On Thursday, McKeldin Mall was filled with students, staff and other University of Maryland community members, as well as a special guest: a camel.
Chewbacca, also known as “Mr. Chewie,” is a regular fixture at the annual Israel Fest celebration, giving rides to students who sign a waiver, said Olivia Sondler, executive vice president of the Jewish Student Union, which helps host the event each year.
The event has taken place on the campus for more than 10 years and is hosted by groups including JSU and Maryland Hillel. It allows students across the campus to learn about and celebrate Israeli culture by eating customary foods and learning more about Jewish student organizations.
JSU spent about $4,300 to bring Chewbacca to the campus, using money from the Student Government Association, which helps fund the organization.
Chewbacca draws people into Israel Fest and serves as “a fun way to experience Israeli culture,” said Sondler, an accounting and information systems major.
Chewbacca comes from Virginia’s Leesburg Animal Park, which holds animals including alpacas, ponies, zebras, donkeys and other exotic species. The animal park provides the Israel Fest camel each year, making the process of finding a camel easy.
Animal park employees loaded him onto a trailer Thursday morning, driving an hour and a half to the campus, Sondler said.
Getting Chewbacca ready for a trip to College Park began in his youth with trailer training, said Carrie Largest, a Leesburg animal handler. Chewbacca has been with the Leesburg Animal Park since he was a baby, and has had time to adjust to both trailers and giving rides in new environments.
“Getting him acclimated to the trailer starts very slowly,” she said. “We actually put it in his exhibit, and then we started feeding him in it, so he slowly got more comfortable getting in and out of the trailer and just being in there.”
Chewbacca is the most docile out of the animal park’s three camels and enjoys giving rides to students, Largest said. These rides give students an opportunity to experience an activity that is “really indicative of an experience you can have in Israel,” Sondler added.
Senior economics major James Khaghan, a Jewish student who has visited Israel, said camels aren’t indicative of authentic Israeli culture.
“It’s an interesting thing to have, but I don’t think it’s big in Israeli culture — just a fun way to bring people out,” Khaghan said.
Freshman psychology major Daniel Copland, who rode the camel, said the animals are, more than anything, a part of the country’s tourism industry.
“It’s just a classic symbol and a tourism symbol, [and a thing] that people do when they go to Israel,” Copland said.