The memory of an elephant by Donna Robb

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 1996:

At least one of the estimated 600
elephant handlers in the U.S. has been killed
in each of the past 15 years by an elephant’s
foot, trunk, or tusk, or as part of an elephant
sandwich, making elephant training riskier,
in fatalities per thousand, than any other
So who would want such a job? I
would. I was an elephant keeper for four
years at the Cleveland Metropark Zoo. I
worked with two female African elephants,
Simba and Tiani, who touched my life more
than anything else but the births of my three
daughters. I went through two of my pregnancies
while working as an elephant keeper,
and never received more than a squashed
wedding band and a few stitches in my forearm
to show for it. What would the statisticians
have done with a stomped 9-monthspregnant

I knew elephants killed people when
I took the job, fresh out of college with an
Associates degree in animal health. I knew
they were immense, strong, intelligent animals
who could be trained but never really
tamed. I had heard of elephants brutally dismembering
their handlers after decades-long
relationships. Yet I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t
even concerned. I was an “animal person.”
Animals liked me, and I felt safe in the belief
that the elephants would like me too.
I was naive, but luckily, I was
right. I can’t describe the exhilaration I felt
the first time I stood right next to an African
elephant, pumped with adrenalin, yet with
weak legs. I couldn’t keep the smile off my
face or my hands to myself. I didn’t want to
go home after my first work day. I wanted to
spend the night in the building with the animals.
I was scolded repeatedly during my
two-month training period for entering the
elephant areas without a veteran keeper.
I soon knew when Simba was afraid,
angry, or content. I sensed her moods
through ear flapping, head-shaking, leg positions,
tail wagging, swaying, kicking, trumpeting,
and rumbles. It was up to me to read
the signs and respond. Most important, the
elephants expected fairness. They accepted
correction when it was understood and warranted.
Punishment had to be immediate and
humane. It usually consisted of a whack on
the rump or a tug on the leg with my elephant
hook, coupled with an I-mean-business tone
of voice, but only when I was sure that the
elephant understood what she was asked to
do, and that she could physically obey me,
but was choosing not to. I learned that
patience, positive rewards, and reassurance
got me farther than brute force. I strived to
remember the natural behavior and social psychology
of elephants as I worked with the
girls, especially in novel situations.
I didn’t believe in trying to work
with an elephant who was overwhelmed by
fear. For example, I would let Simba venture
down the wide hall behind her indoor room.
She was both curious and nervous. The hall
wasn’t much bigger than her body. She tentatively
explored the strange walls, fixtures,
and storage areas. I let her pick her pace,
and retreat when fear became paramount.
Once she became comfortable in the hall, I
gave her basic commands and she readily
complied. Had I forced obedience from the
beginning, I think I would have added to her
fear and made the exercise futile. Patience
paid off, and our pleasant, periodic trips
down the hall led eventually to the refrigerator,
where Simba would calmly munch an
apple or banana. Such excursions helped
relieve boredom, and I realized that they
signified how Simba had allowed me to
become the matriarch of her herd. She must
have known that I would not lead her into
danger, and that I respected her cautious elephant
ways. Although I was always in control
when working directly with Simba, I’m
sure she did not resent my dominance.
Simba was discerning. Some
keepers she liked, others she tolerated, and
still others she loathed.
Elders or close kin in an elephant
herd push and prod a fallen member to get
back up, as if aware that a downed elephant
may suffocate beneath her own weight. On
November 11, 1995, Simba and Tiani
demonstrated this behavior when a 16-yearold
companion, Tribby, collapsed from an
apparent viral infection, moments after
keepers coaxed her out of a moat where she
had gone to eat locust tree leaves. Simba
and Tiani struggled to raise Tribby for 45
minutes, giving up only after her death.
I was reminded of how I’d tested
Simba’s affection by lying in the elephant
yard, motionless with my eyes half closed.
She wrapped her trunk around my arm and
tried to pull me up. I was honored to be
treated as a fallen comrade.
Elephants are very protective of the
ends of their trunks. The trunk is such an
intricate, sensitive, and essential part of
their bodies that to injure it in the wild
would almost certainly mean death or at
least severe handicap. Simba would cat-nap
in the mornings while I raked, shoveled, and
wheelbarrowed around her. Her delicate
trunk would lie curled on the concrete floor
within inches of my noisy activity. She did
not do this with other keepers. When she
remained in her cat-nap position while my
shovel and rake came within an inch of her
trunk, I knew she trusted me. We bonded.
In subtle ways, she let me know that she
knew me. She knew when I was depressed;
she knew when I was menstruating; she
knew when I was pregnant and lactating.
She went through a false pregnancy, and
developed mastitis as a result, while I was
on maternity leave. False pregnancies are
rare in elephants; I still wonder if I was to
blame. Did my pregnancy trigger maternal
yearning in Simba? Throughout my first
pregnancy, Simba would place the end of
her trunk, her “fingers,” on my belly. She
would gently press on me and draw air into
her nostrils, then puff it out. She seemed to
know I was pregnant, and I know, with that
highly sensitive trunk, she could feel the
baby move. The bigger my abdomen got,
the gentler Simba was. She didn’t bump into
me, whack me with her tail, or “accidentally”
pressure my feet with hers, as she had
done earlier when aggravated. I was still
breastfeeding when I returned to elephant
keeping after a 6-month leave. Simba
noticed right away. She again would probe
my body with her trunk, gently grasping my
milk-laden breasts. She had recovered from
her false pregnancy and infected breast, yet
I felt sorry for her, as she would never experience
pregnancy and motherhood.
Tiani, the youngster, showed her
confidence in me in a different way. She
was too busy trying to play with and destroy
my tools in the mornings to cat-nap. But
when the shoveling was finished, before the
zoo opened, I took her for morning walks
across the grounds, past the monkey island,
the bear grottoes, and the sea lion pool. We
circled the bird building, and startled roaming
peacocks. Those morning walks were
special to me and exhilarating for Tiani. She
was titillated by the sights, sounds, and
smells around her. Her trunk searched the
air and seemed to analyze everything we
passed. With her head held high, her ears
were radar. She walked with excitement and
curiosity. She rumbled at the other zoo residents,
and her feet, brushing the asphalt
path, sounded like those big, fuzzy bathroom
slippers on a tile floor.
On mornings that a certain coworker
took Tiani for her walks, it was a
different story. Then Tiani would scream
and defecate in fear, not an enthusiastic

