Escaped petting zoo camel attacks and kills 2 men in Tennessee

Dromedary camels like the one shown here are known to be aggressive toward other males during mating season. This is NOT the camel that attacked two men in Tennessee. (Image credit: Karol Serewis/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A camel attacked and killed two men outside of Memphis, Tennessee, after escaping a petting zoo Thursday (March 10).

Past inspection reports suggested the petting zoo called Shirley Farms, located in Obion County, had little water for the dromedary camels (Camelus dromedarius) and no barrier to protect the public or attendant present at the time of an inspection. After receiving a call about a loose camel attacking people, Obion County sheriffs arrived at the zoo, which is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Memphis.

"Deputies arrived on scene to find two unconscious victims on the ground at Shirley Farms and a camel still on the loose," the sheriffs wrote on their Facebook page. "Obion County Sheriff's Office, Lake County Sheriff's Office, Ridgely Police Department, Tennessee Highway Patrol, and the Lake County Rescue Squad were all on scene attempting to render aid and move the victims to a safe place."

The seemingly aggressive camel attacked one of the Obion sheriff's vehicles and then moved toward deputies who were trying to move a victim to EMS, they said. At this time, the officers had to "put the camel down for the safety of everyone on scene." The two male victims were pronounced dead at the scene.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had noted in the past some animal care issues at Shirley Farms, according to inspection reports, as first highlighted by The Guardian. For instance, in a July 2019 report, the USDA said, "The only access to drinking water for the camels and zebra was a very small shallow muddy creek running through their enclosure. There was no access to any water troughs or other potable water source. Access to potable water is necessary to prevent dehydration and spread of disease/parasites." (Camels are adapted to living in dry climes, but they can only survive for about 

And a report on Oct. 3, 2018 read, "There is a barrier present between the public and the non-human primates but not for any of the other species present including a zebra, camels, llamas, alpacas, goats, sheep, pigs, fallow deer, kangaroo, zebu, rabbits, cavy, and prairie dogs. The only attendant noted present at the exhibit was the cashier who does not have a direct line of sight on any of the animals."

As for why the escaped camel was so aggressive, that is unknown; however, in general, camels show little aggressive behavior except between males during mating season, the San Diego Zoo says. Breeding season in the wild for dromedary camels takes place in the winter, or rainy season. And when males fight for access to females, they are known to bite at their opponent's legs and take his head in between their jaws in an effort to bring that competitor to the ground, according to the University of Michigan's Museum of Zoology.

Researchers reported a similar case in which a 25-year-old man was attacked by a camel under his care. The man was reportedly feeding the camel when it repeatedly bit the man's face and neck, resulting in an emergency room visit for what turned out to be in left eye evisceration and facial nerve injury, the researchers described in July 2019 in the journal Trauma Case Reports.

Originally published on Live Science.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.