Doug Baum, 42, adjusts his 1850s-style U.S. Army cap, turns to his Arabian camel Virgie and, speaking in French, orders the animal to “couche.”
At 7½ feet tall, Virgie kneels obligingly so that a group of fourth-graders from Grandfalls, Texas, can get a hands-on lesson about the forgotten role of camels in America’s Southwest deserts in the 19th century.
“The desert was so wide and dry that horses and mules suffered terribly when trying to cross it,” Baum tells the youngsters attending a living history event last spring at Fort Lancaster State Historic Site near Ozona, Texas (pop. 3,436).
“The Army decided in 1853 to try camels, known for their ability to travel long distances without water, to supply the isolated frontier forts,” he explains.
While the children listen, they caress the soft, wooly hair of 10-year-old Virgie and three other reclining camels, observe how the creatures close their slit-like nostrils to keep out blowing sand, and listen to their occasional rumbling grunts.
“Are they real?” asks one girl in her first encounter with a camel. “Come and see for yourself,” Baum says, inviting her to pet Irenie, an Australian-born camel.
Texas Camel Corps
A former zookeeper, Baum is a full-time camel guide and historian who cares for the nine animals in his Texas Camel Corps on his 30-acre farm in Valley Mills, Texas (pop. 1,123). Baum launched the business in 1995 to earn a living while educating others about the unique animals that he believes have gotten “a bad rap” in movies and cartoons.
“They are too often characterized as bad-tempered spitters, when actually they’re much like oversized dogs,” he says. “After all, they’ve been domesticated for over 4,500 years.”
Baum fell in love with camels during the early 1990s while researching the history of animals in his care at the Nashville Zoo in Tennessee. “I was surprised to learn about the U.S. Army’s experiments with camels in the mid-1850s to restock isolated frontier forts such as Fort Lancaster and patrol the lawless, waterless lands of the American West,” Baum says.
The parched land had ravaged the ranks of soldiers and their horses and mules earlier in the century, with animals dying of thirst during long treks between watering holes. In 1853, U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis asked Congress to import a shipload of camels from the Middle East and North Africa and, two years later, lawmakers appropriated $30,000 for a U.S. Camel Corps. The camels were flawless desert travelers but, despite their efficiency, the experiment was interrupted by new military priorities brought on by the Civil War. In 1866, the Army sold the camels to circuses, zoos and mining companies.
Baum and his camels re-create this brief and peculiar bit of history at historic forts, schools, state parks and other venues across the Southwest, carting the animals in a custom-built trailer with 8-foot ceilings. He also hosts occasional camel treks for a fee in the Big Bend region of Texas. Each Christmas season, his herd stays busy carrying “wise men to Bethlehem” in countless biblical re-enactments of the birth of Jesus Christ. The animals also enjoy occasional supportive roles in movies.
Baum trains his camels so that they are accustomed to frequent travel, large crowds and accepting riders. He raises the animals with the help of his wife, Trish, 41, and their three children, Vanessa, 17, Delany, 14, and Pecos, 10. All pitch in to feed each animal up to 40 pounds of Bermuda grass hay each day and groom the animals regularly with combs like those used to curry horses.
While the history behind camels in America inspired Baum to launch his Texas Camel Corps, the bond forged with his animals fosters the enterprise.
“Each of my camels is an individual,” says Baum, scratching 12-year-old Cinco behind her ear. “Sharing them with others and showing their true personalities is what I love most about my job.”