By Kim Kalunian, Entertainment Contributor
Roger Williams Park Zoo has always been one of our favorite spots in Rhode Island, so when we heard that they are offering new experiences for the whole family, we had to check it out!
From May 24 to September 1, the zoo, in partnership with Camels Unlimited, is is offering visitors ages three and up the chance to have a close-encounter of the dromedary kind. This new exhibit can be found beside Hasbro’s Our Big Backyard, which was added last year.
We meet up with Kevin Haynes, who has been a camel handler for five years. He says his favorite part about working with the animals is getting to know their personalities.
“They’re very, very smart animals,” he says, gently stroking the camel’s side. “They have good personalities.”
Mickey, a 7-foot-tall, 1,500-pound camel, spends most of his days eating and walking around. At night, he sleeps and eats some more.
As Haynes talks, Mickey licks his palms, looking for any traces of carrots or apples, which he gets as a treat. The 7-year-old camel was raised and trained on a petting zoo, and bottle fed as a baby.
“He’s a good boy,” says Haynes. “They’re nice, docile animals.”
In the wild, Mickey would be found somewhere near Mongolia, China. He starts to shed his bristly coat in the summer, and doesn’t mind the cold Rhode Island winters.
Mickey is a hybrid “F1” camel, a cross between the Bactrian (two humps) and dromedary (one hump) varieties. And yes, you guessed it – that means Mickey has one-and-a-half humps.
But Haynes says there isn’t any water in the hump-and-a-half. Contrary to the widely-held belief, it’s all fat. Haynes says a healthy, well-fed animal will have a large hump, while an underfed camel’s hump will start to diminish after several days.
The hump makes for a bit of a bumpy ride, especially since camels have a unique way of walking. Unlike most four-legged animals, camels move both legs on one side of their body at the same time, so both the front and rear left legs move, and then the front and rear right. For a rider perched atop a camel, it makes for a rocky ride, with a forward and backwards swaying motion similar to a rolling ship.
While Haynes says some camels can get up to 40 miles an hour, Mickey takes riders at the zoo around a small loop at a very leisurely pace.
Mickey’s pal Henry is also available for rides. He’s a slightly smaller, one-hump, dromedary camel who’s not just ANY camel – Henry was featured in Mackelmore’s “Can’t Hold Us” video. We were starstruck.
Both camels seem to love the attention of people, and Henry’s been known to bark from his pen if he’s not the one being ridden.
Oh yes, camels “bark.” But they don’t spit, says Haynes. Much like the water-filled hump, Haynes says the spitting camel myth just isn’t accurate.
“Llamas and alpacas I consider spitting [animals],” says Haynes. However, he says if a camel “barks” while chewing its cud, “stuff” does come out.
A hybrid bark, like Mickey’s, sounds “like Chewbacca” according to Haynes. A typical camel bark is a deeper, throatier, rumbling sound.
But it’s rare to hear these petting-zoo-raised animals do any of that. Instead, they enjoy a pet on the head and a quick, quiet ride around their ring.
And the zoo makes it easy for the visitors and the camels. A raised platform allows riders to easily climb onto the animals, and doesn’t require the camels to get down on the ground multiple times a day. Once aboard, riders are strapped in and led around a small loop by a handler. The rides will be available to visitors through Sept. 1 in the Beyond the Fence area of the Big Backyard exhibit. Each ride is $6.
Haynes says it’s a great chance for people of all ages to meet and learn about the animals in a safe environment.
“On television, for the most par,t they kind of get bad reputations,” says Haynes. “So just being able to be here, and being able to pet them and socialize with them, you get a better understanding of the animal.”
Along with the camel rides, Roger Williams Park Zoo has added a rock climbing wall from Rock Spot Climbing, and will be opening Flutterby: Butterflies in Bloom – featuring free-flying butterflies in a “beautifully landscaped greenhouse” – this Memorial Day weekend. Click here for details on all of the zoo’s seasonal offerings.