Keeping Up With the Elephant Keepers
Right-to-left:  53-year-old Gunda, Cyndie Browning, and
Jessica Scanlon, one of the keepers.  The elephant barn is
in the background at right.

     Today's the day I went to job-shadow the elephant keepers at the Tulsa Zoo.  (And no, Dad, the elephants didn't step on me, not even once.)  I arrived at the zoo at 8:00 a.m. and was soon met by the elephant keepers, Jessica, Trent, and Mike.  Mike then drove the 4 of us down to the elephant barn in one of the zoo trucks.  As we walked across the loading dock and through the people entrance to the barn, I was instructed to keep to the wall-side of a broad yellow line painted on the floor, to keep me beyond the reach of Sooky's and Gunda's trunks.

     The Tulsa Zoo keeps 3 Asian elephants:  32-year-old
Sneezy, the male, and the two females, 53-year-old Gunda (above) and 30-year-old Sooky.  Each elephant's stall in the barn is separate from the other two.  Sooky and Gunda are each about 9-10 feet tall and weigh some 8-9,000 pounds apiece, and their stalls are surrounded by large round pillars, each about 6-8" in diameter and spaced about 18" apart, with various crossbars in between to keep the elephants confined to their respective spaces (and separated from the keepers), altho' there is a corridor between the two stalls that's sometimes left open so the two females can hang out together.  Jessica explained that for safety's sake, there is always a barrier between the elephants and the keepers.

     Standing there beside Jessica, I began studying both females.  There's a strong animal smell when you enter the barn but it's not unpleasant, certainly not as stinky as a dirty, sweaty ol' dog.  Gunda is shorter than her younger companion, and Gunda's head is shaped a bit differently, her forehead more rounded and the "eyebrow" ridges above her eyes not so prominent as Sooky's (whom Jessica referred to as "the
NASCAR elephant."  Sooky's the one who plays hard-to-get with Sneezy, the big male whose stall is down the corridor from hers).  Jessica said Gunda's profile is that of the classic Asian elephant, and as I studied each elephant, I began to be able to tell them apart and not just when they were standing together.  Their coloring also distinguishes them; Gunda's trunk between her eyes and the lower edges of her ears are pinker than Sooky's, and the edges of Gunda's ears are more tattered.  Also, and right off the bat, I discovered that Gunda is the better behaved of the two females.  While we stood there talking together, Sooky began sucking up water from her water trough and throwing it at us, like it was raining in BIG drops!  Jessica told me to try NOT to notice her antics and NOT to react to them; like any child showing off for adults when she feels she's being ignored, Sooky was trying to call attention to herself, and shrieking "like a girl" as the water (or in some cases, poop) hits your back only reinforces Sooky's bad manners.

     Both elephants tended to rock back and forth on their front legs while we were talking and the keepers were planning what to do next---the elephants were obviously bored, waiting for their daily baths so they could go on outside.  Sooky had a funky little beat to her rocking, sorta like the motions I do when I'm "dancin' " in my car while listening to disco on the stereo. ~:-)

     As I looked down the corridor between the two stalls, I could see the trunk of the 3rd elephant, Sneezy, apparently trying to get in on the action.  Jessica explained that Sneezy is 11 feet tall and weighs 11,000 pounds, and his stall is walled in concrete, not with bars like the females' stalls.  Jessica showed me later the concrete doors on the outside of Sneezy's stall (the doors hang on runners and are all opened and closed electrically), and explained that the doors used to be _inside_ his stall until Sneezy began hammering on them one day with his huge bulk SO vehemently that he actually broke one of the doors off its frame, so that it crashed to the floor inside his stall.  Obviously, 11,000 pounds of elephant takes considerable restraint to keep it where you want it.  I was to get a closer look at Sneezy a little later.

     But first, we got to scoop poop in the outdoor enclosure of Gunda and Sooky.  We trundled two wheelbarrows, shovels, and rakes out to the yard and began picking up yesterday's poop and raking up leftover hay.  The 2 females share a sizable yard outside the barn and a pool that's 13' deep at the deepest end.  It was still early morning; the zoo wasn't open yet so I didn't have to "whistle-while-I-worked" for spectators as I shoveled heaps of elephant poop into the wheelbarrow.  Each boll of elephant poop is bigger than your two fists pressed together and much heavier, too.  And having nothing better to do while raking and shoveling, I began a list of "birds I have seen and heard while shoveling elephant poop":  Cardinals, House Sparrows (these guys also live in the rafters of the elephant barn), Blue Jays, Fish Crows, Mockingbirds, and a Great Blue Heron.  Jessica showed me the nest where GBH's have nested for the past 3 years.  (Later in the morning, I added Juncos and Red-shouldered Hawks to the list.)  I know it's a short list, but it's a start.... and I doubt very many of my birding friends have such a list in
their birding records.

