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 — NationalGeographic.com] 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.
“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.
Next John asks Calypso to talk, and a guttural roar springs from the Camel’s mouth.
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?