28 Feb 2020

Camel whisperer: Margie Bale

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 28 February 2020

Margie Bale is one of Australia's leading camel vets.

She is based out of Brisbane but travels all over the country doing everything from pregnancy testing and ultrasounds of pregnant camels, to castrating bulls, and performing post-mortems on camels using the array of power tools in the back of her car.

Camels were introduced to Australia in the 19th century as part of the construction of the Ghan railway between Adelaide, Alice Springs and Darwin.

Those animals were the beginning of the feral camel population - the world's largest - estimated upwards of one million.

Bale says she fell in love with camels for their intelligence, adaptability and incredible physiology.

The hump, contrary to popular myth, is not full of water, she says.

“No, it's not full of water, it's full of fat. And the idea of that fat is basically energy storage, fat storage, they can go for really long periods of time without access to good food and consistent water supply.

“So, the idea is to store the fat in the hump and that can see you through a tough season.”

They also have multi-hinged knees meaning there’s no safe space to stand, she says.

“Unlike cattle, where certainly with dairy cattle that I've mainly worked with before, you can sort of find a spot and escape a sideways kick. With camels, it's everywhere. It's in the front, it's to the side, it's to the back. And that's because of the anatomy of the way that the joints work.”

Camels are hardy creatures, she says, and are uniquely adapted to handle the most inhospitable of conditions.

“This is what I have found fascinating about the physiology of the camel, and all camelids, so it's not that they store water in any particular place in their body, it's that they can handle dehydration.

“A lot of other mammals, when they get dehydrated, it affects all the other internal organs. With camels, they've got specific red blood cells that can actually manage dehydration in a way that doesn't cause any other problems.”

While moody, camels are loveable creatures, Bale says.

“They can be quite grumpy. But when I say that, it really is just sort of all bark, but only a little bit of bite. They do make a lot of noise.”

And they spit too, she says.

“To even call it a spit is being really nice. It is actually gastric fluid so it's more of a regurgitation. And it stays with you that stuff let me tell you.

“If you've been hit in the morning, you're done for the day... it smells like chewing tobacco and for some reason sort of ferments even further once it's out of the camel.”

Their reproductive physiology is also, to say the least, unusual, Bale says. When it comes to the breeding season, it's the bull that's in charge.

"The male comes into season for perhaps five months of the year, depending on where they are in the world. And for the other months of the year, he's unable to reproduce.

“He goes into this particular behaviour called rut behaviour, and that's a sight to see. And then he will collect his group of ladies and spend the entire time making sure they're all happy.”

The male puts on quite a show to let the ladies know he’s in the mood for love, she says.

“This big male camel has got this black fluid dripping off of the back of his head. And then he puts out this sort of giant flesh balloon he blows out of his mouth as an out pouch of his soft palate... that's called a doula. That's the thing that really gets everybody going.”

The female is also adapted to minimise reproductive energy, she says.

“They don't ovulate each time they have a cycle. The only time that they do ovulate is at mating, so it's the ultimate in energy preservation.

“So, they're not wasting all those eggs only when they are actually physically mated by the male bull they will release an egg for the potential to get pregnant.

“They are the ultimate lesson in adaptation. You name a system in their body, and they have adapted that system to suit their environment to survive.”

She got interested in camels when she met a farmer who saw their potential as dairy animals.

“I got talking to him, I think he'd had a few rums at the time, but we struck up a friendship and I said, you know, I've done some work on camels and I think he was amazed and it started from there and then I ended up just doing it full time because I just thought these are such fascinating creatures. I want to develop more of an understanding about how I can help them as a vet.”

His camel dairy is doing very well, she says, and other farmers are beginning to see the potential in these resilient animals.

“It's a fascinating product to work with, camel milk, because the way they produce the milk on a cellular level is actually different to the way a cow will produce a molecule of milk. And because of that difference, the properties of the milk are actually different as well.

“It's low in lactose and a little bit higher in protein.”

The other fascinating thing about the camel milk industry is that they have to keep the calves with them, she says

“The female camel, again as an adaptation for survival, will only produce milk with her calf in sight and the calves around her.

“If you take the calf away, they tend to really shut up their lactation, you know, fairly immediately.”

Once acclimatised, camels take to dairying with few problems, she says.

“Because they are a roaming animal what we tend to do, and this is a really interesting facet of the camel’s biology, is that you actually get better results in your milk yield and milk production if the camels are allowed to walk every day for at least at least 90 minutes.

“We've factored that into our dairy model, the fact that our camels can go out and walk, they can follow each other in a line, they get the outside stimulation and behavioural stimulation that they need.”

The dairy camels are from feral populations that have been mustered, she says.

“You'll get the most out of a camel, if you can keep it’s camelness and that means walking, being in a group walking in a line. And literally after a very small induction process, these animals will, as long as they're all together, they'll walk into the dairy, the cups will get put on - all that's done manually. There's no robotic dairies yet, certainly in Australia for camels.”

Feral camels are seen as pests and are culled in large numbers, but she says that’s counter intuitive.

“From my perspective as a vet, I see these animals absolutely thriving in these really harsh, you know, marginal areas of Australia.

“They're thriving and that's due to the adaptation and the adaptation to those areas. So I would like to see some work done into trying to develop another type of industry or extending the industries that we have to try and manage these camels a little better.”

Nevertheless, these animals can be a challenge from a veterinary perspective, as she discovered when she was called out to see a bull that was being aggressive in Alice Springs.

“He was causing some issues, so they asked me to come out and castrate him.”

She flew out to Alice and when she met the bull was amazed at his size.

“I felt like an ant next to this bull camel. I was standing on the ground and then my eyes rolled upwards and it kept going and going and going - the animal was just about nine foot.”

She was presented with a problem of how to anaesthetise the camel which weighed close to a tonne.

“I'd like to say I did it incredibly professionally, but basically I did a running jump at this camel flipped off a little crate and managed to get the anaesthetic into him.”

Once she had him on the ground she realised he was missing a testicle.

“He only had one descended testicle which meant the other one was in there somewhere. And I had to go and find it.

“I don't know if you've seen the movie The Search for the Lost Testicle but I ended up being the main player.”

She had to search for it in his abdomen and for that he needed to be on his back.

“So, I hooked all the ropes up to its legs, a thousand kilo animal now from its side onto its back, and just as we're about to get there, I remembered the hump. What was I going to do with the hump?”

A little bit of bush vet initiative came to the rescue, she says, and she asked the farmer for a shovel.

“I took it off the front of the ute and then I had to dig a hole for the hump.

“And then we pulled this camel closer and closer and closer to the on-the-back position and then it just plopped into the hole perfectly. It literally just went plop and then I had this beautiful flat camel and was able to go search for the for the lost testicle.”

She found it... eventually.

“A lot of things feel like a testicle in there. So, I'd often pull something out and then look … nah that's not a testicle and then I'd put that back in. And then anyway, long story short, he ended up testicle free at the end of the day.”

She, however, was bloodied and exhausted.

“He didn't feel a thing - I needed therapy afterwards.”