Like many people, I have a long commute to the office each day. But, unlike most people, I arrive to picturesque surroundings and awesome co-workers. After 20 years of taking care of the elephants at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, I still marvel at the beautiful view and three of my amazing colleagues: Ambika, 59; Shanthi, 31; and Kandula, 5.
Taking care of elephants is more lifestyle than job. It is a demanding, highly specialized skill that often requires 24-hour attention. Elephants are intelligent creatures of nearly 10,000 pounds when fully grown. When they still need care at the end of the day, there's no "leaving it for someone else."
As elephant keepers, we provide for their physical, mental and social needs. We watch them, study them and learn all that they will share with us. We are teachers and students, personal trainers and mentors, dietitians and nurses, friends and housekeepers for elephants.
Early each morning, we arrive and greet the elephants. It's a thrill to hear the heartwarming sound of their soft rumbles of greeting. We check each elephant and the habitat and, if all is well, we begin the daily routine.
While cleaning the habitat, we gather evidence from their nighttime activities. It's amazing what a night's worth of elephant poop can say about the animals' health and well-being.
We bathe and scrub them from trunk tip to toenail to keep their skin in good condition. We perform thorough exams and pedicures, conduct exercise sessions and provide mental stimulation through enrichment and training. In this capacity, the elephants are more colleagues than charges; we work together to develop and maintain a healthy, multigenerational herd.
In doing so, we develop a unique relationship and become an important part of the elephants' social life. While we are not and can never be stand-in elephants, we are with our elephants through their major life events: births and deaths, social and environmental changes, illness and recovery. As we share these experiences, the bond and trust between us grows.
For example, during an introduction to a new elephant, one of our females became frightened and hid behind me for protection. Another time, when a helicopter flew too low, I found myself inside a protective circle of elephants, a place usually reserved for calves.
Each elephant is a unique individual with a distinct personality.
We sometimes refer to Shanthi as a "drama queen," as her emotional displays can be a bit over-the-top. But her drama belies a steady strength. She adapts easily to change, having faced serious medical conditions and treatments as well as changes within her social structure. Shanthi has taught me to display self-confidence and decisiveness.
Until recently, Ambika had required almost no medical treatment. However, several weeks ago, keepers picked up on subtle signs of a problem. Based on those observations, we assisted the veterinarians with testing and subsequent care. We spent many extra hours attending to Ambika around the clock, observing her and walking with her to help ease her discomfort. She handled her condition, treatments and the extra attention with wonderful grace.
Ambika appears calm on the surface, but she is often slow to accept change and rarely responds the same way twice. We always say: "The only thing consistent about Ambika is her inconsistency." Ambika has taught me to accept frustrations with humor.
Male elephants do not live with the herd once they mature; hence, their behavior is different from that of females. True to his sex, Shanthi's son, Kandula, is independent and aggressive, characteristics that are important for bulls. He sees everything as a challenge. Kandula's independence has taught me to constantly sharpen my training skills.
I know that some people object to keeping elephants in captivity and that some zoos have disbanded their elephant exhibits. I've even heard some people say that zoo elephants aren't "real" elephants, that their zoo environment somehow invalidates them. It is true that their lifestyle is different from that of elephants living in the wild. However, I can assure you that Ambika, Shanthi and Kandula are very much real elephants, adapting and thriving in their zoo environment.
-- Marie GallowayHerndon
The writer is an elephant keeper at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park.