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camel

3 may 2011

Robert Irwin's Camel is the funniest of the Reaktion Animal books I've read so far. The series as a whole features considerable humor, but usually balances it with concerns over endangered species or tensions over how human cultures deploy animal imagery. The camel turns out not to offer all that many worries or faultlines. Camels are silly beasts, and they probably find us silly. The two species (camel and human) exist in a grumbling symbiosis, rather like a contentedly unhappy marriage.

Not all camels are unendangered. Wild bactrian camels (the two-hump variety) are nearly gone from central Asia. Domesticated stocks of bactrians are healthy enough, but like nearly every large wild animal, the wild bactrian faces habitat encroachment, even in the wilds of Mongolia. Meanwhile, the dromedary (or one-hump) camel hasn't existed as a truly wild animal for many centuries. The dromedaries of Africa, the Middle East, and India are domesticated animals, inextricable from their contexts in human culture. And lest you worry that camel stocks will dwindle as the beasts are replaced by machinery, consider this:

The feral camel population of Australia us actually expanding at an alarming rate and they are probably in less danger of extinction than the human race. (67)
So without extinction worries, we are free in Camel to concentrate on the creature itself and its cultural manifestations. Camels can be considered beautiful or useful; they are more often considered stubborn, comical, perverse. To ride them is to adapt one's self to something humans really shouldn't be doing: a provisional accommodation of two mammals to desert conditions that would kill almost any other mammal species. Riding across the desert on a camel loaded a straw's weight away from backbreaking is something that may initially have seemed like a good idea, but is by now a rather irritating joke.

To top it off, camels look like cartoon creatures – sometimes lovable, sometimes underground-comic-like; always with an undertone of cigarettes and spittle. No wonder Irwin indulges himself in bald, even raunchy humor. His scholarship is presented in equally wiseacre fashion:

It is unfortunate that the only study of the camel in literature is B. Baast's Gangan ulaan temee (Ulan Bator, 1975). Since this book is in Mongolian, I have no idea what it says. Turning to Japan . . . (101)
Reading a lot about animals is an oddly melancholy undertaking. Children delight in animals, and they are supposed to lower the blood pressure and lift the mood of adults. But they are disappearing and suffering at a rate that can't help but make you sad. It's all the more refreshing when a writer is able innocently to take joy in the attributes of a flourishing animal.

Irwin, Robert. Camel. London: Reaktion, 2010.

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