Meet camel veterinarian Margie Bale

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camel veterinarian Margie Bale
One of the things that attracts Dr Margie Bale to camels is they’re so well-adapted to Australia’s semi-arid environment. Photography Glenn Hunt

Veterinarian Margie Bale has become one of the country’s leading experts on camels, advising breeders, owners and vets on how to manage this fascinating animal. By Lynne Testoni 

Sometimes career journeys unfold with surprising twists and turns, with opportunities arising where and when you least expect.

Specialist veterinarian Dr Margie Bale has had such a trajectory. After spending 25 years as a mixed-practice vet in Brisbane, a chance meeting at the Ekka (Brisbane’s large annual agricultural show) led to a whole new speciality as the country’s leading expert on camels. 

“I was just a normal, mixed-practice vet,” she explains. “I was working at the university clinic at Dayboro, just outside Brisbane, and part of our job was being the vet at the Ekka. Being onsite you get talking to a lot of farmers and people. I met someone who said he was thinking of starting a camel dairy and I guess I didn’t burst out laughing which most other people had done.”

Dr Bale had done some work with camelids as well as dairy medicine with cattle, so she thought she could help the farmer, thinking it would be a couple of phone calls and setting up some processes. 

“It just turned into a call a week to a call a day to having to go out and see camels,” she says. “I kept on saying, ‘This is taking away time from my real job’, and they said, ‘Oh, well, we’d love for you to come on board’.”

Dr Bale had school-aged children at the time, and she realised the proposed job would be a more family-friendly option. 

“I saw it as something I could kind of navigate my own way through without being in a clinic situation,” she explains. She said yes—and a whole new world opened up to her.

“I stopped working and ended up doing camels full time and loved the challenge and finding out new things and the excitement around the industry,” she says. 

Not just a big cow

Dr Bale says that one of the exciting things about working with camels is that the industry is new. It is at the same stage that dairy and beef cattle were 150 years ago, she adds, in terms of knowledge and clinical expertise, providing lots of opportunities for discovery.

“It’s so rare to have the opportunity to start something from scratch with a new species, but with all the information that you already know,” she explains, adding that she loves applying 21st-century knowledge to a traditional agricultural business.

camel veterinarian Margie Bale
What excites Dr Bale is that the camel industry is so new, with lots of scope for new discoveries.

She originally approached problems by starting with clinical solutions from the dairy industry and trying to adopt these for camels, but had only limited success.

“Nothing was simple and they weren’t just a big cow,” she says. “They are their own completely unique animal that has to be managed with a totally different way of thinking.

“I must admit, I think it appealed to the innate curiosity that I have. I just thought, ‘Wow, this is new; this is interesting. I need to go down this rabbit hole.’ 

“I really like camels and I find the whole thing fascinating so it’s opened up a whole new chapter of my career.” 

The world of camels

Dr Bale has now spent seven years working with camels full time and says there’s not only an opportunity for a viable industry in Australia but there are huge opportunities worldwide, especially for veterinarians. 

They are their own completely unique animal that has to be managed with a totally different way of thinking. I must admit, I think it appealed to the innate curiosity that I have. I just thought, ‘Wow, this is new; this is interesting. I need to go down this rabbit hole’.

Dr Margie Bale

“Our degree is really recognised and our quality of veterinary care is so high that people over the world are asking advice,” she says, adding that she has spent some time in Dubai, working with the dairy herds there and learning from their experts—and offering them a fresh perspective.

“I’ve been lucky to go to Dubai. Their industry is part of their history, part of their culture. Camels are revered and camel milk and the camel racing industry have been around since Bedouin days. It’s completely ancient. And their reverence for these camels puts the industry in a whole different light, and they’ve also got finances to back it. So they had embryo labs and assisted reproductive technology labs—incredible facilities over there. And while they’ve got their own vets, seeing our veterinary approach was really welcomed over there.”

The world of camel farming really opened up for Dr Bale after she attended an international camel vets conference in Paris. 

“It was incredible just to see the sheer size of the industry overseas,” she says. “I came back thinking, ‘Why hasn’t this taken off over here?’ and realised that the same level of veterinary care hasn’t really been afforded to these animals. 

“What they see as their revered animal is seen as a pest over here. I came back to Australia and asked, ‘Why aren’t they farmed? Why aren’t they managed? Why are we treating them just as a pest?’ And that led me to really champion the industry.” 

The camel business

The camel industry has two main avenues of income—dairy and meat. “The dairy side is quite labour-intensive and gives an incredibly good product, but has to be treated very differently from a bovine dairy in terms of set-up, infrastructure and management,” says Dr Bale. 

camel veterinarian Margie Bale

“But I see the potential to do it right from the word go. The dairy industry is highly regulated, which is great because it means you can drink a glass of milk and know that it’s great quality. And that allows money to go back into the industry to allow vets and things like Dairy Australia to exist. 

“But the other angle to the industry, the thing that I’m really trying to get farmers and the government to look at, is the meat side of things, because I think Australia is in a perfect position and on the cusp of being able to develop a meat export, a protein industry. Exporting and managing camels, like we do sheep and cattle, for meat.”

Dr Bale says that one of the things that attracts her to camels is their physiology and the fact that they have adapted so beautifully to arid and semi-arid environments. It has drawn her into the world of sustainable agriculture. 

“I just looked at Australia and I thought, we’re pretty much a semi-arid continent. A lot of Australia has been devoted to trying to grow cattle and sheep in marginal arid areas to the detriment of our environment.

“Camels don’t have hooves, which stops problems like foot-and-mouth disease coming in because they’re not subject to that and their whole gastrointestinal system is designed to get the most out of arid plants. Managed well, camels create really low impact on these environments that cannot sustain European breeds of protein. 

“So that took me out to places like Cunnamulla and Western Queensland looking at what some sustainable land management groups have been doing out there with rotational grazing and co-grazing camels and cattle.” 

Dr Bale believes that camels might be the answer to the challenges of farming in these arid regions because they share their gut bacteria and help beef cattle to become more efficient. 

“It made me think that for so many years we’ve been trying to adapt our environment for the animals that we bought over, because the only reason we have cattle and sheep here is because we were colonised by the English and they thought, ‘Well, we’ll just bring cows over.’ If we were colonised by the Arabs, we’d have camels everywhere. And it just made me ask, why do we keep trying to fit the animals to our environment when we should be trying to choose an animal that suits the environment that we already have in Australia?”

Watch this space.

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