Destination: Smithsonian

Taking a short “Smithsonian Journey” through the museum’s amazing collection

The Postal Museum
The Postal Museum Wikimedia Commons

The Postal Museum

Did you know camels were used in the 1850s to deliver mail in the American Southwest?
We know that camels were used as beasts of burden in Australia, and even in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. However, as shown in this drawing, camels also were members of the U.S. Army's Camel Corps in the 1850s. Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, started the program, using camels to deliver mail, along with supplies, in the American Southwest. The carrier service was short lived though; the camels were too cantankerous, and the rocky terrain injured their feet. Relieved of their duties, the surviving postal worker camels were soon sent to zoos. Reindeer were used to deliver mail in the North, with slightly better results.

National Museum of African Art

Ever seen how the Tuareg people of Eastern Africa saddled up their camels?
This particular camel saddle, made of wood, leather and metal, was used recently in the late 20th century, by the Tuareg of Niger. The word for saddle is térik, and these saddles are placed in front of the camel's hump on two to four saddlecloths, while the rider sits cross-legged with his feet on the camel's neck. This saddle, with its forked saddle horn and detailed leather decorations, is called a tamzak saddle. Most are made in Agadez, Niger, by blacksmiths. Wood is lashed together with rawhide and covered with colored leather and metal ornaments.

This modern light-colored camel bell is most likely from Somalia. It is made of wood and plant fiber and is a gift of Mrs. Duncan Emerick.

The darker bell, also made of wood and fiber, came from Ethiopia. Large wooden camel bells in the museum's collections are attributed to pastoralists in Somalia, Ethiopia and northern Kenya. Not just an economic necessity to these peoples, the camel is also a symbol of a nomadic way of life. In Somalia especially, camels—kept as milk animals or as beasts of burden#151;are the subject of extensive poetry. Although the bells' lack of embellishment suggests a practical purpose, the bells also seem to hold a sentimental value. One anonymous poem uses the phrase "...Like a she-male with a large bell."

Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Conrad Gessner's Historia Animalium from the 15th century tempered the often mythical and inaccurate statements about the Asian beasts and illustrated a bactrian rather accurately.
In the 15th century, an artist named Erhard Reuwich accompanied author Bernhard von Breydenbach on a journey from Germany to Jerusalem so that he could illustrate Breydenbach's book, Peregrinatio in Terram Sactam. Most of Reuwich's illustrations are panoramas of the cities they passed through, but there is also this almost whimsical hand-colored woodcut that features the exotic animals they encountered at their destination, such as crocodiles, giraffes, salamanders and a camel. A unicorn is included as well, and according to the plate's caption, "These animals are accurately drawn as we saw them in the holy land." Whether Reuwich actually saw a unicorn is questionable, as you can imagine. But it is likely that he did see the camel that is drawn most realistically here, equipped with saddle and bridle.

Pictured here is a woodcut of an Asian, or Bactrian, camel that was included in Conrad Gessner's Historia Animaliam, which he compiled in the mid-16th century. Gessner gathered information from a variety of sources: ancient and medieval books, folklore, and the often mythical and inaccurate reports of travelers, which Gessner tempered with his own direct observations whenever possible. In his book, Gessner also included a woodcut of the single-humped arabian, or dromedary, camel.

Le Dromadaire is a beautifully engraved illustration of a single-humped Arabian camel found in a book about the french royal (later national) natural-history collection, Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière, put together by George Louis Leclerc, the count of Buffon, in the latter half of the 1700s. Buffon served as the head of the collections, and his book included hundreds of such engravings.

Le Chameau portrays the double-humped Bactrian camel. Although Buffon's text notes that the Bactrian camel is native to Turkey and what is now Uzbekistan, the artist has placed it in Egypt. It is shown with one of its humps temporarily depleted and drooping, an indication that the camel's reserves are used up.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Artists like Louis Comfort Tiffany and Elijah Pierce included the camel in their painted works.
Here, camels carry the three wise men to the baby Jesus in this wood carving by self-taught artist Elijah Pierce (1892-1984). Pierce's imaginative use of oils, paper and glitter on carved wood expresses clearly the long shadows of night, the men's exhaustion from the long and tiring journey, and the dazzling light of the distant star. Pierce, a Southern African-American artist and preacher, is best known for his carved wooden panels inspired by Bible stories and fables.

Camels, loaded down with people and possessions, sit and stand placidly among the dusty crowds of a Tangier marketplace in an 1873 painting by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). No different from any other curious bohemian of his day, Tiffany traveled widely to exotic places and was greatly attracted to the colors and customs of the Orient, especially Morocco. The painting's lush details foreshadow the young artist's future fame for his opulent interiors, Art-Nouveau glass pieces and decorative objects.

National Museum of American History

Where else would you climb aboard a camel in the United States—but on a children's carousel ride?
Children have been climbing aboard delightful carousel animals since carousels, or merry-go-rounds, were first made in America in the late 1860s. Hand-carved from basswood in the 1880s by leading carousel maker Charles Dare in his New York Carousel Manufacturing Company, this camel is an "outside stander," unlike the jumping animals in the inner rings that move up and down. The camel's modest lines and simple detail are an excellent example of Dare's popular Country Fair style.

