Camels And North America

Photo by Kyaw Tun on Unsplash

A (Brief) History Of Camels In North America

Much to everyone’s surprise, Camels were once native to the North American continent. Eleven thousand years ago these Camelops roamed the western United States and, though modern relatives live in Africa and Asia, relatives of the species as a whole may have spread across to Asia from Alaska via the Bering Strait. As with many land bridge hypotheses, this one has its holes, such as how our updated understanding of evolution and human migration patterns have impacted other species such as Equuis scotti.

By the time Europeans came west the North American camel had long since disappeared. The Texas Camel Corps is excited to educate everyone about the role of camels in United States history. It wasn’t until 1701 that its first relatives returned to the continent as an import to the Virginia Colony by a slave trader, most likely for use as work animals. In contrast, a wealthy Massachusetts ship captain named Crowninshield imported a pair of show camels for his personal menagerie. Later, in 1748 Arthur Dobbs, landowner, and governor of North Carolina, imported a pair of camels to work his land. No records exist to suggest he ever sold individuals that may have resulted from a breeding pair.

Camels remained an exotic novelty until 1856 when President Franklin Pierce was in office and the country experienced the unique election of President James Buchanan. President Franklin Pierce was an expansionist excited to encourage and sign policies that pushed for the exploration and utilization of the Southwest. What is  a better way to explore an area assumed to be an arid wasteland than with animals everyone assumes are made for arid wasteland? And so the Texas Camel Corps and its association with the United States Calvary began. Responsible for at least 60 Arabian and 15 Bactrian camels, the Ottoman Pasha of Cairo sent his generous gifts to the United States military in the May of 1856 and February of 1857. Once James Buchanan took office only 40 additional camels came to Texas on a suspected slave ship in October of 1858 and were the only cargo allowed to be unloaded for a Mrs. M.J. Watson, assumed to be the wife of the manifest’s Thomas Watson. These camels were accepted at that time by the governor of Texas and kept on a ranch near Houston, Texas. Texas’s camels were mostly used for the transportation of military supplies to and from San Antonio, Texas up until the Civil War.

Photo by Zachary Spears on Unsplash

As an exception, in 1859 an expedition following the route that would become Route 66 (Modern Interstate 40) used the camels to traverse the western deserts of America. Eventually, during the Civil War these camels would be put to work hauling cotton and salt to attempt to keep up with British trade demands at critical Confederate ports not blockaded by the Union Navy. One individual used sixty-six camels to maintain a freight trade route from Texas to Mexico City.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a few import events from Africa, Russia, and Australia of hundreds of individuals from Arizona to British Columbia (though Canada sent them back!) mean that as of today we have a little over two thousand Arabian camels and around five hundred Bactrian camels distributed between zoos, viruses, breeders, and privately-held collections. Unfortunately, there is no official camel registry for individuals managed by the USDA, and their presence in the United States is poorly regulated. While there have been multiple import events of specific species of camels that could be differentiated with genetic evidence should studies be done on current populations, my question remains: are there currently feral camels in North America? If so, where are they and where did they come from?

Photo by Julius Yls on Unsplash

Feral Camels

While the import of camels for various purposes by the United States and the Confederacy provided a utilitarian purpose for the human support of domesticated populations, sightings of feral camel populations have dated back to at least the 1860s when they were used for the construction of the railroad across the American Southwest, with that population’s release location being Maricopa Wells, Arizona. These feral camels received the nickname “red ghost” or “el diablo” for their aggression as documented by their tendency to stop children and animals to death even though camels are better known for being docile and gentle. This individual was later killed when caught grazing on a farmer’s tomatoes according to one newspaper account according to Smithsonian magazine. But other stories claim witnesses saw “red ghost” killed by a grizzly bear. And yet more stories about feral camel sightings and their eventual demise in the wild or at the hands of humans.

One day a curious and frightening animal with a blobbish head, long and curving neck, and shambling legs, moseyed around the garrison…. the animal was one of the old army camels.”

Douglas MacArthur, 1885 (age 5)

One documented sighting of a feral camel comes from the childhood stories of the famous General MacArthur who was only five at the time in 1885. The records at the National Zoo suggest that feral camels were known to roam Texas until at least the 1890s. You can even visit the gravesite of a late camel driver that died while out in the desert hunting for the loose animals in Arizona. Several more sightings persisted through the early 20th century, particularly in the desert of Southern California and around the Salton Sea. Up until the 1970s, there were individuals insistent that camels still roamed the deserts of the American Southwest.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

It’s not unreasonable to assume that feral camel populations still exist in the deserts of the North American continent, especially when considering the history of how the feral populations of camels in Australia became established. These are very durable animals that can withstand temperature extremes and internal body temperature fluctuations that could easily kill other mammals. There are even those that actively argue for the camel to make a comeback as an agricultural animal that needs to be re-established in the United States. And they aren’t alone – there are conservationists that agree. There are some that argue if feral populations do not currently exist they should perhaps be re-established as part of the efforts to revive the environment of the American Southwest that has been devastated by poor agricultural practices and specifically soil salinization. Arabian camels have a high salt tolerance in their diets and can help distribute salt that has been concentrated across a landscape. The biggest hurdle? Making the camels go feral in the first place.