adventure-seeker but a quivering bundle of
nerves. She did not trust or like that keeper.
She feared his domineering, unreasonable
hand. I suspect that if he had continued to
work with Tiani as she grew, he would have
become a casualty. Elephants keep score,
bide their time, and await an opportunity to
get even. Luckily for him and the elephants,
he was promoted to a supervisory position.
Elephants displace their aggression.
Simba hated heavy equipment: backhoes,
loaders, large lawn mowers. The zoo maintenance
department was supposed to warn us
before approaching the pachyderm area with
noisy machinery. One morning they didn’t.
Simba and Tiani were in their yard as I finished
the last of the indoor cleaning.
Suddenly, I heard a backhoe. I looked up
and through the doorway came all four tons
of Simba, wild-eyed, staring right at me,
ears spread wide, head up, legs flying. I
thought for a second that I was a goner. But
I stood my ground, having no time to flee,
and firmly yelled, “No!” She ran a complete
circle around me, then flew back out as fast
as she had arrived. With trembling knees I
walked to the public viewing area at the
perimeter of the yard, and safely watched as
Simba kicked, stabbed with her tusks, and
slammed into any inanimate object she could
reach in the yard. She even beat at the air
with her trunk. Those objects could have
been me. Only a fool with a death wish
would have entered that yard then. It was
best to let Simba work out her anger and
hope the enclosure could withstand her rage.
The enclosure survived, but I still
have periodic nightmares, vividly reliving
the day Simba could have killed me. She
didn’t, and I continued to care for her and
Tiani for two more years. Simba had
attacked and injured other keepers. Once she
thrust her tusk through a man’s shoulder. She
threw another keeper out the front of her
barred exhibit into a brick wall. Simba had
scared many a keeper into transfer. I was
among the lucky ones. I did need five stitches
in my left forearm on one occasion, after
slicing myself open with a hoof knife while
trimming Simba’s foot pads. And I had to
have my wedding band cut off of my finger
after Simba smashed it with her molar teeth.
This was my fault. I was rubbing her tongue.
I never could figure out why she liked that,
but I would occasionally indulge her. One
day I was distracted as I talked to a visitor,
and was unaware that I had my hand between
her large back teeth. She must have felt the
ring and decided to bite down on it. I learned
my lesson: no jewelry on the job.
I left to go back to college, majoring
in biology. I wanted to return to the zoo
and improve the elephant program. I had
tried to get the elephants off of chains before I
left. Conventional practice then was to keep
captive elephants on two leg chains 16 hours
a day. This seemed inherently wrong to me,
since elephants walk for 16 hours a day in the
wild. Overnight chaining frustrated their natural
behavior, I reasoned, and might contribute
to sparking dangerous tantrums.
Frustrated that I could not convince zoo management
of this, I left, hoping to someday
return in a position to make changes. But I
never did. Zoo officials have even longer
memories than elephants, and did not appreciate
having been challenged.
Fortunately, all-night chaining did
end. Simba lived long enough to enjoy at
least a few years of relative freedom to move.
I rarely visited Simba and Tiani
after leaving. I still feel guilty that I did leave
them. I found it hard to stand with the crowd,
not close enough to touch “my” elephants,
uncertain if they remembered me.
On December 10, Simba died, at
age 42, almost exactly a month after Tribby’s
death. She was the third-oldest elephant in
North America, one of the last survivors of
the 1955 bring-’em-back-alive expedition that
stocked the zoo. Only one hippopotamus and
three tortoises outlived her.
I feel even worse that Simba’s keepers
didn’t even notice she was ill. I’m sure
I’d have noticed symptoms of her condition,
hyperthyroidism, which by coincidence I
noticed in my cat, Moses, and had treated
not long before Simba collapsed. I can only
be thankful that I didn’t witness Simba’s
death on the concrete floor and her subsequent
dismemberment with chainsaws––and
that I had the chance to know and love her.

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