Director of Animal Liberation Australia, Mark Pearson, has told Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program The Current that a camel is better off to die from dehydration than a bullet. To be exact, Mr Pearson said “there is veterinary science to say that at a certain point of dehydration, suffering is not as… does cease and really just a process of death.”
In arguing that camels should not be culled in Australia's Outback, Mr Pearson used a variety of arguments including that it won't work, past mismanagement and that fencing or fertility control were better alternatives. He advocated that the bulk of the Government's investment in camel management should be directed to fertility control research. As a fertility control research organisation, our Cooperative Research Centre would obviously be delighted with an injection of funds but the reality is that the state of technology worldwide is not there yet and the urgency of the camel situation means they cannot continue to be ignored.
Fertility control is not commonly used for wild animal management. There are some examples, but the techniques are a very long way from becoming mainstream. For example, the Humane Society of the United States has supported annual treatment of some mares with a porcine zona pellucida vaccine. In English, that's a vaccine that affects the protein coating of the mare's egg (the "zona pellucida") so that sperm can't successfully fertilize it.
While it sounds terrific, this particular technique has some real problems. Mares that are not having foals every year or two live for a lot longer than those going through births and lactations - so the impact of overabundant populations takes a very long time to be controlled. The work relies on the use of an adjuvant (a stimulant to make the vaccination work) called Freund's Complete adjuvant, which contains inactivated Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the pathogenic agent of TB. In Australia, animal ethics committees would rarely, if ever, allow the use of this adjuvant because of the pain and inflammation it creates. Stopping the sperm entering the egg does not mean that all reproductive activity stops. Oestrous cycles continue - so instead of one or two periods of heat and the stallion mating her, the mare will be going into heat every 21 days for a long portion of the year and she'll have days of attention from the stallion she wouldn't actually get in a more "natural" setting. So the impact isn't mitigated for ages, the mare is old and got more than the odd sore spot and she's receiving the stallion's attention at regular intervals - I don't know if that's better or worse welfare.
For a fertility controlled female camel, things might even be worse. According to the Israeli Journal of Veterinary Medicine:
In the rut period, males continually sniff about the females. When a female is “in heat” the male shows Flehmen and becomes excited. The male starts to push on the female to bring her down, which normally results in the female running away. The male gives chase, biting at her sides, back, legs, hump, or even genitalia. This often leads to severe wounds requiring surgery. When she eventually stands still, the male places his neck on hers and forces her to squat.
Then the male straddles the female, moves up to the hump and then begins to slide down until he eventually squats on the female, his front legs closely holding her, his full force on his tibiae (back legs).
Now the penis is pulled forward, the tip appears and it “feels around” for the vulva. When it is located the full length is inserted, one part after another. The male makes constant shuffling movements to push in further. He sits gazing into the distance, saliva trickling out of his mouth and a constant vibration of his nostrils. The female normally does not lie quiet but bellows and constantly bites his neck.
Mating can last up to 40 minutes and pulsations can be seen on the penis. When the male is finished he often just falls over on his side before standing up. Males can mate eight females in a day.
Back to the "veterinary science" that shows dehydration ain't that bad. One veterinary colleague said he didn't know about the work "but the insinuation seems bizarre from a physiological perspective and my veterinary understanding of what happens with dehydration, metabolite impacts and the body's systems for water and nutrition management under stress". Another told me some of the worse animal welfare pictures he'd ever seen were of camels dying in a water hole. They do tend to get themselves bogged into the holes and foul the water points for other animals. I guess dehydration is a more "natural" way to go than intervention as we do in culling an animal, but I find it hard to understand how certain Mr Pearson can be that a camel is better off infertile, living for years longer fenced off from the food it likes and eventually dying of thirst or starvation.
Posted by Tony Peacock, founder of 'Feral Thoughts'