Camels are one of the most desired figures collected by carousel enthusiasts, along with pigs, lions and dogs.

The camel is part of the large collection of carousel animals, shop figures and weather vanes in the Eleanor and Mable Van Alstyne Collection of American Folk Art in the Division of Cultural History at NMAH, and was acquired in the 1960s.

National Air and Space Museum

Ever wonder how the Sopwith Camel got its name?
One of the most successful planes used by the British in World War I, the low-flying Camel got its name from the famous hump on its fuselage, which contributed to its round-shouldered appearance, accentuated by the fairing ahead of the plane's cockpit. However, it was so difficult to fly, that more men lost their lives learning how to fly it than in actual aerial combat. Rolled out in 1916 by the Sopwith Company, the Camel was the first British aeromachine of its class to have two Vickers guns attached as standard flight equipment.

Smithsonian National Zoo

Come visit Sake and Camille, a pair of camels who've been delighting zoogoers for years. Meet Brenda Morgan, their keeper.
I'll never forget the first time I ever laid eyes on Bactrian camels. The animals were exotic and immense, dark brown and shaggy, and loaded with an absurd amount of baggage. It was 1971, and I was with my father who was on a Peace Corps assignment in Afghanistan. There, in that austere landscape with the mountains of the Hindu Kush in the distance, these towering two-humped creatures were serving their keepers as they had since before the time of Marco Polo.

I didn't know then that I would one day count among my closest friends a pair of Bactrians, named Sake, a male, and Camille, a female. Both are 14 years old and were born at North American zoos. I have worked with Sake and Camille for about ten years, and during that time I have come to know them and they to know me. The camels can pick me, and a few of their other keepers, out of a crowd of hundreds of Sunday afternoon visitors. My fellow keeper, Ann Armstrong, taught Sake to come up to the fence and open his mouth so that we could show visitors his teeth. Camels have canines, which you would not expect in an herbivore. They are ruminants and will chew their cud like a cow. They produce copious amounts of saliva, but I have only once heard of our animals spitting on a person. It was a veterinarian whom Sake was not fond of having around, and he let him know about it.

For some reason Sake has this thing for pigeons. He doesn't hurt them, but when he has the chance, he gently corrals a pigeon in his stall, holds it down with his lips and then gives it a big sloppy lick, coating the poor bird with a load of sticky camel saliva. I like pigeons, so I rescue the slimy birds, too gooey to fly. I wash them in the sink, put them in a box to dry, then turn them loose. As far as I can tell this is just something weird Sake likes to do.

We camel keepers avoid going into the enclosure with the animals. Perhaps it is the way she was managed as a youngster, but Camille chases people from her enclosure, and trust me, it's best to avoid a chance encounter with 1,800 pounds of determined camel. Several years ago we had a tremendous ice storm that caused problems all around the region. More than an inch of glossy ice blanketed the entire Zoo. Cold weather is no problem for fur-insulated camels, but the slippery footing was another matter. Camille had gotten stuck at the bottom of the hill in the camel yard. Sake had managed to get up the ice-covered slope by turning and walking up back-end-first, a neat trick. But Camille would slip and fall whenever she tried to negotiate the slope. We were terrified that Camille would injure herself.

Desperate for some way to help Camille, I found an old pair of cleated golf shoes in a locker. With these spikes I slowly worked my way down the ice-covered hill, all the while feeling a bit apprehensive of what the territorial female camel might try to do. While keeping a watchful eye on the nervous Camille, I was able to surround her with hay that she could eat and use for bedding. The hay seemed to settle her down. As darkness approached, I looked around for something to lay down to improve traction on the ice. My eyes fell on a 40-gallon garbage can of camel dung. As a keeper I never thought I'd see the day when I would shovel manure back into an exhibit, but I did. The following morning Camille was able to get back up the hill and into the stalls, where she and Sake stayed until the ice melted.

To say Sake loves to eat would be an understatement. One look at that rotund belly of his rubbing both sides of a 40-inch doorway is proof this animal is motivated by food. When the commissary delivers bales of hay to the back gate of the exhibit, I move them by wheelbarrow to storage inside the camel barn. Sake's favorite is alfalfa hay, grown at the Zoo's Conservation Center near Front Royal, Virginia; and if a passing wheelbarrow stacked with alfalfa hay happens to catch Sake's attention, he'll snatch the 60-pound bale in his teeth as effortlessly as picking up a grape. In addition to the alfalfa, we feed grass hay, a pellet mix of grains, roughage and supplements; we give them tree limb browse, carrots and apples too. Sake eats lots of alfalfa, so he gets fewer pellets than Camille does, but Camille is reluctant to eat apples. I think it's because we used to hide wormer in apples, and she quickly figured out that we were messing with her food. Both animals love to eat fallen tree leaves, even dried brown ones. They relish these crunchy leaves like they were potato chips, and it certainly makes for less leaf raking inside the exhibit.