But would the reintroduction of a related species be considered an invasive species? Would camels be considered an invasive species? Researchers have asked this too. Genetic evidence suggests that there may not be too big of a difference between the camels of today we could import and release versus the camels of tens of thousands of years ago. Vegetarian and omnivorous megafauna play a niche role in any ecosystem, especially one in which there used to, but no longer exist animals to take up that role. Some have suggested that camels could help fill that role in the United States.

Before we go out looking to bring more camels into the United States, we must first conduct a full survey of the population and determine how many individuals are here, whether or not they are feral versus domesticated, what diseases they are currently harboring, the state of their population genetics, and whether or not there exists a preexisting breeding population of feral camels that spans across the desert of Northern Mexico and the American Southwest. These individuals would likely be hybrids of the Arabian and Bactrian camels with primarily Arabian genetic lineage, with the potential for incorporating other individuals from other later import events, such as pie-bald breeding populations from Australia and Morocco. This could be done via aerial surveys, much like how there’s already aerial population monitoring of caribou and other megafauna in remote locations.

A current barrier to this is that the USDA currently regulated camels as exotic animals. The USDA’s regulations around exotic animals, and therefore all breeding, sales, and research are done under the same laws that govern all other exotic animals such as those kept in zoos. On the USDA’s website, in their FAQ on the subject, this is their response to the needs for owning an exotic “pet” for breeding, viewing, or research. These regulations prevent the USDA from regulating camels as livestock and this actually interferes with their ability to establish animal welfare standards. PETA helped shut down a camel ride operation this past August due to insufficient access to veterinary care for the animals used at the “park.” While I am someone that would normally point you toward numerous issues with PETA’s hypocrisy, in this case they are right. There is insufficient access to veterinary care for camels in the United States due to a lack of demand and lack of access to training and no regulation around what their health requirements are. The majority of workshops for veterinarians to attend to learn about treating camels are entirely funded by the private owners. If we were to implement a release program it would have to be done after major changes in regulation and improvements in wildlife veterinary medicine training included camels in the curriculum to ensure proper monitoring for their populations and health.

What are your thoughts? Should we reintroduce the camel to deal with soil salinization? Should we seek out potential feral camel populations? How much more research do we need?


Thank you for taking the time to read this article on feral camels in North America! What’s your opinion? There are no wrong answers here.

Things That Influence My Writing: Montana Cow Mutilations

Newspaper clipping from the Billings Gazette, October 10, 1975

**Content Warning: This post discusses the killing and mutilation of animals by unknown perpetrator(s) over the past 50+ years in the United States. As a non-beef eater myself, reader discretion is advised**

While the world is caught up with everything that is 2020 (do you have your apocalypse bingo card yet?) I’d like to visit an ongoing state and national news story that captured my attention when I first moved to Montana in 2013. In October, 2019, new developments arose. I think it’s time to share this news with readers for the purpose of distraction. So, I’ll compile some basic information here. While I have some thoughts on what the possible explanations could be, I will save those for the end.

Cow Mutilations

From the GIPHY keyboard

On October 2, 2019 the Billings Gazette reported a new report of 5 dead cattle being found in Salem, Oregon. While tragic, the random death of cattle in the Pacific Northwest would not turn heads under normal circumstances. These were not normal circumstances. Instead, this was the newest report in an ongoing series of documented cow mutilations throughout the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, with the majority of documented cases in Montana, dating back to the 1970s.

According to the original newspaper clipping from the Billings Gazette on October 10, 1975 (shown above) about 175 reports of mutilations were gathered from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho in addition to Montana at that time. At that time, given the cost of the equipment necessary to cause the types of mutilations and damages found, the issue stumped authorities, leading to the concern of a cult traveling throughout the country traveling “by helicopter”. Reasonably so, this was thought to be ridiculous.

There is a Wikipedia page on Cattle Mutilation as a general concept, but it is important to note that this page includes international and domestic horse, goat, and other unidentified livestock incidents. These non-bovine and international incidents have mutilation patterns not matching those specifically found in the mutilated cattle of the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. That said, they may still be worth discussing for contrasting purposes.

The Investigation

From the GIPHY keyboard

The common pattern with these mutilations is that the sex organs and tongues are removed with all blood drained from the corpse. An investigative report mentioned in a 2001 article in the New York Times mentioned that a group that researches these incidents, The National Institute for Discovery Science, did find one interesting variation in a case in Utah where there was a hole in the head of one of the cattle with both BHT and Formaldehyde present, indicating that an embalming/preservation process took place. This group is/was funded by Robert Bigelow – a man that became obsessed with aliens and the Skinwalker Ranch – a place so notorious even the History Channel has added it to their questionable line up.