     After cleaning up the outside, we returned to the barn where Mike and Jessica had to do a blood draw on Sooky.  Jessica explained that they're monitoring Sooky's hormone levels in an effort to map her reproductive cycle so that she can be artificially inseminated in the future.  I stood a few feet behind Mike and Jessica as they called Sooky over to the side of her stall and had her lean in toward the bars and present her ear for the blood draw.  It all went very smoothly, Mike standing on a tall step-stool and handling the needle as deftly as any nurse who's ever drawn
my blood, while Jessica fed Sooky chopped chunks of bananas, carrots, apples, oranges, lettuce, and potatoes and encouraged her to stand quietly and allow Mike to draw her blood:  "good girl, Sooky.... lean in, no, lean in, Sooky, steady.... good girl."  Elephant tongues remind me of giant pink clams sitting in an oyster shell; they're not pointed and prehensile like human tongues, but from what I could tell, they're just a large pink blob of muscle that scoots any food presented to their mouths toward their teeth (if it needs chewing) and then on down their gullet.  After Sooky's blood draw, I got to feed her two huge whole carrots dipped in peanut butter on one end, a favorite treat of both elephants.  I simply aimed each carrot toward her mouth, her tongue took it lightly out of my hand, crunched it about twice between her brick-sized molars, and it was gone.

     Then it was time for the baths.  The keepers decided to give Sneezy his bath first.  This was the first time I got to see all of him (besides just the trunk), and after having got used to the 8-9 foot tall females, he looked GIGANTIC!!!  Jessica called Sneezy into a narrow corridor-like cage outside his stall and Mike handled the hose (like a fire hose), spraying Sneezy all over while Jessica threw him (the elephant, not Mike) the same smorgasbord of chopped veggies and fruits that she'd fed Sooky earlier.  I found watching the elephant's trunk very interesting.  Asian elephants have a prehensile finger-like digit on the top half of the tips of their trunks, and the bottom half acts like a fist or scoop, so watching him pick up small chunks of fruit from the floor was like watching one finger maneuver the fruit against the base of a fist.  I was amazed how dexterous he was with it.  (I also noticed that Jessica did not put the food directly into Sneezy's mouth as she had with Sooky, but tossed it onto the floor in front of him where he could pick it up.  Both keepers gave the 11,000-pound Sneezy a wide and cautious berth.)

     I wondered how Mike would wash Sneezy's other side until Jessica commanded Sneezy to move out of the cage into his stall, then turn around and
back his way into the narrow cage, thus presenting Mike with his other side.

     With Sneezy all clean and sweet-smelling, and released to his own yard outside (which he does NOT share with the females; male elephants are solitary by nature except when they're in the mood for mating), we turned our attention to Sooky.  Who decided she wasn't gonna play with us.  Jessica tried a dozen times to get her to come to the bars, and even broke up the commands to come by telling her to present her foot, make a big mouth (when they raise their trunks high over their heads and show you that big pink tongue), or any other behaviors she knows, but Sooky was havin' none of it.  In fact, she retreated to the far corner of her stall and even laid the end of her trunk on the bars outside her stall, as if to get every part of herself as far away from us as possible, pointedly ignoring Jessica altogether.

     I asked if she was perhaps reacting to my presence but Mike said no, it had nothing to do with me; she'd just decided to exert her will over theirs.  So they decided to give her a time-out.  We walked away from her stall and stood some distance away from her, apparently not paying any attention to her while Mike explained how she does this sometimes.... even tho' as we left the area next to her stall, she began walking toward Jessica, as if to say, "no, don't go.... please don't go."  Well, after about 10 minutes, Jessica decided to try again.  Sooky wasn't too willing af first and then condescended to lift one foot on command and give us a "big mouth," and before you know it, she'd sidled up to the side of her pen and Mike began bathing her while Jessica reinforced her good behavior with more chunks of food.

     When she was finished, we moved over to Gunda's stall.  Compared to Sooky, Gunda did exactly as she was bid and seemed to enjoy her bath.  Gunda's getting old as elephants go, being 53 (believe me, MY 53rd birthday is next month and I know just how she feels!), and suffers some chronic infection/abscesses in her feet, so the next order of business for the morning was to soak her 2 front feet in epsom salts for 15-20 minutes.  Mike filled 2 round plastic washtubs with 4-5 inches of water and the salts, and then slid the tubs between the bars into Gunda's stall to roughly the width of Gunda's stance.  Then Jessica commanded Gunda to "soak it," whereupon Gunda stepped up to the tubs, put one foot in each, and patiently stood there, snacking on a brick of alfalfa that Jessica had brought into the barn to keep her occupied.  A couple times, Gunda sorta shifted her step and scooted the washtubs with each foot, like she was ice-skating with washtubs on her feet instead of steel blades, altho' at one point she stepped on the edge of one tub and dumped most of the water out of it.

