Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 10 April 2020

UAE Portrait of a Nation: The camel doctor of Dubai

Dr Peter Nagy had never seen a camel in the flesh until he moved here. Now he manages 6,000 like they are 'family'

Dr Peter Nagy says two decades in the Middle East have taught him to have a great respect for the 'ships of the desert'. Pawan Singh / The National
Dr Peter Nagy says two decades in the Middle East have taught him to have a great respect for the 'ships of the desert'. Pawan Singh / The National

Twenty years ago, veterinarian Dr Peter Nagy could barely find the Gulf on a map. And he had never seen a camel in the flesh.

Now the Hungarian manages a herd of 6,000 and calls them his 'family'.

The journey to a farm on the Al Ain Road was an unexpected one for the former academic, for whom a French university library and European horses were more familiar.

In 1999, the government of Oman was setting up the country’s first embryo transfer centre for camels. When officials visited Europe on a scouting mission for staff, a colleague persuaded Dr Nagy to put himself forward.

“I remember asking one of the officials what kind of horses I would be working with if I landed the role," he said.

Seeing their big lips and huge eyes up close was surreal. I quickly noticed how they always looked like they were smiling too, it was endearing

Dr Peter Nagy

“That’s when he told me it was a camel project.”

“I had worked with all kinds of animals, cows, sheep, creatures great and small, but never camels. Naturally, a lot of questions came to mind."

He also had no idea where Oman was.

“I went straight to the university library, pulled out a map and found this tiny little country in the Middle East," he said.

Married with two young children, Dr Nagy was more than a decade into an already well established job post and said the risk seemed to outweigh the reward.

“But then they said they needed two people to run the clinic. I asked if I could bring my partner, Dr Jutka Juhasz. They agreed, so I agreed.

"I knew it would lead to plenty of interesting storytelling, so I went with it.”

After landing in Oman, Dr Nagy, now 52, felt an immediate respect for camels, simply because of their unique characteristics.

“Seeing their big lips and huge eyes up close was surreal. I quickly noticed how they always looked like they were smiling too, it was an endearing observation.”

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , Jan 26 – 2020 :- Dr Peter Nagy , Head of Department , Emirates Industry for Camel Milk & Products at the Camelicious Farm in Umm Nahad 3 area in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For POAN. Story by Kelly
Dr Nagy strokes a calf at the Camelicious Farm in Dubai. The business he helped to establish has tapped into demand for camel milk and ice cream. Pawan Singh / The National

Often, he would have to approach them while they were sleeping just to make sure they were still alive.

“Their odd habits were a big surprise for me. I cannot explain the confusion when I first saw them sleeping. They were fully laid down with their heads flung back. They looked dead. Totally weird."

After a few years in Oman, an opportunity came up in Dubai and Dr Nagy jumped at the chance.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, then Crown Prince of Dubai, had just approved a plan to set up a commercial camel milk farm in 2002.

In 2003, Dr Nagy and Dr Juhasz took the “bull by the horns” and helped establish the Emirates Industry for Camel Milk and Products farm – known as Camelicious.

Accessible via the Dubai-Al Ain Road, Dr Nagy, now 17 years into his role as farm manager, said "this little piece of the desert" has become his slice of home in the Middle East.

“Their remarkable adaptation for life in the desert still amazes me. From their large flat feet for sand travel to their thick fur on top for shade, they are a species like no other," he said.

Dr Nagy and his colleagues started fully operating the farm in 2006 with just 25 camels. Today, more than 6,000 can be found plodding around the vast array of paddocks.

At 5.30am most mornings, the cogs are in full motion at Camelicious. Workers begin their daily routine of milking, feeding and exercising.

“We milk about 1,300 camels each day, twice a day. Milking only takes about two to three minutes, so it’s quick and easy.”

Processed in batches, the full morning routine runs from 5.30am to 9am, and the afternoon from 3pm to 6pm.

“My father, who was a vet, told me to pursue family medicine instead.

“He said 'GPs leave home at 8am in a shirt and tie and return at 4.30pm, clean and tidy in the same shirt and tie'.

"'Vets leave home at 6am and return 12 hours later, too dirty to enter their own homes'.

“But for me, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It can be tough, but life should be a challenge, otherwise where is the fun in it?

With no plans to move home to Hungary any time soon, the unfamiliar region he pinpointed on a map 21 years ago has now become home.

“Arabs tend to call camels, Jamila, which means beautiful. And I feel like the experiences I have had since moving to the Middle East, for the most part, have been beautiful too.

“And it would be hard to leave the camels now, they are like family.”

Updated: February 13, 2020 09:21 PM

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