Unfiltered Camels

M.V. MoorheadAugust 16, 2013
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For a brief spell in the 1800s, the drought-resistant beasts took their lumps in the Arizona heat.

It’s not surprising that the big reddish-brown mountain looming over East Phoenix was given the name Camelback. To be sure, Arizona can put one in a camel-like state of mind: obstinate, old-fashioned, comfortable in the heat, transplants from somewhere else. Where stereotype is concerned, camels seem like natural Zonies.

Even the government thought so. For a few years in the mid-1800s, the United States imported dozens of the creatures to work as pack animals in the Arizona Territory. The experiment is a well-known episode in the colorful history of our region, but perhaps a slightly misunderstood one.

“It was a program of the War Department,” Mick Woodcock of Prescott’s Sharlot Hall Museum says. “They were trying to find a suitable animal to transport freight and mail across the country.” Woodcock notes that though the program is often associated with the military, it was a civilian-led expedition, with a few soldiers in the ranks.

It was in 1857 that future Confederate President Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, secured $30,000 from Congress to purchase camels from North Africa and the Middle East. That same year, a former Naval officer named Edward Fitzgerald Beale was charged with surveying a wagon road across Arizona, between Fort Defiance and the Colorado River. Also deployed were 25 camels and a Jordanian camel driver named Hadji Ali – or, as he became known to the soldiers on the expedition, Hi Jolly.

The “Camel Corps” is often perceived as a quaint joke, an ill-advised bit of 19th-century whimsy. It was even spoofed in a 1976 movie, a family comedy called Hawmps! starring Slim Pickens of Blazing Saddles fame. But according to Woodcock, who plans to devote an exhibit to Beale and the camels at Sharlot Hall, the strength and stamina of the beasts won the hearts and minds of the explorers.

“Beale, who headed the program, loved the camels,” Woodcock says. “The problem was that the horses and mules didn’t like the camels, so they didn’t fit in with the standard American transport of the time.”

Camels are ungulates – hooved mammals – divided into two species: the one-humped dromedary or Arabian camel, and the two-humped Bactrian variety. Both have been almost exclusively domesticated in recent centuries. Of the species’ many adaptations to the desert climate, their humps are the most distinctive – centralized storehouses of burnable fat which allow the animals to go long stretches without water, and which minimize heat-retaining insulation over the rest of the body.

The camels, in other words, really were perfect for Arizona. In truth, camels weren’t new to the region when the War Department brought them here as beasts of burden. They beat humans to what is now the Copper State by millions of years.

“It is certainly accurate to say that camels of one type or another lived in Arizona long before humans arrived,” says Brad Archer, formerly the curator of ASU’s now-closed R. S. Dietz Museum of Geology. “There are fossils from eastern Arizona of a larger-than-modern camel that date to about 2.5 million years ago, or pre-Ice Age.”

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The remains of prehistoric camels have been found around Safford and Wikieup. And though Archer cautions it’s not scientifically certain, camels may also have left behind the bones discovered during the excavation of a Walmart Neighborhood Market parking lot in Mesa in 2007, which were prematurely dubbed the “Walmart Camels” by media (see sidebar).

But for all their remarkable adaptability, the camels couldn’t survive a shift in government policy. A little matter called the Civil War kicked the Camel Corps down the priorities list, and the program was abandoned. “Although the camels worked well, they were lost in the shuffle of a nation preparing for war,” Woodcock says.

The animals were housed in Texas and California for a few years, then sold at auction in 1864, according to Woodcock. “So basically it’s nearly the end of the Civil War before the Army says all right, we’ll get rid of these things.” Some were sold; others are thought to have been simply released into the desert – claims of sightings, many likely apocryphal, continued well into the 20th century. Hi Jolly kept a few of the animals; his grave in Quartzsite – which hosts an annual Hi Jolly Daze festival in January – is a small pyramid topped with a copper camel.

Still, camels persist in Arizona, in small pockets. The Saihati Camel Farm in Yuma – basically a large petting zoo – offers visitors an up-close encounter. And a camel ride can be had most days of the week at the Phoenix Zoo, on one of the animals owned, in a revenue-sharing arrangement, by Chester Taylor, a former Midwestern farm boy who at 19 was offered a summer gig with the camel ride at the Baltimore Zoo, and took to the work.

“Camels are what I consider to be very intelligent creatures,” Taylor says. “They all have their own personalities and quirks, and their actions and reactions differ according to the habits of their handlers.”

There are private owners, too. Alex Komechak lives near Tucson with her dromedaries Baby and Nessie, both acquired from a breeder in Texas. She became a viral star in a riotous YouTube video, Girl vs. Camel, in which she loses a footrace to one of her pets, and she and her pals were later featured on the Animal Planet series Bad Dog. She blogs about them at camelsandfriends.com.

Why camels?

“I’ve been a huge animal lover my entire life,” Komechak explains. “My main interests as a child were taking home toads and begging my mom to let me get a bird. I was also a big fan of the film Lawrence of Arabia.”

And then there’s Camel Day at Turf Paradise. On a Saturday afternoon this spring, the race track hosted its annual exhibition races of camels and ostriches, brought in from Texas for the promotional event. Camel owner Bill Rivers fondly introduced his big male, Aladdin, who’s a movie veteran – he was ridden by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in The Scorpion King.

Like Komechak and Taylor, Rivers disputes the common notion that camels are ill-tempered animals. “They have that reputation, but it’s mostly myth; they’re very gentle creatures.” A minute or two with the serene-faced Aladdin suggests this is true.

Later, when they break from the starting gates topped by Turf Paradise exercise riders, Aladdin and his three competitors, with their forward-swooping, somehow slow-motion gallop, become strangely beautiful. It’s easy to picture their ancient cousins running like that, across a pre-Ice Age, pre-human Arizona. Maybe the ghosts of a few 19th-century Army washouts run there still.