Getting over the hump

How did a nice Jewish boy get to be a renowned camel doctor working with the Beduin community?

Michael Straten 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Van Straten)
Michael Straten 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Van Straten)
The Negev, without camels? "Unthinkable," says Dr. Michael Van Straten, a veterinarian who specializes in treating the country's camels. It's hard to disagree - the Negev without camels wouldn't be the same. Yet today, the number of dromedaries is dropping sharply, something that seriously concerns Van Straten. "In the early 1900s there were 20,000 camels in Israel. Now there's something between 2,500 and 3,000. That's serious." Why is it happening? Several factors are responsible, Van Straten says. "Some of it is due to smuggling, which ends a camel's life if it's intercepted," he notes. "Then there are economic reasons. Today, Beduin keep camels either for the milk or just for traditional reasons. They aren't used much for hauling anymore, so camels aren't an economic necessity. Another problem is Israel's regulatory policy. Camels aren't classified as grazing animals in Israel, which means that their Beduin owners must feed them, rather than letting them forage in the desert. Camels who don't graze often develop a variety of health problems, some of which affect fertility, or cause problems in calving." For Van Straten - born here 45 years ago to a Dutch father and a French-born mother - being regarded as the country's camel expert is something of an anomaly. About 95 percent of camels are owned by Beduin, so how did a Jewish guy become a camel expert? "I always had pets as a kid, I liked biology, I like doing things with my hands, so I pretty much always wanted to be a veterinarian. While I was in veterinary school, I had a good friend who had a farm, so I'd spend vacations working with him. I liked treating large animals, so then I worked as a guide on a camel farm. Both the camels and their Beduin owners interested me. If I could, I'd treat camels only, but there just aren't enough of them. So I also work with dairy herds, which gives me the best of both worlds. I love the contrast, working part time with Israel's ultra-modern and computerized dairy operations, and the other half with camels and their Beduin owners." A significant part of treating camels was mastering the cultural issues required to work with the Beduin. To most of them, Van Straten is just "Michael," a professional they treat with great respect. "When I began working with the Beduin, I had the feeling they came to me because there wasn't anyone else. But they gave me a chance, and that was good. One thing about the Beduin: You don't need to advertise - the word just spreads. Two days after I'd treated my first camel, they'd all heard a new young doctor was around - then they did my advertising themselves. If you're good, the word spreads fast. "Of course the same is true if you're bad. Sometimes they look at me in a strange way - my treatment methods are different than what they're used to, so there's a period of adjustment. Now I tell them in advance, I don't practice their traditional medicine, which involves treatments I believe are both dangerous and unlikely to work. But I try not to sound arrogant, explaining that I'm doing what I was taught at school. When they see that my methods work, they're pleased." Nor does Van Straten's Jewishness matter. "They think it's amusing, that a Jewish guy knows so much about camels. We respect each other. I've picked up enough Arabic to get around, but most of the men speak Hebrew. The only time I need Arabic is when I talk with one of the women. That's not too often, because usually Beduin women stay outside the picture. It's a cultural thing. If a Beduin man visits another Beduin, he'll sit in a particular area of the tent, with his back to the women, so there's no contact. "But when I come, I'm different - I have a unique status. Because women are often the ones who work with camels, milking and feeding them, occasionally I do need to talk to them. And besides, I'm a curious guy, and I enjoy the interaction. By this time, I've been around long enough so the men are accustomed to my speaking to their women. Many grant me the ultimate honor: A Beduin will call me, say he's at work, but tells me I should go right to his home. 