Friday, December 11, 2009

Pachyderm Learning

For those of you who never read my private blog back when it was public and my only blog, I'll do a quick recap and then continue on with the post.
George, a 10 foot tall African Elephant is playing with a very large truck tire. His head is down with his trunk pressing the tire against the fence pole, his ears are out surrounding his head, giving him a dumbo look about him that is very charming

When I was a senior in high school I wanted to get a job to support raising Iverson and earn some money, of course. I applied at a few places, but the only one I remember is the Wildlife Safari. I applied on what I believe was a Tuesday evening, I didn't apply for anything specific but I knew their busy season was approaching and they'd need seasonal workers. On Wednesday I got a call from the elephant department supervisor and we arranged an interview for that Saturday morning. I was ecstatic! I've always loved the elephants at the park and remember when George was a "baby". The interview went off without a hitch and Sunday morning I did my job shadow, I went and spent a couple hours in the barn with the staff, helped clean the stalls, learned which elephant was which and met everyone. They all liked me so I was sent to get a UA and a TB test. Once the TB test came back clear (whew! There's one thing I don't have /wink/) I started that Thursday. Because I was still going to school I arranged my schedule to where I'd have half days until I graduated but with such a terribly busy schedule and him not being allowed to attend work or school with me I had to have Iverson transferred to a new raiser. It was heartbreaking, but I couldn't pass up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I'd been handed.

Iverson is around a year of age in this photo. He's sitting looking out the window. The window starts at his mouth and his ears are perked
I quickly got used to cleaning the stalls in the mornings and getting the hay ready at night, I learned which elephant was which, which personality belonged to who and even who's poo was who's! I learned to push a wheelbarrow full of approx 200 lbs of elephant waste and drive the dump truck that had a bad clutch when I had never driven a clutch before. Okay, so I took a fence out while learning, but it was just the giraffe yard, they could go over it anyways. I learned to be efficient, quick on my feet, announce when I was entering or leaving an area which was so against my personality and introverted ways. I learned that one person with a bad attitude could affect the whole herd disasterously and it was quickly realized that I was a "lifer". Many of you will understand what a lifer is. It's someone who is so in love, so intriqued, so enamored by something that it will stick with you, for life. In many ways it's the same as I'm a "lifer" puppy raiser.
The three empty elephant stalls. The stalls are made of steel round beams and are square. They are approximately 12 feet tall, have rolling doors on the front, between each stall and on the end of the outside one. There are feeding baskets built onto them for hay, shrubs, tree limbs, blackberry bushes or other treats for night

I was deemed the Supervisor's prodigy, who had been working with elephants for more than 40 years. I was just barely older than she was when she first started working with elephants and she saw something in me, she took me under her wing and didn't protect me or let me get away with slacking off in my work, but we had a lot of heart to hearts, I think I reminded her of herself.
George and my boss facing the camera. George has his trunk on his forehead and is lifting his front left leg to perform a behaviour. I'm unsure which behaviour he was being asked to do

During the 9 months I worked there, the elephants were my kids. I loved them, I cared for them, I worried about them when the snow came or the lightning struck, I feared for their safety and their futures, I truly would have done almost anything for them, and the people I worked with. Just before my 18th birthday I was handed an ankus. A very old ankus, but it was an ankus and I had one of my own to keep clean, in good condition and with me at all times when on the job. I was being entrusted with a tool that would someday allow me to control the largest land animal on this earth. The feeling was similar to that of going to puppy meeting after puppy meeting just to be handed a dog for the first time. Yes, you've been trained a bit, yes you've watched and learned but for the FIRST time you're holding that leash in your hand, with a puppy attatched to the other end of it. It was like that, but many many times amplified.

When I was issued that ankus I knew I was something special in their eyes, seasonals don't handle the elephants, they don't get an ankus. My job was supposed to end in a month and a half, I was supposed to leave like all the tourists, yet they decided I could have an ankus.
a photo of an ankus which is a two to three foot wooden stick with a two pronged tip on the end. They are controversial but are generally very dull and do no harm to the elephants. Just like a leash it's a tool used for safety and direction and can of course be misused

Then I learned why. One of the lady's was having a serious surgery and would be out of commission for at least two months, they wanted, they needed me to stick around, and they needed me to learn to handle these animals in a very short amount of time. The reason they waited until just before my 18th birthday to give me an ankus? You have to be 18 to handle an elephant. I remember before that day, every single day my boss would ask me if I was 18 yet. I grew to love it, I knew how eager she was to begin training me.

The elephants standing in front of a group of trees, the leaves are brown, the elephants are generally facing the camera and all are in the process of putting their trunks to their mouths to eat some of the deliciousness in the Asia section of the park
Not so quickly I learned how to move hay bales with my ankus tucked under my arm, I learned how to reach WAY high up to wash an elephant's back with an ankus gripped tightly in my armpit, I learned how to not drop my ankus and avoid that head shake of disappointment, I learned how to go under the fences without hitting my ankus on the bars. To begin with I had to have it in my armpit, wherever I went. Whereas once you know how to hold it, once you get those muscles used to working that way, mostly your ankus is in your belt on the back of your pants.

