I also had to go in to the enclosure with the Bactrian camels in order to separate out the one we needed to work with. I wasn’t comfortable with this at all, but had little choice in the matter. Once again there were three of us that went in together. Vusi and Bheki had worked with these animals for many years and knew what to watch out for. I decided to keep them between me and the animals, and call out instructions on what to do. In this instance we were trying to get certain of the camels to accept a head halter.
As is normal at a zoo, there are always visitors spending their free time enjoying the sights and unusual animals. Or should that be animals and unusual sights? What happened was this……
Vusi and Bheki were closing in on our selected camel (with me neatly tucked in behind) and trying to entice her to accept the head halter. A party of school children wandered down the road, and the teachers decided that the situation looked decidedly promising, instructed the children to stop outside the enclosure to watch our performance. Now these camels were separated from the public with a split pole fence. There were eleven camels in the enclosure. Our session was going very well, with Bheki having persuaded our camel to have the halter placed on her head (which she had to lower to man height) and being duly rewarded (clicked and treated) by Vusi. Training any large animal is generally a team effort. I was right there with them – well OK – behind them, when one of the male camels decided he didn’t like us on his turf. So he spat and charged. (Ever seen a camel spit? It’s disgusting. Very frothy and bright green. And it stinks.) There was no choice for us – we had to run for it.
As Vusi and Bheki are both considerably younger and fitter than I, they soon outdistanced me (afterwards they told me that they knew I preferred to be behind them, so considerately moved in front of me during our flight). They reached the split pole fence and with skill born of long practice, dived between the slats and landed up back on their feet amongst the children. I took note of their technique as with a final burst of speed I made it to the fence. With gay abandon I hurled myself between the slats (there’s nothing like being chased by a camel to give you a bit of speed). Unfortunately I hadn’t thought to practise this exercise. My top half shot through the gap, my middle connected with the horizontal bar and my legs cannoned out underneath the slat. I ended up in a crumpled heap on top of half a dozen amazed children. The teachers very kindly gathered their charges and moved them off to see the cheetahs – their giggles changing to roars of laughter as they moved down the road. I do hope they remember some of the animals they were taken to look at that day, and not just the sight of me trying to bisect myself on a split pole fence.