LEESBURG, Virginia -- When the smug and murderous Somali militants who call themselves al-Shabaab (The Youth) announced the other day that they would pay a bounty of 10 camels to anyone who could tell them the whereabouts of Barack Obama, I drove over to the Leesburg Animal Park in Virginia to see if they had any extra room in their corral.
Leesburg is a burgeoning exurb, 65 kilometres west of Washington, virtually untouched by a half-decade of recession and unscathed by the housing crash that -- as I heard on the radio as I was driving -- has wiped out 40 per cent of the net worth of most Americans since 2007.
The tarpaper shacks that pass for dwellings here looked so capacious that I imagined each camel could have its own boudoir with stall and straw en suite. But, alas, it was raining so hard when I got to Leesburg that the animal park ("A Different Kind of Zoo") was closed.
So I went into the farmers market just down the road and asked the woman behind the counter if she thought 10 camels was a fair estimate of the 44th president's market value.
"Well, he's worth five more than Romney," the clerk replied.
(Al-Shabaab also declared that would award "Ten hens and ten cocks" for Hillary Rodham Clinton, but I wasn't going near that one.)
It was primary day in Virginia, with various congressional and senatorial and local candidates to be chosen, each race in each precinct a referendum on Obama's performance, or lack of same. The president, meanwhile, was campaigning in the suburbs of Baltimore. With the election only 140-something days away, Obama was spending more time wheedling for cash in hotel ballrooms and millionaires' mansions than he was labouring in the Oval Office.
To be exact, while I was spinning my wheels in the mud outside the bolted gates of the Leesburg Animal Park, Barack Hussein Obama was at the home of a real estate mogul named Josh Evan Fidler at 225 Greenspring Valley Rd. in Owings Mills, Md., offering his host and guests the whopper that, since he assumed stewardship of the U.S. economy, "We're moving in the right direction."
(The White House press office is so generous and precise with Obama's schedule every day that one wonders if someone who works there is striving to win the 10 camels.)
Having failed to penetrate the palisades of A Different Kind of Zoo, I returned home and called around to some of America's leading cameleers.
In the town of Mount Pleasant in northeast Texas, I reached a man named Don Osborne who had posted an ad on a website called camelsforsale.com, in which he was asking $18,000 for a newborn female named Bailey. Osborne was quick to tell me he has been breeding ships of the desert -- not to mention capybaras, coatimundis, lemurs, wallaroos and zebras -- for more than 20 years.
I marvelled at the thought that little Bailey, who still was being bottle-fed, might actually fetch $18,000, thereby valuing Barack Obama at 180 grand.
"Well, she's a double-hump bactrian, not a dromedary, and there aren't many of them in this country," Don Osborne explained.
"How do you like raising camels?" I asked him.
"It beats messin' with a bunch of people every day," Osborne replied.
Out in Harry Truman country in the southwest corner of Missouri, a hump-herder named Rod Malchow told me dealing in camels was "kind of like selling used cars. It could be as cheap as $1,500 for one animal. It could be as much as $25,000. It all depends on what you have and how bad somebody wants it."
What kind of camel is worth $25,000? I asked Malchow.
"I can't tell you," the Missourian replied. "I don't have none that's worth that."
Do you think Barack Obama is worth 10 camels? I asked him.
"Alive or dead?" Malchow retorted.
"Alive, I presume," I said. (Actually, Al-Shabaab hadn't specified.)
"He's not worth very many," Malchow said. "I don't think he needs to be president."
"Let's say Barack Obama is worth 10 camels," I proposed. "Then how many camels is Harry Truman worth?"
"I wouldn't trade Truman for camels," Malchow said. "I'd vote for him again. In fact I have, several times."
I noted Mr. Malchow had told me he was in his 40s, while the late Truman last stood for office in 1948.
"That don't mean you can't write him in," Malchow said. "I've done it several times myself. But it don't matter anyway. Every time I vote, I lose."
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.