For camel ride at county fair, every day is 'Hump Day'
It was a surprise to Adam Myers.
“I thought it was going to be really uncomfortable and it would wobble around a lot.”
Like with most other rides Thursday evening, Samson earned a passing grade on this one.
“But it was pretty sturdy and not uncomfortable,” Myers decided.
“And it was very fuzzy.”
Samson’s coat, he meant.
Samson, a 6-year-old dromedary camel, had a nearly steady stream of excited and curious riders at the Indiana County Fair, where his handler, Wil Caton, led him around his pen on the hillside at the far end of the midway.
Each rider got two laps around the pen, and Caton paused at the end of the first lap of each ride to allow photo ops.
A half a dozen or more of Myers’ friends drew a bead on him with their smartphones, snapping off shots and murmuring something about uploads.
Myers, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania student from Horseheads, N.Y., talked about his camel ride while the rest of his friends ponied up their $5 and took their turns, too.
Would the camel be suitable for him for riding days and days across a North African desert? Sure, he said.
“They’re majestic creatures!” Myers said.
Most of Samson’s riders in the early evening were young children. They rode one or two at a time, a few accompanied by a parent.
Stephanie Whiteford, of Mahaffey, climbed off Samson after riding him with her nearly 2-year-old daughter Julietta.
“I didn’t know you sat right on the hump,” she said. “I thought we would sit at the bottom of it.”
Jasmine Wilson, 16, of Indiana, a daughter of Jerry and Jeannie Wilson, grinned after riding Samson and channeled a recent auto insurance TV commercial that features a camel.
“It’s hump day!” Jasmine said. “It was so much fun! It was my first time riding a camel. It was definitely different because I felt like it would be wobbly and bumpy, but I really enjoyed it.”
Many of the moms and dads stood back outside the riding pen shooting photos and videos, some paying an extra dollar to let their kids feed a carrot to Samson.
“It was bumpier than a horse,” said Aaliyah Anthony, 6, a daughter of Tiffany Anthony, of Punxsutawney. Aaliyah and her 4-year-old sister Ciara treated the camel to carrot treats after their ride.
“We have no age limits,” Caton said. “We’ve had riders as young as 15 months, and one 93-year-old, on her birthday.”
So college-age kids aren’t strangers.
Myers and his companions, about a dozen in all, said they are all were trombone players in the IUP marching band, making an event of their evening at the county fair.
“We’re bonding!” one of the female students said.
No one but a reporter took notes, and there were no quizzes, but there were lessons. Caton said the camel ride attraction is meant to be an educational feature.
“With our zoo and our ride, we’re trying to teach people that there’s a great big world out there,” Caton said.
Informational posters attached to the fence around the riding pen serve a lot of camel info. One dispels the most common myth, that their humps are filled with water.
“It’s all fat, which is 97 percent moisture and 3 percent protein, but it was an easier way to explain it,” Caton said.
The posters explain the differences between one-hump and two-hump camels, where they originated, and why their legs, eyes and feet look the way they do.
The camel ride attraction is based in Berryville, Va., and is connected with the Bar C Ranch baby animal petting zoo set up in the same section of the J.S. Mack Community Center fair grounds. There, visitors can enjoy the parakeet encounter — a chance to serve as a human perch inside a cage housing scores upon scores of hungry green birds.
The petting zoo has some huge turtles, porcupines, potbellied pigs and ferrets. There are donkeys, llamas, sheep and goats.
And there’s a 6-month-old camel named Gabriel, who is a companion to Samson and Eli, another grown-up camel that stood munching on hay in the riding pen while Samson pulled the work assignment Thursday.
“There have been camels here since before the Civil War,” Caton said. “Thank goodness for the U.S. government, that had the great idea to start the Camel Cavalry. Yes, the first camels that were brought to the U.S. were part of the U.S. Camel Corps.”
Caton credited the idea to government official Jefferson Davis, before he became a leader in the Confederacy during the American Civil War
But the Camel Cavalry was disbanded before the war began, Caton said. Soon the camels were just turned loose in the Mojave Desert.
But most were corralled again and raised on ranches and zoos. The last confirmed sighting of wild camels was in the 1950s, and now about 6,000 dromedaries live in the U.S., held in public zoos, by private owners and by commercial ventures such as Bar C Ranch.
So the camels at the Indiana County Fair are domestic rather than imported animals.
Eli, a 9-year-old dromedary, is a bit smaller than Samson but is about as big as he’s expected to get. Samson could grow a few more inches, and maybe gain 100 pounds before he stops growing, Caton said.
They reach maturity at 7 to 9 years of age and can live into their 50s in captivity.
Caton clarifies the myth that camels are like horses, an easy assumption, because people have been riding them for transportation for centuries.
“They’re more like a cow or a goat, because they’re ruminant,” Caton explained. “They chew their cud, and they have teeth in the bottom of their mouth and a grazing palate on top like cows.”
Camels love to eat greens, a lot of timothy or alfalfa, and just about anything that’s suitable for sheep to eat is good for them, Caton said.
Eli and Samson each get about six pounds of grain each day, up to 200 pounds of hay, up to 25 pounds of carrots (fed as treats by the public), and four to six pounds of animal crackers as rewards for working hard, Caton said.
Camels have no natural predators and their only enemy is the human, Caton explained.
“They don’t have any animal to fear. They don’t have a lot to worry about in their natural environment,” he said. “So we try to make ourselves, as humans, useful to them as nurturers, as a source of nourishment. That way, when we get to the stages in their training where we ask them to do something they may not be used to, they just rely on us.
“When they’re with us, everything’s all right. It’s a stepping-stone process, feeding them by bottle when they’re little, using them in the petting zoo for a couple of years when they’re small and cute. And we show them everything there is to see before we ever ask them to work.”
Caton said the camels’ environment is as controlled as possible. In all their travels, ranging from Massachusetts to Florida, seven months a year, the pen always looks the same. The ropes, fence, light stands, their food tent and the ride stand are in the same position at every fair or festival where they set up.
“No matter where we are, they are home,” Caton said. “The one thing that I can provide for them in an inconstant environment is the constant of their own personal surroundings.”
Next, they’re off to Virginia, and soon the camels will be on their five-month winter break, except for some minor working assignments in December.
“We do some living Nativities,” Caton said. “They don’t give rides, they only stand in the scenery.”
In their home this week at the Indiana County Fair, Samson and Eli are giving rides from 2 to 10 p.m. today and noon to 10 p.m. Saturday.