     I watched fascinated as Gunda picked up trunkfuls of alfalfa stalks and brought them up to her mouth.  When the alfalfa was mostly gone, she virtually swept the floor around her to pick up each leftover morsel with her trunk.  I noticed that she seemed to be a right-handed elephant, always curling the tip of her trunk toward the left (as I would do if my right hand were my trunk).  If she'd only curled it to the right, she would've found the handful of alfalfa flowers that she kept missing.  Apparently, Sooky's trunk is partially paralized (a genetic condition, they believe, as such paralysis also appears among wild elephants) so that she picks up food and then sort of swings her head to one side, swinging her trunk sideways up to her mouth, while Gunda deliberately picks up the food and quietly and in one smooth motion curls her trunk under itself to deliver the food to her mouth.  The more I watched these two huge animals, the more easily I was able to discern differences between them.

     When Gunda was finally done soaking her feet, Mike opened the outside door of the barn, letting Gunda out first, then Sooky came through the corridor passage between their two stalls and followed Gunda out.  Then we keepers (I say "we" because they "let" me help) retrieved our wheelbarrows, shovels, and rakes, and mucked out the stalls inside the barn.  When we'd picked up all the poop and leftover straw we could, Jessica and Mike took the hoses and washed down all the floors, the water running downhill (hopefully) to drains strategically placed in the floor.

     When THAT was done, Jessica invited me to "walk the elephants."  Picking up her bucket of snack chunks, we walked outside along the perimeter fence of the female elephants' yard, coaxing Sooky and Gunda to walk with us (altho' they were on the inside of the fence).  At the end of each lap, the elephants get treats from the bucket.  Sooky seems to enjoy the walks while Gunda would rather just meet you on the return trip and pretend she walked the whole lap.  (Jessica said that part of Gunda's foot abscess problem comes from her unwillingness to walk around as much as she should.)  But then, Gunda's an old gal and pretty much does what she does because she wants to, not necessarily because she should or doesn't know any better.  In any event, Gunda was finally coaxed to walk down to the far end of their enclosure with us, and Jessica and Brent rewarded both elephants with treats.  It was after 11:00 by now and there were visitors watching the elephants, so Jessica put Sooky and Gunda through a few of their behaviors or "tricks."  My favorite was watching Sooky balance on her right forefoot and left hindfoot, with the opposite feet lifted into the air, then balance on both right feet with her two left feet and trunk raised in the air.  (Jeez, I don't think _I_ could do that were I her size!)  When the "tricks" were done, I asked Jessica if I could touch Sooky.  Because of Sooky's sometimes erratic behavior and because she doesn't have full control of her trunk, Jessica maneuvered Sooky over to the fence (cables run between stout concrete pillars) so I could pet her sides.  For as wrinkled and dusty as elephant skin looks (both elephants already had hay or straw---their "lunch," maybe---liberally strewn across their backs and the tops of their heads---so much for the baths!), it still felt like warm skin with coarse, wooly, inch-long hairs here and there.  Then Gunda approached our little gathering and while Brent distracted Sooky with some treats and walked her through a few of her behaviors, Jessica let me pet ol' Gunda's trunk and feed her.  I offered the food at the tip of her trunk, where she grasped it firmly with that little finger appendage and moved it to her mouth.  Gunda seemed gentle and kind and I was thrilled to be able to pet a real live elephant for the first time.  A couple times, it seemed she was inhaling a piece of carrot, waiting for me to add something to the "mouthful" in her trunk before moving the food to her mouth.  Whenever Jessica told the elephants to do their "big mouth" behavior, she would then toss food into their mouths.  I kept laughing at her poor aim until she let me try it and I found I couldn't do any better.  You'd think with a target that big, you couldn't miss!! but the elephants don't seem to mind, and they're not above picking up the treats that missed their target from the ground.

     That was the highlight of my morning with the elephants.  Jessica walked me back to the employee lounge where I'd started my day, with a detour through the park so I could see the two white rhinoceroseseses (as Bill Cosby would say) the zoo keeps.  I'd worn my old San Diego Wild Animal Park T-shirt with the Park's rhino mascot on it and have a considerable collection of rhinoceros things at home so when I learned that the zoo does, indeed, have rhinos, I HAD to see them.  Then we said good-bye and I drove home for a well-deserved nap.
March 17, 2003
Story (c) copyrighted by Cyndie Browning 2003
Sooky, happy again
after her bath
Sooky ignoring Jessica
More elephant adventures:
"NASCAR Elephants"