The man guided the camel over to the platform carefully. It stepped gracefully in the cool January air, and the children on its back waved over to their parents, all smiles. The man helped them get off the camel’s back as the next kids lined up.
I watched the majestic creature wait calmly, blinking her massive eye lashes and opening and closing her jaws in a somehow superior manner.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
The camel guide, a fit young Hispanic man in a hoodie and shorts, looked up. “Diamond. The other two are Edison and Marsha.” I looked over to see one camel taking a break in a spread of hay upon the ground, it’s eyes closed and a half-smile on its face. It somehow resembled a cartoon, making me think of the llama in the Emperor’s New Groove. I turned my head to see the second llama, Marsha, giving two smiling children a ride.
My thoughts wandered as I waited my turn. I hadn’t ever given much thought to riding a camel, but I have a healthy sense of adventure. I found myself with a few free hours in Palm Springs, California, and had heard they had camel rides at the zoo, and suddenly I wanted to go. So what if I was the only adult in line.
I thought of all the jobs there are in the world, from elevator technicians to bread delivery men, and here these men spent their days walking camels around the enclosure. I pictured their CVs, describing their experiences in camel-handling.
Tell me about your last employment.
“Well, sir, I was a camel handler.”
And what were the best and worst parts of the job?
“I loved seeing all the smiling children. And those camels, they were real stand-up guys. But the poop, and the spitting, and all those unruly humps, they couldn’t pay me enough to deal with that stuff.”
And then I thought further, how this zoo had to have some sort of camel specialist on-hand, or at least someone familiar with camels: their diets, mating habits, and socialization; oral care, hoof care, fur density. What regulations would a place like have to satisfy to keep conditions humane for the camels, being used to give humans rides? And how did they ensure human safety? The liability insurance must be extensive.
My mind kept wandering as I watched the camel place each hoof carefully in the sand and dirt, sending off little clouds of dust into the air. I pulled open my phone and googled camels.
“A camel is an even-toed ungulate within the genus Camelus, bearing distinctive fatty deposits known as ‘humps’ on its back.” A subsequent search taught me that an ungulate is simply an animal with hooves (like a horse, a cow, a pig, or a rhinoceros), and that “even-toed” simply meant it had an even number of toes. Presumably there are also odd-toed ungulates out there. I read about the regions that camels live in, and how survival in the desert is often possible because of domesticated camels, who can provide milk, meat, fur, and transportation. I read how camels can travel far distances in extreme heat because of the concentration of the fat in their humps, and how their thick eyelashes combined with nostrils and lips that can close keep out the dust. I read how they are social animals that travel in herds, and that they symbolize patience, endurance, and tolerance. I learned that there are 160 words for camel in the Arabic language. I learned how they can live 50 years and run up to 40 mph. I even learned that camels mate sitting down (apparently the only ungulate to do so), and that to attract females for mating, the bull camel will grow a dulla, a pink inflatable organ that looks like a tongue, and let it hang outside of its mouth.
Diamond walked back toward me, stately, and I looked at her with new respect somehow. Humans love to endow animals with emotion and story, an attempt at understanding them and relating them to us, and I envisioned Diamond as some serene queen with even step and majestic bearing.
The handler dismounted the children and I took my turn, stretching my leg over Diamond’s back. Now astride her, in between her two humps and on a blanket, I held the small handle of the harness above her neck while the handler connected the loose seat belt at my side, a safety precaution that would do little if I actually fell from the camel. And then the handler took the reins and Diamond began to move.
She was strong, powerful, her frame easily 300 pounds. I shifted slightly as she walked, but the ride was even and comfortable. I closed my eyes for a moment, focusing on the movement, and pictured the camels a few continents away, bearing sultans and princesses and thieves from settlement to oasis. A smile crossed my face at the desert landscape being romanticized, when in reality it is likely unbearably hot and boring. Riding a camel day after day would be exhausting, and not at all the same as paying five dollars for a five minute ride.
I opened my eyes back up and looked at the crowds, the parents and children snapping photos, the families walking by looking for their favorite animals in their favorite exhibits, the food cart in the distance. I looked at the rolling California hills and the deep blue January sky. I looked back at the sleeping Edison and the sturdy Marsha, then down at the thick fur of Diamond as she continued to walk sedately around the enclosure.
Soon the ride was complete, and I stepped off of Diamond as she gave off a thick grunt, a bit like a gruff low tuba blast. I wondered if that was her way of saying goodbye, but knew it was much more likely her expression of relief that this 180-lb human was off of her back.
“Goodbye, Diamond,” I said with a smile, and I turned to see what adventure the New Year had in store for me next.