As their website is now defunct and it is hard to find information on anything other than his alien focused ventures, I am not going to spend much time focusing on this aspect for now.

I used the Wayback Machine to look up their website and I have to admit it’s hard to take this seriously. Source: https://web.archive.org/web/20071009234743/http://www.nidsci.org/

Another common element between all of these cases? They remain unsolved. To give readers an idea of how extensive and compelling these reports are, there is an open case file with the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding the recurring ritualistic serial mutilation of cattle. At this time, the FBI only investigates mutilations that occur on tribal land and all have been closed unsolved according to the Billings Gazette.

Private and public reward monies for information regarding cattle mutilations continue to accumulate, including a $25,000 reward for the recent mutilation in Oregon.

My Interest And Thoughts On These Events

From the GIPHY keyboard

Shortly before moving to Montana, on March 1, 2013, a rancher found more mutilated cows approximately 5 miles outside of Browning. Given how current it was in the news, this provided the opportunity for me to learn more about these incidents and start compiling information on this truly bizarre fascination.

Spoiler Alert: I don’t think this has anything to do with aliens. While I do not dismiss the possibility of life in this universe more intelligent than humans, I don’t think it is coming to Earth and messing with our cows.

I have 7 years of research and thoughts on these events and there are a few options regarding what I can do with this information. The option currently in the lead:

  • Start An Investigative Podcast/YouTube Series With A Funny Name

I would present each individual documented event in chronological order, the information available that I’ve been able to gather, any additional leads people are able to provide, and similarities between the events that I’ve been able to observe. This would then include leads from listeners that have been followed up on in later episodes.

The reasoning behind presenting the same information in two formats is because I want to be inclusive of non-auditory individuals, and those needing closed captioning and/or lip reading to assist with auditory processing. For more information on auditory processing disorders you can visit that website or read the Wikipedia page here.

Possible Explanations

From the GIPHY keyboard – credit to Trey Parker and Matt Stone

The big rule here driving my investigation: It’s Not Aliens. The perpetrators could be many things, but the response of “aliens” has become the standard cop-out. There is a lot of additional evidence, even from those that do believe aliens visit earth, to suggest these mutilations are not being performed by aliens.

I mentioned before that I have thoughts on alternative explanations. I don’t think these cases are going to be a “one explanation fits all” kind of thing. These potential explanations include: insurance fraud, publicity, public diversion from other questionable activities, ritualistic or cult activity, and intimidation. That said, I absolutely expect that there are potential explanations that I have not yet thought of. Who knows – maybe I will be proven wrong and there are aliens. I have to be open to that possibility, no matter how skeptical I am and how little I think it makes sense.

TL;DR

If you are interested in this kind of investigative podcast about the unsolved mysterious cow mutilations that have been ongoing throughout the United States for at least the past 50 years, please like this post and/or comment your suggestion for title of the series, what excites you the most, or if you have any thoughts you would like to contribute. If you think a friend would like to listen to this podcast or would have anything to contribute, please share this.

I’m excited to have as much input as possible in this 100% bizarre side project, even if you disagree with me and want to tell me you think I’m wrong; even if you insist that it’s aliens.

If this gains enough interest (100 likes) I will launch the first episode of the podcast.

Until then, I will continue to focus my efforts on reviews, my book becoming available for pre-order later this summer, “A Hundred Different Skies”, and my short story collection coming out early next year.

As always, thank you for reading. Without you, this post would have been meaningless electrons sent out into the void.

February 2020: “Trillium” by Margaret Lindsay Holton

Trillium – By ML Holton

In The End There’s Wine

Edited to remove spoiler and shorten overall review with hindsight:
Three families through three centuries. One colonist family. Super heavy on the pro-colonialism and anti-indigenous slant. Two immigrant families. Anti-immigrant. 100% Canadian.

Book reads as clumsily very anti-Irish, anti-Italian, homophobic and anti-autistic (coming from the queer autistic descendant of working class 20th century north American immigrants). This comes across in cartoonish and caricature-like depictions of characters and their dialogue. I attempted to give the author direct feedback in private to seek advice from a sensitivity reader, though I think this may not have been communicated effectively at the time.

(I didn’t add this to the Amazon review, but I’d like to note) – I hate rating systems. I started using them based on technical writing errors only based on APA editorial standards. Like, I tried to come up with some objective way for making every book I wrote a review about 3-5 stars. Only best sellers got anything less than a 3. I was new and never intended to hurt anyone’s feelings with a rating. I was new to using tags and thought they were for my own analytics. This is not a bad book. It is quite the opposite. Nor is a 3/5 a bad rating.

Three stars because I do think it’s a story worth telling. I firmly believe none of the above was intended on the author’s part (until proven otherwise). If any professionally trained sensitivity readers would like to read this book and contact the author with recognition for the beauty of the amazing work of art inside the book and acceptance of the humanness that exists in all of us, please do. I believe in this book.

Want To Read More About The Author?
You can read my interview with Margaret Lindsay Holton here. You can purchase the book here. Follow the book on Twitter here.