Our camels are oblivious to Washington's weather. They sleep outside on the coldest nights, and their remarkable coats insulate them from winter's chill. When I arrive on winter mornings, I sometimes find the pair asleep in their outdoor yard, having spent the night under the stars—the tops of their humps and the hair on the tops of their heads white with frost. They are so well insulated that the snow or ice will not melt on their backs. When they shed their coats in the spring, the tangled hair falls off in mats. Visitors have seen this tangled pile of hair on the ground in the camel yard and then chased down a keeper to report a dead animal in the exhibit. When you handle this soft hair, you have an immediate sensation of warmth. Its superb insulating ability prevents the loss of heat from your hands, and its effectiveness is instantly apparent.

After the camels shed in preparation for summer, tiny flies can drive a ton of camel indoors—even on a beautiful sunny day. When the flies are bad, the camels like to spend their time inside their darkened stalls, where fewer of the biting insects will pursue them. Of the two, Camille seems to be more susceptible to flies, which will often bite her forelegs until she bleeds. We use a citronella spray as a repellent. When these flies are feeding, I can sympathize with Camille, since they'll also bite a keeper in short pants. This past summer, late in the season, we experimented with releasing ant-size wasps that parasitize fly eggs. With the help of these wasps, both Camille and I had fewer fly bites on our legs, and next year we hope to get an early start with this biological method of fly control.

We will likely never have reproduction in our pair of camels. Camille has some medical problems that make breeding her unadvisable. She favors one leg, and as she has gotten older she has become a bit unsteady. Sake has always gotten around a little better. Perhaps nothing is more unusual to see, though, than a male camel in rut. Sake comes into rut in midwinter, and it's easy to tell by the odor. I don't know if the urine becomes stronger smelling or if there is simply more of it to smell. When in rut, Sake squats slightly, holding his moplike tail between his legs urinating on it until it is saturated. Next, he whips his tail up over his haunches, slapping it on his back with a smack, and droplets of pungent urine fly in all directions. His long hair gets soaked, and he seems to be acting supremely self-assured, looking down on the people and camels around him like a crown prince walking into a palace ball. He's back to his typical chowhound self in about five weeks.

Camels are usually the C word found in many children's alphabet picture books, and there have been times at the Zoo when I've seen a 2-year-old excitedly point out and identify a camel for a parent laboring behind a stroller. I like to tell the kids that you can remember that a Bactrian camel has two rounded humps just like the letter B, for Bactrian. And the dromedary camel has one rounded hump, like the letter D, for dromedary.

To make way for the American Prairie exhibit, Sake and Camille were moved to a nice paddock near the Small Mammal House. Their care was shifted to the keepers at the Lion House, and sadly I and my fellow primate and panda keepers no longer have the pleasure of working with the camels. But they still pick me out of the crowd and watch my every move.

There's an artificial mountain at the back of the new camel yard. It in no way compares to the grandeur of the Hindu Kush. But, when I stand along the railing with a crowd of zoogoers, and Sake and Camille come and find me in the crowd, I feel like I share in a long history of generations of camel keepers like those I saw in Afghanistan.

Smithsonian National Zoo

It was around 2500 b.c. that people began to use camels as beasts of burden. Meet Melinda Zeder and learn more.
Pioneer settlers in Australia were not the first to use camels to cross vast wastelands. In fact, more than 4,000 years ago, people in two different parts of the Middle East began a partnership with these desert-adapted animals that reshaped the course of human history.

Around 2500 B.C., in the far eastern reaches of present-day Iran, people began using the two-humped Bactrian camel as a beast of burden to carry both themselves and their goods. At about the same time, tribal peoples of the Arabian Peninsula, who had hunted the native one-humped dromedaries for thousands of years, began to use these animals in similar ways. It is probably no coincidence that when archaeologists found evidence for camel domestication in these two distant places, they also found evidence of a flourishing trade network that linked the Indus Valley civilization with Mesopotamian city-states clustered along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of today's Iraq.

Some of the trade between these two powerful civilizations took a seaward route across the Indian Ocean. However, there were still large stretches of arid land that separated these two centers from Indian Ocean ports. There was also an overland route that linked these people, but it crossed the formidable salt deserts of the high Iranian plateau.

And this is where the camels came in. Camels are able to convert thorny desert shrubs and salty plants into highly nutritious food. They need little water for themselves, and they can carry large loads of people, goods and extra water. These abilities opened up barren lands that had once served as barriers to travel. Nomadic tribes that had previously eked out a modest living in these harsh areas now became major forces in both commerce and warfare throughout the Middle East.

Indeed, the rapid spread of Islam out of the Arabian Peninsula and across the large swath of territory from North Africa to Indonesia can be attributed at least in part to the use of these surefooted desert animals by early adherents of the teachings of Muhammad.

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