Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Legacy and Legends of California Camels

The first thing anybody asks when they hear you've gone to a camel dairy is, "What does it taste like?"

Sad to say, after visiting Oasis Camel Dairy in East San Diego County, I still don't know.

The females do get milked there, but the farm isn't permitted to serve or sell camel milk in a drinkable form (or even as cheese)—only as soaps and lotions.

But apparently camel milk is actually far closer to human milk than the stuff we normally drink from cows, which aren't even native to the United States.

Camels, however, existed in what is now known as North America millions of years ago. In fact, the camel family (which also includes llamas) originated here. (Theoretically, they migrated to Asia across the ice bridge of the Bering Strait.)

But the camelops—as they were called at the time—went extinct around 11,000 years ago—which is also when our native horses and mastodons disappeared.

Fossils of them have even been found, for example, in the area of the former Rancho La Brea (where the Tar Pits are now), Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and Death Valley.

Of course, their distant descendants made their way back to North America from the Middle East and Africa by way of the U.S. Camel Corps, a now-infamous experiment of the Army. In the mid-1800s, the idea was that the animals would already be acclimated to dry, hot conditions—and, occasionally, sandy—and could be useful as military beasts of burden in situations that would be too trying for horses or mules.

The camels made the 1200-mile trek from Texas to California on foot in the now notorious "Camel Brigade," which brought them to Fort Tejon. Their military service ended shortly thereafter. Although they could maintain a decent speed while carrying a lot of weight, and they were good at finding watering holes, Congress refused to further fund the project in the advent of the Civil War.

At that point, camels had found their way back to this continent, but were left with nothing to do. Some were killed, stolen, and mistreated. Some were turned loose and roamed wild. Others were sold off to circuses and carnivals, where they were raced (as at the Indio Date Festival and Riverside County Fair) and could use their skills as pack animals to give camel rides.

Which brings us back to Oasis Camel Dairy.



Now, having taken camel rides myself in both Morocco and Tunisia, I probably shouldn't have been surprised to see some of the camels harnessed up to be climbed on by children. And although they're able to carry much more than the posted weight limit of 200 lbs, I still felt bad for them.



Their ancestors were soldiers, and now they get to be paraded around as a curiosity.



They're certainly well-behaved...



...charming...



...gentle...



...and handsome...



...but camels want to work.



It's in their nature.



But here, at the only camel farm in Southern California (that I know of), the boys get taken out for off-site events and demonstrations and made a spectacle of, sometimes dressed up like Scheherazade.



Do they mind? Who knows—because at least when they're back at the farm, they're the studs...



...breeding with the females.



As long as they're having babies...



...they're producing milk that can be used by the dairy farm to make skincare products.



This little cutie was born in mid-April, making her just three weeks old at the time this photo was taken in early May.



Calves are born relatively big, weighing around 65 to 85 pounds at birth. And they grow up so fast.



This calf is the daughter of Zohan, the herd bull, and Jamila—and she's already learned how to give side-eye.



But she's not the baby anymore, because her new half-brother arrived late last night...



...the son of Zohan and Lily, who's working on standing up and learning how to walk.



Oasis Camel Dairy has another open house this weekend, giving visitors the rare opportunity to see a brand new baby calf who's just a few days old.

It'll be hard for me not to go back. Everybody loves to gawk at a new baby.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Fort Tejon and the Ghost of Peter Lebec
One Hell of a Sandstorm
Photo Essay: Secrets of Death Valley