OKLAHOMA CITY — Charlie stood in the pen with his nose up, raising his nostrils higher as people approached.
Children and a red heeler cow dog named Mollie circled him, kids grabbed his fuzzy wool and touched his nose. He didn’t move or twitch, just slowly swiveled his head on his long, protruding neck.
From the ground to the tip of his hump, Charlie the camel, owned by Pat and Don Bodkin, is about 7 feet tall and about 1,500 pounds. He slowly turned his head to sniff a half of a watermelon. He declined to take a bite, but he did stare down Mollie when she stuck her nose in it.
Charlie has one hump, and he is known as a dromedary camel. Some camels have two humps, called Bactrian. The Bactrians are more likely to spit at people, but Charlie is a gentle camel.
“I’m going to tell you like I told my kids,” Pat Bodkin said. “If it is one hump remember it looks like a letter D. So it is a dromedary. If it has two humps it is called a Bactrian camel. The two humps look like a B.”
Since 1988, the Bodkins have raised camels on their farm in northwest Oklahoma County. All of their camels have had names that start with a letter “C,” Pat Bodkin said. Today, Charlie, 10, is the only camel on the farm.
Don Bodkin said he became interested in ostriches in the 1980s and the couple started traveling to exotic animal sales around the region.
“I always bought something I didn’t know nothing about,” Don Bodkin said.
For Christmas 1988, the Bodkins had an idea for gifts. They found two 6-month-old camels in Missouri for $12,000 that had been imported from Australia. So they gave each other camels, one named Clyde and one named Camille. Once the camels were 3 years old, Clyde and Camille began to produce 10 more calves over the years, including Charlie.
Don Bodkin, 81, said camels are low maintenance and adapt well to Oklahoma.
“We turn him loose in the pasture and he eats everything the cows eat,” Don Bodkin said.
He pointed toward a tree on the horizon that was missing leaves. Charlie chews the leaves off of trees that grow sparsely across the acres of mixed grass prairie the Bodkins farm.
“In the winter time we put out a big round bale of hay and he eats that hay,” Don Bodkin said. “You can tell he’s missed a few meals,” he said, joking as he patted Charlie on his curved, plump side.
Camels from North Africa and central Asia were brought to North America as pack animals in past centuries. But they don’t survive in the wild if released.
Camels need a shed or barn to get out of the rain and snowy or icy weather, Pat Bodkin said.
In Noble County, Ralph Passow, 81, and Wynona Passow, 77, have 20 camels on Passow’s Farm, a full-scale camel-raising operation.
The couple, married 59 years, farmed hay on 1,200 acres for years. They raised goats, too, and in the late 1970s, Ralph decided he wanted a camel. But he couldn’t find one for sale at the time.
In the late 1990s, the Passows bought three camels in Missouri and then found 13 camel cows being sold from a ranch near Austin, Texas, because of a drought.
“When you get into doing something different, you are always taking a risk,” Wynona Passow said. “But camels have really paid off well from us.”
It is pretty tough to milk a camel, but the milk can fetch $100 a gallon and has been in demand in recent years for children or people with dairy milk sensitivities, she said.
Camels are good at controlling weeds, too. With camels, herbicides are not needed as much, Wynona Passow said.
Camels do not get out of fences as much as cattle, and they like to sit in the sunshine during hot or cold weather, she said. Camels do not like rainy weather or muddy ground because they may be more unsteady on their feet than a horse or bovine in the mud.
It can be hard to find a veterinarian who can care for camels, too, she said — most camels really don’t like veterinarians. Camels stress out easily, she said.
She said a male camel calf is worth $4,000 and a female about $6,500, and camels are raised to sell at her farm.
Wynona Passow said she spends a lot of time in the barn, often feeding a camel calf with a bottle.
“I try not to get too attached because you know you’re going to sell them,” she said.
In northeast Oklahoma, Joe Malchow, 46, has 20 camels in Mayes County near Adair. He offers camels for rides and for seasonal events. He said he has raised camels since the late 1990s in the state, but he does not know of an estimate of the camel population in Oklahoma.
Anyone who uses camels for a business must have a license with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but to own one does not require a license, he said.
Malchow said he was raised around camels in southeast Nebraska.
“I guess I’m a glutton for punishment,” he said, laughing. “But I’ve always been around them.”