A Real Trunk Show

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2003

The nostrils at the end of Betty Boop's trunk look like giant eyes as she surveys the line of visitors, looking to see who has peanuts.

Betty Boop's trunk then dips to my outstretched hand, gently grazing my palm as it snuffles up the peanuts. Booper, as the staff calls her, then curls the end of her trunk to make a leathery pocket, blows the peanuts from her nostril into the pocket and plops the peanuts into her mouth.

What a privilege to get so close and personal with a giant creature whose ancestors have been roaming the earth for 50 million years. The fact that the encounter is taking place on an elephant sanctuary in Arkansas makes the experience just that much more extraordinary.

Betty Boop is one of 12 elephants at Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary in Greenbrier, Ark. The sanctuary was created 13 years ago by Scott and Heidi Riddle, elephant managers from California. The couple wanted to provide a home for elephants that might otherwise be killed and to establish a living laboratory that might help in the battle to save elephants around the world.

The Riddles went looking for affordable land in a mild climate and found 330 acres in Greenbrier, about an hour north of Little Rock. On various weekends throughout the spring, early summer and fall, they host paying customers willing to lay out $700, including food and lodging, for an "Elephant Experience." The money helps the nonprofit sanctuary defray some of its expenses -- food alone costs about $150 per elephant per day -- and also creates goodwill ambassadors for these creatures at risk of extinction in the wild.

Betty Boop, 31, a circus alumna, arrived here with a hip injured by another elephant. Some of the herd of African and Asian elephants have come from zoos, either because they were ill or because they had become aggressive and unmanageable. Some have come from private owners who apparently discovered that although baby elephants are cute, it's tough to care for 12,000-pound creatures who eat about 250 pounds of food a day and drink 50 gallons of water. Or maybe it wasn't the food that persuaded them to give up ownership -- maybe it was the mounds of tangible evidence that elephants' digestive systems are only 40 percent effective.

Two were born at the sanctuary: Batir, also known as Skeeter, came last winter, weighing 215 pounds at birth. Younger still: Maximus, born in April, weighing 282 pounds. He's been nicknamed Mad Max.

"He's extremely strong-willed. He used to roar when his mother's milk didn't come as fast as he wanted," Scott says of the baby who now weighs nearly 500 pounds, yet still looks tiny next to his mom.

The Riddles know each animal so well they can describe personality differences. Peggy, for example, is one of the best trained and gentlest of the bunch. But Scott says the 46-year-old Asian elephant can be difficult and annoying. "If she were a person, she'd be the type to borrow your car, wreck it and, after you'd fixed it, come back and say, 'Can I borrow your car again?' " says Scott. "If she were a human male, she'd be George from 'Seinfeld.' "

Elephants, generally, are high maintenance. Scott says dealing with them is not a job but a calling. "It's like having 12 problem children," he says, "who never leave home."

Elephants' Plight

A sanctuary volunteer drives me from the Little Rock airport through the foothills of the Ozarks on this warm fall day. We turn down a dirt road to fields studded with barns and pastures that are fenced with huge metal pilings sunk into seven feet of concrete.

Nine other weekend guests from as far away as Hawaii have, like me, been waiting up to a year to visit the sanctuary. Although the nonprofit doesn't have funds for advertising, people hear of it through word of mouth.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2003 The Washington Post Company