This is a very strange looking photo. Anthony is leaning very hard against an elephant's foot which is up on a
I was just barely getting used to having my ankus with me, in fact, this particular day I forgot it for the elephant show, I'd left it at the ride booth. After the show, the elephants are walked around the perimeter and the public is allowed to "pet" them as they walk by. Really, it's just a pat, but they get to feel an elephant and look at how wierd their skin is. My boss called me over to where she was working with George and of course gave me a look of major disappointment when she asked where my ankus was and I told her it was at the ride booth. She handed me her gorgeous ankus and told me to walk George around, Anthony walked with me. That was truly one of the craziest moments in my life, ever! Here I am, walking a 10 foot tall elephant, for the first time ever, with tons of people wanting to get a feel of the big guy's skin.

This is a shot from very high up of me walking George for the first time. You can see people waiting to pet him, one hand is on his back leg and you can see the red hair on the top of his head
When I was done of course came some critiques but all was well. Things continued going well until I became the main handler of Ms. Tiki. She's the smallest of the elephants at just 8'3" and is the easiest going. We went on walks in the Asia section of the park, we worked in the yards at the elephant barn, I worked her for her to earn her breakfast and dinner and I got frustrated beyond belief when I just couldn't do something right. I remember one time I was trying to get Tiki to do a very simple behaviour, I asked her to "get over" (move away from me in a straight line going sideways, since they are worked on the handler's right side she was to sidestep to the left) and "come in" (move into me) and she wasn't cooperating. I was so frustrated, she was going forwards, crooked, wouldn't keep her nose up, etc. All things which are signs of disrespect, of "testing" much like our puppies do at times. I was crying with frustration from this animal not listening to me, from my boss yelling at me, from my inability to succeed. Eventually she did what I asked enough to get rewarded with her breakfast, but I was ready to go home. Good hard work cleaning the stalls and a good heart to heart with my boss helped greatly and later we were working the elephants again.
The elephants on a walk in Asia, they are coming down a hill so are not holding onto one another but generally they are linked, trunk to tail just like in cartoons. In this case their trunks are down so they can feel their way. They always feel where they put their feet, if they harm their feet, they die

I learned many many things from working with the elephants. One is that I can do what I set my mind to and while I couldn't work there anymore (moving 150 lb hay bales would be impossible) I truly am a lifer when it comes to elephants. I learned how much your attitude and lookout really do affect how animals react to you, that dominance is not a forceful thing, but rather something that needs to seem natural and easy to come by. I learned that any tool can be misused but if used correctly can get amazing results. I learned how to use a "bridge" and food rewards, I learned positive training methods when all I'd known before were corrections, I learned that the most intimadating animals are often times the most easy going. Most of all though, I learned that I love my dogs more than anything. I love training, I love working with dogs, I love raising puppies for those who need their help.

George has his trunk on his forehead and his left feet crossed over his right feet with a watermelon on the ground in front of him
I was eventually laid off from that job, not because my boss wanted to, but because she was forced to. I've gone back twice. It's painful to see the elephants and know I can't be a part of it, it's painful to see them aging and it's painful to know that's a world I will never be a part of again. I will always be family to the staff of the elephant department at the Wildlife Safari, I was by far their favorite seasonal ever (and no, that's not my ego talking, I was told that over and over due to the fact I got along with everyone and was truly in love with what we were doing) and while I know I could call them up and ask for an encounter for my family and myself, it feels like I'm asking a little much. They provided me with one of the very best experiences of my life, I can't ask for anything more.
a silhoutte of a girl looking off into the distance standing in the shadow of the barn, she's leaning against where the big garage doors close and between the camera and her is an elephant sized gate

Time moves on though and so must I. I will never forget my elephant kids, I love them all dearly and when the day comes when they're too old to live any longer, my heart will break into more pieces than you can imagine. I will never forget the lessons they taught me in more than just animal handling but in animal behaviour, communication and true love. There is nothing more heartwarming than a 9,000 lb animal "rumbling" when you walk into the barn, nothing.

George and I walking away, back to the yards. I'm 5 foot three and he was around 10 foot three at that point. I am carrying my ankus and a bucket of treats
If there's anything I want to remember from my time as an elephant trainer, it's that dogs are my passion, very nearly my life, and my love. So while I adore my elephants, my dogs, the puppies I raise and the people who's lives they touch, will always come first.
Eva and Eclipse in black and white. They are sitting right next to each other, Eclipse slightly behind his sister, furthest away from the camera. Their right sides are facing the camera and they are looking out over a lake. Their ears are perked and they are at attention. Their jackets are still in color, a very rich dark blue

5 comments:

  1. I love this story. I think it's amazing that you worked with elephants like that!

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  2. Wow, what an awesome experience!

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  3. This is a fantastic story. I don't think I've ever met anyone who worked with elephants!

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  4. Beautiful story. Amazing where we are lead if our hearts and minds are open to new experiences. Can't wait to read of your newest adventures in the animal world.

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