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.
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?
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.
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.