Elephant boot camp trains pachyderm keepers worldwide

Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2003

GUY, Ark. (AP) When Betty Boop gets a pedicure, it's a world-class day at the spa.

After hosing down the elephant's feet, revealing wrinkled gray skin beneath a caked-on layer of clay, trainers clean and smooth yellowed nails with a foot-long file, rounding off the edges with care.

From the bottom of Booper's'' feet, they scrape mud and grime, then gently slice off a layer of calloused skin to give her better traction in the grassy fields of Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary.

Booper. Still ... still,'' instructor Scott Riddle says softly, slightly nudging Booper's feet when the 31-year-old gets restless and starts to lean too far forward.

The pedicure is functional, yet decorative. Keeping the animal's nails even and its feet clean of dirt and rocks prevents abscesses and uneven bone growth in the legs.

It looks better, too.

Seven elephant keepers from zoos around the world watch, asking Riddle for the finer points of pampering a pachyderm.

They're attending the 10th year of the International School for Elephant Management, an educational summit of sorts for elephant keepers who must care for very large and very individualistic animals.

That's the one common thing they're all different,'' said Rob Smith, elephant keeper at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage.

For Stefan Groeneveld, the pedicure is one of several finer points of elephant care he plans to take back to a wildlife park in Tilburg, the Netherlands.

I see so many good things here,'' Groeneveld said. I look at what they do, and I think, why didn't I think of that?''

All of the students call Riddle's the best place in the world to work side-by-side with the largest land animals on earth, in a setting with plenty of room and expert advice from Riddle and his wife, Heidi.

You could have something you've been doing for 15 years, and then they'll show you a whole new and better way to do it,'' said Cecil Jackson Jr., elephant manager at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio.

Heidi Riddle said that, in the past decade, the elephant keepers of nearly every major zoo in the world have come to Arkansas for training in topics like handling, maintenance, and spotting the symptoms of pachyderm health problems.

The 367-acre sanctuary in the foothills of the Ozarks was established in 1990 by Riddle and his wife as a safe haven for all elephants.

Some come from smaller zoos that couldn't afford to care for them. Others came after years of poor treatment with circuses or private owners, referred by people who care about how they live.

Maximus's mother, Lil' Felix, and Artie and Solomon all came from the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe after their herd was culled.

For zookeepers, it's their only chance to work closely with the different varieties and sexes of elephants. Some zoos have only Asians, or only Africans, or only males or females.

Most easily told apart by the size of their ears (Africans' are huge and look like the continent, Asians' smaller), each variety also has its own dispositions and tendencies. And each individual animal has its own moods, speed of learning, and need for guidance, Jackson said.

A recent addition, month-old Maximus, an African male, has brought some extra training in motherhood and caring for young and fragile elephants.

Maximus, named after the character from the movie Gladiator,'' got the moniker when keepers say he was rambunctious and virile calf almost immediately after dropping from the womb of his mother, Lil' Felix.

He was all male,'' said Mark Easley, a worker at the sanctuary.

The sanctuary also hosted the birth of Batir, who is believed to be the first African elephant born in the United States.

Several of the students come from zoos with breeding programs in the works. The Cincinnati Zoo, Jackson said, plans to bring one of its cows over to breed with one of the Riddle's bulls.

Groeneveld, 23, came the farthest for the school, at his own expense.

His determination to work with the largest mammals on earth is strong, even after seeing his mentor at the Safari Beekse Bergen park in Tilburg trampled and killed Feb. 19 by a female African elephant.

He said that, shortly before the accident, the park had switched to a hands-off'' method, in which trainers have only limited contact with the animals. They can only perform close inspection of the animals when they are anesthetized.

Groeneveld said he prefers the hands-on'' method used at Riddle's, in which trainers work right next to the animals and guide them with quiet voice commands and light nudges with a pole.

In the end, if properly done, it is a safer way of controlling the animals, Groeneveld said.

With hands-on, if they get hurt, you can give them better care,'' he said. Without it, the animals have to be put to sleep temporarily, which is sometimes risky for an elephant weighing tens of thousands of pounds.

He praised the Riddles' operation and said he wishes there was a facility like it in Europe.

Keeping the unique facility running is a constant battle for resources. Donated items are vital railroad tracks for fences, an industrial scale to weigh the youngsters, or even art supplies for Mary, an Asian who holds a paintbrush with her trunk to create works on canvas to be sold to help pay operational expenses.

It's always a struggle,'' Riddle said. As the facility grows, our needs grow.''

He said various foundations and grants have helped pay for new facilities, like several large metal sheds for shelter, and for research. The buildings carry plaques to honor the donors.

But it's tougher getting donations to help pay for up to 50 bales of hay and other grains, fruits and vegetables to feed the animals each day. He estimates the cost to feed each elephant for a week at $250.

On the Web: www.elephantsanctuary.org

End Advance for Sunday, May 11, and thereafter

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