'My wife's home,' he'll add, which means they know me, they trust me. I like that." The Beduin love their camels, Van Straten says. "Lots of time, a Beduin will say, 'Doctor, you have to save this camel! I love it more than I love my kids!'" He laughs, "That's maybe an overstatement, but still, for the Beduin, a camel is much more than just a pet. It's a symbol of their tradition that's important in many ways. If someone comes visiting riding on a horse or donkey, he'll be treated differently than if he arrives riding a camel. It's cultural, and goes back into antiquity. Beyond that, camels are valuable - a good milking female might be worth NIS 12,000 or more. So keeping them healthy is important." So why are the numbers declining? "Smuggling is an issue," Van Straten says. "It's not just drugs - sometimes it's bizarre things, like processed cheese. There used to be a kind of cheese that carried a high tax, so they'd smuggle it over from Sinai. Right now cigarettes are the hot item, and to a lesser extent, drugs and weapons. They herd the camels across the border, put the contraband in saddlebags, and let the camels go - they'll generally wander back across the border to their owners. But if the army discovers them and captures the camels, they kill them. The army refuses to set the camels free, because it would reward the smugglers, give them a prize. They'd get the camels back, and do it again. "Then too, the army is concerned that the camels will carry back diseases from Egypt, so for them, the easiest solution is to just kill the camels. That's unnecessary, and we're working on a solution. The disease problem could be solved with a short quarantine period - a few weeks. But of course that takes money, for feed and care. Even so, we're working with army vets, to see if something can be done." The no-grazing problem is another factor. "The Ministry of Agriculture doesn't recognize camels as grazing animals, as distinguished from sheep, goats and cows. Why? Probably because they don't want the Beduin to claim more land for grazing. A few Beduin have grazing permits, but it's rare. Could the government reverse that decision? Of course. But it's complicated. "Camels are good grazers. They're not like goats, who eat anything, even to the point of rendering some plants extinct. Camels are browsers, they prefer shrubs and trees up to three meters high. So realistically, if you had an area big enough to graze 100 sheep, you could add camels to that, without impacting the grazing density at all. Camels are nature's tree-trimmers. They trim, they don't destroy." Not having the ability to graze endangers a camel's health. "That's one thing I keep stressing, something I want the Beduin to understand: Camels need many different plants for good nutrition - ideally as many as 500 different plants and shrubs. But when camels are just fed, they receive only hay. That causes lots of nutritional problems, which leads to other health problems. It's a contrast I see all the time between the cows and camels. The cow's nutrition is computer-designed and planned. But camels sometimes die of vitamin deficiencies." To help, Van Straten turned inventor. "I formulated a cheap vitamin supplement I'm trying to convince the Beduin to use. If they have a sick animal, it's easy to convince them, but getting them to use it all the time is the issue. I'm not trying to make money - it's cheap, and a good way to keep camels healthy. The compound includes vitamins A, B and E, plus zinc, selenium and copper. I didn't add iron, because in Israel's hay, there's plenty of iron. It's easy to use, comes in powder form, they can just put it in the water. All the camel farms are using it now, and slowing, I'm working on the Beduin." Confining a camel is also bad. "Many Beduin keep a camel or two for milk, keeping them tied behind the house. That's not good, for reasons beyond just nutrition. Camels who don't get enough exercise have problems giving birth. Treating fertility issues is a big part of my practice - females need exercise to help them in calving, but beyond that, studies show that female camels need to smell, hear, and see male camels to be healthy. If they're kept away, isolated behind the house, their health suffers. Mating isn't an issue - male camels are in rut from the middle of October to end of March. Females are fertile all year round, if they have food and water. In Israel, because our summers are so hot, most camels aren't fertile in the summer." CALVING ISSUES are prime. "The gestation period for a camel is somewhere between 370 and 390 days. Beduin breed their camels every two years, because the owners want the milk. But after a cow gives birth, she won't let her milk down if the calf isn't nearby. So the owner and the calf have to share the milk - maybe the camel calf gets two teats and the owner gets the other two." A camel at birth weighs 34-35 kilos, and most can stand within an hour. "Most camels don't plan on needing my help in giving birth," Van Straten laughs. "But still, in Israel, we have more birthing problems than other parts of the world where camels graze. I have lots of camel midwifing experience, some of it extreme. One natural problem is the camel's basic body