camels. But I already know a camel is not the right animal for me to have at Mule Springs.

Note: Part two will follow shortly.


Questions for readers:  Have you ever ridden a camel? If so, what was it like? I’m curious, what do you think about camels?


19 thoughts on “Part One: Riding a Camel to Reach the Donkeys

  1. hahaha. you’re so funny. this is a great story! thankyou for your candor.
    i don’t know if i would’ve gotten on the camel.
    sounds fun though-except the height thing.
    give me a call anytime tomorrow.

    1. Cairo- that is cool. Did you enjoy the experience? Was it fairly ordinary like riding a horse? It would be fun to see you riding a camel, and I wish I had gotten a photo of me, but my camera was on the ground, and I didn’t think of it until later.

      1. You know, I’ve heard of Bactrain camels being used to distribute food in eastern Russia (when the trains wouldn’t run) during the 1921 Famine.

      2. They survive in cold climes, so this perhaps why they were used successfully in eastern Russia. I’d like to read that article. 🙂

  2. What a great learning experience. It is definitely true that we can feel bonds more strongly with some animals than with others.
    I think most animals would need a like companion to commune with, and that would be a big commitment, indeed.

    1. Herd animals in particular do best if they have at least one other animal to be around at all times. Dogs, though, are not necessarily like this as they can do well alone. Sure they may enjoy having another dog around, but they don’t absolutely need it. But, herd animals do best in a herd. I hadn’t considered though that I would need to buy two camels–yikes!

  3. This was a lovely and well-told story. Good on you for giving it a try to ride a camel.

    When I was much younger, I went for a ride on a single-humped camel in the Namib desert, just outside Swakopmund (at this place: We were dressed up with scarves wrapped around ourselves, which was the most fun part!

    I have vivid memories of that lurching forward and backward when they stand up! I also remember how INCREDIBLY HIGH UP I was sitting! I felt a little dizzy up there, and quite vulnerable. We sat on top of the hump, with our feet kind of resting towards the front, so not like sitting on a horse. I think it must feel much more stable to sit between TWO humps.

    We were led around an large open desert area, with the camels following each other in a row. We trotted for a bit as well, which was really nerve-wracking! It’s so bumpy! I think when camels trot, they move the same-side legs forward and backwards, rather than alternating like a horse. Is that right?

    1. Reggie- Thank you. 🙂 Your ride sounds like fun, and I agree a double hump must be more comfortable. I was able to easily ride without a saddle. I am not sure about their leg movement when they trot. This may be right. I looked online, and it is a little hard for me to tell, and it’s not something I learned during my time with Calypso and John.

  4. Very cool! Yes, I don’t see you as a “camel” gal. Perhaps a couple of wallaroos might thrive at Mule Springs? It might be a challenge to get them to ‘sit” and “roll over.” d=^)

  5. Chuck feels his next endeavor will be do get a pigmy goat..he has fallen in love with them…little ruminant with huge knackers…not sure what the connection with chuck is…but there you have it. Camels….hmm…there are other rare or at risk species out there..

    1. Hi Carol– I have a friend in Wisconsin who has gotten into dairy goats and she absolutely loves having them. I can imagine Chuck might enjoy having goats around. 🙂 Thanks for reading, Sher

  6. I have ridden a camel. I absolutely love camels. I am more partial toward Dromadary camels, but I love Bactrians as well.

    If I was young again, I would do what I could to have a place with camels.

    Riding a Dromadary is like riding a huge bowl of slightly hard jello. The modern type of camel saddle used if the rider is loaded from a platform has a side rail. This got in the way of arranging my legs correctly. So Even though it was a short ride on a very docile camel, I was a little sore.
    Camels, whether Dromadary, Bactrian or their little New World cousins are sensitive, and very intelligent animals. They really are smarter than horses. They don’t spook easily. None of these animals attack unprovoked.
    Proper training, affection and reward type of training is the best. Think Natural Horsemanship. The only misgivings anyone ought to have with camels is breeding age males in mating season. They are even dangerous to other camels. Breeding has to be done under supervision.
    Other than that, they really are very good-natured animals.

    1. Hello and thank you for your comments about your experiences with camels. I also got the impression the Bactrian are smart. I enjoyed being introduced to the camels, but in the end felt a donkey would be a better choice for me. Thanks for visiting the blog. 🙂 Sher

  7. Donkeys are nice too! I don’t care for their smell though. Still they are good, hard working animals. I would trust a donkey more than I would trust a horse. They are cheaper to keep.

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