Editor’s note: Jim Watson, featured in the article below by Eve Byron of the Missoulian newspaper in Missoula, Montana, is the nephew of John and Meredith Barron of Columbus. The article, originally published Oct. 27, is reprinted with permission and has been edited for length. See the complete story at https://bit.ly/2E2fCih.
KALISPELL, Montana — Carlos lets out a long, low-pitched protest moan — sounding suspiciously like Chewbacca in the “Star Wars” movies — as Jim Watson says “sook sook” and gently pulls the enormous camel’s head and halter downward.
Carlos’ front legs collapse onto his calloused knees, followed by his accordion-like hind legs, with his salad-plate-sized, double-toed feet folded underneath him until he’s comfortably kneeling. Watson scratches Carlos’ mullet-styled mane behind his ears, whispers sweet nothings into the one-ton ungulate’s ear, then turns to his visitors.
“I really like him,” Watson says with a southern drawl, while sporting an ear-to-ear grin.
Theirs is a language of love that’s not always spoken in English but translates well.
“He’s very dramatic and emotional, and he vocalizes a lot,” Watson told the Missoulian. “It can sound like you’re killing him, but if you’re petting him and he really likes it, he kind of purrs and talks back to me.”
Their love affair goes back a few years, when Watson delivered a yak to a ranch in Ridgway, Colorado. Carlos was three years old, and the two hit it off immediately.
“He put his big head over my shoulder and we got to be friends. We kind of bonded,” Watson said.
He told Carlos’ owners that he’d always have space for the camel, which has a life expectancy of 40 to 50 years. Two years later, Carlos arrived at the Spring Brook Ranch, where Watson and his wife, Carol Bibler, raise yaks. Bibler wasn’t particularly pleased, nor were their mules and horses.
“The horses and mules were terrified of him. They ran to the far side of the paddock and stayed there for three days,” Watson said. “It took days for them to get acclimated.”
Watson and Bibler weren’t sure what to do with their two-humped Bactrian camel, who’s now seven years old. Watson half jokes that he thought Carlos was Mexican, given his name, so his first commands were in Spanish. That didn’t work so well, perhaps because Carlos had zero training. That was an issue with the then-1,750-pound camel. But Watson knew Carlos was smart.
“Camels are different than any animals I’ve worked with horses, mules, donkeys, yaks and dogs,” said Watson, who grew up on a cattle ranch in rural Mississippi. “Camels are smarter than all of them except for dogs. You can train them all, except for spouses. None of us is successful at training spouses.”
Today, Carlos knows basic terms for starting, stopping and lying down.
With their massive size camels can be intimidating. If Carlos starts to get in Watson’s space, he raises his arms and Carlos immediately backs off. Yet despite their size, camels form close bonds with people, and are known for their noble dignity and a wicked sense of humor.
After working with Carlos for about an hour, Watson removes his size large halter — borrowed from one of the mules — and turns him loose on the lawn, where Carlos wanders off to graze while Watson and Bibler turn to their other ranch chores.
It’s a good life for the camel, but Watson makes sure that Carlos knows his place.
“We ate camel stew when we (visited) Mongolia, and it was quite tasty,” Watson said, flashing his sly grin once again. “That’s what I keep telling Carlos when he’s bad — you could end up in the freezer.”
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