structure. Compare a camel to a cow: Cows have short limbs and a short neck. So even if fetus is tied in a knot, usually a vet can manipulate the fetus and straighten things out. "But camels have a long neck and very long limbs, so it's tough to realign the fetus without tearing the uterus. If I'm called and calf is in a bad position, I have two choices. If the calf is dead, I can cut it with special instruments, and take it out in pieces, which I have to do to avoid hurting the mother, because the mother is more valuable than the calf. If the baby is alive, I can try a reposition, so first I have to get the camel standing, to give me more room. Then I use an epidural and other medication to slacken the uterus. If that doesn't work, then I do a C-section, which is usually successful. Usually the mother can get pregnant again, and deliver naturally." Camels get themselves into other trouble, too. "One camel wandered into an army firing zone and was shot by mistake. The bullet hit a tooth, then came out the front part of the jaw. I anesthetized him, spent three hours extracting teeth and reconstructing his jaw. He came out just fine. Sometimes camels eat things they shouldn't - anything from ropes to plastic bags, or a piece of wire from the hay bale. Camels are more cautious eaters than cows are, but it still happens. There are other diseases, too, including parasites. We watch those pretty closely." Camels versus cars is another issue. "Camels wandering into a roadway is a huge problem, and the reason some people actually want camels to disappear. When a car hits a camel, it's usually fatal for both - the camel dies, but because a camel's legs are so long, when the car hits, the bulk of the camel's massive body goes through the windshield, killing the people, too. Since 1968, camels are required to bear ownership markings on their ears. Now some suggest that they be marked with a reflective paint, so you can see them at night. A camel's natural coloring is perfect camouflage." Are camels dangerous? "Females are usually sweet-tempered, like horses. But males, during rutting season, can be very dangerous. They bite, kick and squash, and are aggressive, because there's a hierarchy within the herd, one male with several females. Crushing is a part of fighting. Camels have an area of callus on their sternum, where the underside of the body makes contact with the ground. They use that pad to crush opponents. But teeth are dangerous, too. On the upper jaw, camels have canine teeth, almost like fangs. And camels are enormously strong - they can pull a ton or even more. "So you have to be careful. I had one farm where a camel got free, and started to fight with another camel. The owner came out, tried to break up the fight, but as he approached, one of the camels - whose head was about three meters high - picked the guy up by the shoulder, and threw him on the ground, over and over. The man was hospitalized for a long time. Another time, a man tied his camel to the ground, but then made the mistake of turning his back. The camel reached him, picked him up by the ankle, and just threw him - working with camels means always respecting their strength." Just knowing how to handle camels is critical. "Camel handling is 60% of my work. If I didn't know how to handle the animal, then all the medical knowledge in the world wouldn't help. During most of my examination, the camel has to be standing, but most sick camels prefer to kneel. I had to learn how to make the camel stand or kneel, without getting kicked. The Beduin speak Arabic to them, give verbal commands, but they respond more to tone than actual words. To make a camel sit, a Beduin tugs on the head rope, makes a kind of throaty sound, and maybe just tap - not hit - their front leg. If you want them to stand, the command is more of a 'ch ch ch ch.' Learning it is entirely experience." Not all camels are equally valuable. "A camel lives about 30 years, and while there aren't any formal breeds, some camels give much more milk than others. Among the Beduin, the older people in the family know their camels five generations back. They keep the good milkers separate, because they're worth more money. How much milk does a camel give? With good feeding, a daily production of 12 kilos is common." Could popularizing camel milk help save the endangered camel? "Camel milk is tasty, much like cow milk. It's drunk fresh, not processed into cheese, and it's very healthful. It has a high vitamin C content and short-chain fats, so it's easier to digest, especially for people with liver problems. Camel milk has a lot of attractive features." There are no wild camels in Israel anymore, Van Straten notes with a sigh. "Today, someone owns every camel. At least we know where to start, in terms of helping rebuild the numbers."