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."
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.
The lodgings are simple -- dormitory-style rooms in a long metal building with clean concrete floors, two single beds per room and two shared baths. We soon know each other as well as we get to know the elephants.
Our first morning together, over eggs gathered minutes before from free-range chickens, we joke about having rooster for dinner. The widely held notion that roosters crow at dawn, it turns out, is a myth. Well, they might crow at dawn, but they also crow way before dawn if they feel like it, too.
The first order of the day is to accompany Scott and an intern to the barns where the elephants are kept overnight. We walk with groups of two to four elephants as they are turned loose into various pastures, each about the size of a football field. As we walk, Scott shares decades of knowledge.
"The outlook for elephants is dismal; their territory is shrinking daily," he says. "In 10 to 20 years they are going to be park animals, extinct as a wild species." Yet they are critical to other wildlife, a so-called keystone animal. Because their digestive systems are inefficient, for example, their dung contains leftover food for small mammals and birds.
Africa is currently home to about 550,000 elephants. In Asia, there are about 40,000. African elephants have bigger ears and, in general, are larger and more aggressive than their Asian relatives. We quickly learn to tell the two apart, not only because of size but also because Asian elephants have a domelike protuberance on their heads. The ears of every elephant are so different they are like fingerprints.
Scott has been working with a scientist in Oregon to find a solution to an ever-growing problem: elephants in shrinking territories who raid crops and end up getting killed by farmers as a result. L.E.L. Rasmussen of the Oregon Health and Sciences University has been working on an herbal repellent spray, and the Riddles have been testing it at the sanctuary. Scott developed a machine to disperse the spray. The newest formula has caused the sanctuary elephants to steer clear of sprayed crops. Next month, Scott will go to India to test whether it will repel wild elephants, too.
If it's successful, it could delay the demise of elephants, and save some human lives as well.
"Making a hay-and-grain sandwich," says Scott.
Elephants are among the smartest animals alive. They can be gentle and sweet, and they can kill you without a second thought. Although their lumbering gait might seem clumsy, they are capable of sprinting as fast as 35 mph.
We watch as Scott and an assistant weigh each animal on a scale meant for trucks. They also take blood monthly for an ongoing study on hormones.
Among the more surprising things you learn seeing elephants up close: They have long, luxurious eyelashes. The insides of their mouths are . . . well, if Georgia O'Keeffe had been to Riddle's Sanctuary, she might have given up painting suggestive flowers and drawn elephant mouths instead.
In the movies, elephants make a sound like a trumpet. In real life, they have an amazing variety of calls, and individual elephants generally favor one sound over another. Some make a deep gurgling sound that is something between a cat's purr and a human's growling stomach. Some purse their lips and blow raspberries. Some bark like a seal, while others roar. They also make low-pitched sounds, Scott says, that humans cannot hear.
Each of us takes a short ride on Peggy or Betty Boop. Getting as high as an elephant's neck requires a walk up 10 steps to a platform like those used in the Old West for hanging people. A trainer walks on either side of the elephant during the ride, which makes the adventure seem like a pony ride for adults. Some people, Scott says, complain that such activities are demeaning to elephants. But the elephants don't care, he says. They don't even care if you put a silly hat on them to attract funding for their care. They're smart, but they don't embarrass easily.
The baby elephants frolic and play with huge balls in little lakes and mud holes. Their parents, who often live to age 65 or so, basically spend their day eating and drinking -- activities that include ripping branches off trees and digging mud holes, both of which are ecologically helpful in a keystone kind of way.
The highlight of the weekend: grooming Betty Boop. Scott, with the word "down," orders Betty and Peggy to lie on their sides. Several people at a time take turns on each elephant, moving a heavy wire brush over their dust-caked skin. The two are then rinsed with a hose and brushed again.
My feelings for Betty Boop are probably mixed up with fantasy elephants like Dumbo and Horton, but I experience a deep surge of affection for her. And I childishly yearn for Betty Boop to like me back.
I brush the dirt from her tough, hairy back and hope it gives her pleasure. This is my first and possibly last chance to get this close to an elephant. I want Booper to understand that although humans are driving her kind toward extinction in the wild, many of my kind understand that she is a beautiful and awesome creature.
Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary (501-589-3291, www.elephantsanctuary.org) is in Greenbrier, Ark., an hour north of Little Rock. "Elephant Experience" weekends cost $700 per person. Price includes two nights' lodging in dormitory-style rooms and three meals a day, but not airfare to Little Rock, which from D.C. begins at about $275 round trip. There is a one-year waiting list for the outing, open only to those 18 and older, but more weekends may be be added next year. The sanctuary is also open to visitors of all ages from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the first Saturday of every month; admission is $5.