May 2006
On the Edge of Common Sense

Camel Lips

by Baxter Black, DVM

"So," I asked Rodney, "Did ya hurt yer jaw?"

"Yes," he replied, "It’s a camel injury."

Turns out Rodney had been the victim of camel retribution. The accidental head butt had loosened a few teeth. Rodney had been breaking and training his camel to ride. This led me to ponder on the difficulty of camel training vs. cow training. It appears that camels are considerably smarter than cows. Of course, I thought, because cows don’t have prehensile lips!

You students of anatomy know that, unlike the camel, the goat, and the average sheepherder, cows’ lips are hard and square. They cannot nibble. More importantly, they cannot purse their lips, which is why cows cannot whistle. Oh, sure, you say, but they could put a cloven hoof in their mouth and hail a cab. Something a horse could never do. Yet cows haven’t figured it out.

This anatomical defect has had a direct effect on the bovine’s inability to advance up the evolutionary food chain. Since cows can’t outrun predators, they remain entrenched in grazing and getting eaten. Think about the possibility of a guard cow stationed high up on the butte. She spots a mountain lion, a cattle rustler or brand inspector. She whistles two sharp blasts and a melodious trill. The grazing herd looks up and whistles back in answer. Then they fade into a mesquite thicket or submerge themselves in the water tank like hippos until the danger rides by.

What good, you ask, has it been for the camel to be able to whistle. Well, first it has made them more fun to be around. Think how much more pleasant it would be for the cowboy riding night herd if the cows could whistle along with his cowboy lullaby. Now all they can do is low, and only in one key!

If you’ve ever been in a dairy barn in Saudi Arabia where the camels are milked, you know it sounds like a carousel! When the lactating dromedary is finished, and she should know, she just whistles! Holsteins can’t whistle…they are as boring as bark, like watching pipe rust, as stimulating to talk to as a model train collector…unless of course, you, too, are one.

Think how much difference the Swiss Alps would be if they had whistling, or even, yodeling cows! Eat your cud out, Mary Poppins!

Okay, there are some things that are maybe best left alone, but I can’t keep from thinking that with all the genetic manipulations we are capable of, why don’t we invest some time into selectively breeding cows with prehensile lips.

Then they could drink molasses with a straw, not nearly as messy.

Baxter Black is a former large animal veterinarian who can be followed nationwide through this column, National Public Radio, public appearances, television and also through his books, cds, videos and website,