Camels have been represented continuously in San Diego Zoo Global’s collection since 1923, with the arrival of a Bactrian camel and two dromedary camels; the Bactrian camel came from a circus and the dromedary camels were obtained from a Hollywood movie set. Our Zoo’s founder, Dr. Harry Wegeforth, convinced the local Shriners to donate money to help pay for them. When the camels wrecked their pen by rubbing their loose winter fur off on the posts, the Shriners came through again to pay for a new enclosure.
In 1924, Shiek became the first camel born at the Zoo. He was so handsome and tractable that Hollywood movie studios rented him and some of our other camels for silent movies such as Ben-Hur in 1925, Beau Gest in 1926, and its 1939 motion picture remake starring Gary Cooper. The camels earned an actor’s fee, a sum that seemed like a fortune to the fledgling zoo. In 1942, Zoo camels were used in the movie The Road to Morocco.
Even in San Diego, with its mild winter climate, the camels grow a shaggy winter coat. Keepers collect the shed hair and distribute it for animal enrichment; the hair is placed in other exhibits so different species can experience new smells and textures.
Our camel training program began in 1995 when a baby camel, Belle, needed to be hand raised. Although camels have been domesticated since ancient times, keeper Pat Butler found no camel-specific training aids. With some tips from the Zoo’s trainers and a positive-reinforcement strategy proven successful with horses, he taught Belle to wear a halter with grace and style. Belle made some prime-time television show appearances, including the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Camel halter training makes it easier for veterinarians to give the camels routine check-ups, and the strolls allow the camels to stretch their legs and meet Zoo and Park guests up close! Each walk takes two keepers: one to lead the camel and the other to scoop poop!
Today, the San Diego Zoo has two dromedary camels, Karima and Zara, living with pronghorns in Elephant Odyssey. When keepers place large piles of sand, mulch, or wood shavings in their exhibit, the two do a “happy camel dance” by wildly bucking and kicking all four legs in all directions—what a sight to see! They can also be persistent and naughty, especially when they use their lips to manipulate the lid off an automatic drinker and remove the water bowl, resulting in a flowing river through their exhibit. A domestic Bactrian camel, Mongo, can be seen next to the Australian Outback along Center Street.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has two domestic Bactrian camels, Eli and Mouse, who live with the Park’s herd of Przewalski’s horses. They all get along very well! A dromedary camel, Dune, serves as an animal ambassador. Camels learn to spit from other camels, but Dune was raised with a zebra, so he doesn’t spit!
Humans have used camels since ancient times. They were even brought to the US in the mid-1800s as a potential source of transportation across the West, as well as a replacement for beef cattle. Today, if the nomads of Africa’s Saharan region continue their traditional way of life, they will need the dromedary camels for milk, wool, and transport.
Bactrian camels, however, are at critical risk, facing a decline in the wild as they are hunted for sport or killed because they compete with domestic camels and livestock for grazing and watering spots. They are also hunted for their meat. Their habitat is also being taken over by illegal mining operations. There are currently about 650 Bactrian camels in China and about 450 in Mongolia. The Wild Camel Protection Foundation was established in 1997 and has set up a natural reserve in China for wild Bactrian camels.