Sheik

At first he was sickly and refused to eat, but by the time Sheik was two, he was a movie star.
  • 1920s
  • 1930s

When the report came in to Zoo director Belle Benchley that the newborn dromedary camel was weak and might die, she went to visit him and see what could be done. The calf’s mother, Scar, was placidly chewing hay and was alert to her little one, but she apparently wasn’t producing enough milk. Keeper Harry Edwards lifted the small body up to a standing position to try to bottle feed him, but the calf refused to drink. Everyone was very concerned.

They called Zoo founder Dr. Harry Wegeforth, who was then consulted for medical advice since the Zoo did not yet have a staff veterinarian. He suggested adding sugar and evaporated milk to the whole milk they were using, since camel milk is rich and sweet. The calf swallowed a little, but not enough. Harry Edwards then managed to milk Scar, who was quite tame, and that small amount added to whole milk tided the calf over for a couple of days while the staff put their heads together to solve the milk mystery.

The solution they came up with was adding corn syrup and malted milk to whole milk—and sure enough, the camel calf gobbled it up greedily. He was now over the hump and readily accepted his bottle feedings from then on. The ingredients weren’t cheap, however, and in telling the tale, Belle wrote, “By the time he was six months old he must have been at least almost worth his weight in gold, for he ate often and much….” It seemed to fit perfectly, then, to name him Sheik. His diet certainly agreed with him, because he “grew tall, straight-legged, round-humped and beautiful.”

Even though he was one of the most expensive babies Belle said they had ever raised, he made up for it and paid them back—with his “salary” as a movie star! When Sheik was nearly two years old, the movie Beau Geste was being filmed in Yuma, Arizona, and the film studio needed lots of camels. They rented all of the Zoo’s camels, and the Zoo received $100 per day per camel. Sheik was soon found to be “the best, gentlest and most intelligent of the camels. He had no bad habits and did not bite. Consequently, he was ridden by the star and used in every scene,” including retakes and added scenes. Over the course of several weeks, he earned a tidy sum for the Zoo, making up for all those “malteds” he guzzled!

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