Get local news delivered straight to your phone
It’s 11:30 a.m., time for elephant aerobics at the National Zoo. A pair of diminutive female trainers guide four spirited pachyderms, each weighing between 6,000 and 9,200 pounds, through a half-hour of decidedly high-impact exercises not yet showcased on Jane Fonda workout tapes. Though dwarfed by their charges, the trainers direct the animals’ lumbering yet graceful movements with light taps from a hooked, baton-like instrument called an ankus and terse orders: Stretch. Foot. Steady. Back.
Such commands from trainers Marie Galloway and Liz Hile steer the elephants through exercises that, though sometimes resembling circus stunts, are nevertheless specially choreographed to simulate the animals’ movements in the wild. The elephants stand on their hind legs, as if reaching for fruit high in a tree. They walk across a log, the way they might if traversing a passage across a ditch. They roll a 1,000-pound log across the ground, stretching their hind legs and toning their trunks. And they hone their balance with a two-footed stance on a tree stump—a maneuver that draws enthusiastic applause from the throng of spectators skirting the elephant yard.
During their daily performance at the Elephant House, the animals also receive care that helps compensate for the shortcomings of zoo life. Captive elephants, for example, are more sedentary than their wild counterparts, who cover up to 50 miles per day in a ceaseless search for food. These walks on the wild side buff thick foot calluses which, as nature’s version of Dr. Scholl’s cushioning and muffling insoles, allow entire herds of the world’s largest land mammal to slip through the forest almost silently.
But without the pounding of a peripatetic lifestyle, the calluses of captive elephants can harbor bacteria leading to lethal blood poisoning. To guard against this, trainers regularly cut and file the elephants’ foot pads. Such pedicures demand immense trust on the part of a trainer, who must venture where others fear to tread—crouching under the belly or foot of a patient pachyderm—all the while furiously filing those hard-to-reach places and stilling the animal with spoken commands.
From the pedestrian footpaths 30 feet away, this tusker tuneup looks almost tame, betraying hardly a hint of the subtle but fierce power struggle that claims the life of an average of one trainer annually in this country.
“We’re always aware of the danger,” says Hile, whose outdoorsy looks are worthy of a page in a Patagonia catalog. “But you can’t let it paralyze you.”
Why a four-legged behemoth with the strength of a bulldozer would heed the commands of a defenseless two-legged trainer is a matter of elephant nature. In the wild, female elephants live in pecking-order herds, each topped by a senior member whose judgment reflects a lifetime of charting migratory routes and finding grazing areas and watering holes. The National Zoo’s girl gang of four similarly live as a herd. Managing them is made possible by a trainer rising to the status of surrogate matriarch—an exalted position that affords the human being the same deference due the wise and wizened dominant female of a wild herd.
Though more experienced in navigating Washington’s urban jungle than a wild forest, the trainers are expert elephant care-givers. And doing their jobs safely requires them to constantly remind the animals who is boss. The pachyderms—always seeking a promotion within the pecking order—frequently test trainer authority with small acts of defiance. But trainers can’t afford to take any flak from an animal who could kill with a mere flick of a 100-pound ear. An elephant’s refusal to adequately execute a command could—in a civil war of sorts—quickly escalate into a crushing blow.
Many zoos limit or eliminate contact between elephants and trainers via barriers and/or restraining devices. Not so at the National Zoo, where trainers confront elephants face to trunk, directly handling the animals all day, every day—betting their safety on the elephants’ reliability and responsiveness to commands.
Under this hands-on system, more free contact means less danger. By maximizing quality time with the elephants, the trainers “forge relationships that ultimately protect them,” says the National Zoo’s John Lehnhardt, the assistant curator of mammals and an earnest elephantophile with 17 years of experience. In addition to Galloway, Hile, and Lehnhardt, trainers Debbie Flynn,Belinda Reser, and Cindy Sparks also work closely with the animals.
All of the zoo’s elephants—Nancy, Ambika, Toni, and Shanthi—know their names and recognize the specific meanings of about 35 verbal commands. Inflection is also important. A stern order draws more response than a half-hearted one. And when trainers show the tender side of their tough love by petting an elephant’s great folds of leathery skin, textured like a treaded automobile tire, or by whispering “good girl” into those big, floppy ears, the animal’s renewed verve and resolute posture suggest that the encouraging message has been received.
But words only go so far for this touchy-feely species. Public displays of affection among the pachyderms commonly include entwined trunks, forehead nuzzles, and shoulder-to-shoulder leans. And nothing says move with more power and less subtlety than a full-body, slam-dancing bump from one elephant to another. National Zoo trainers take advantage of the tactile inclinations of their charges when spoken commands go unheeded. In order to nip insurgent notions in the bud, trainers apply the ankus sharply enough to reinforce a point, but gently enough to avoid injury—much like elephants nudge one another with their tusks.
“This is a training tool for elephants, much like a collar and a leash are used for a dog, or reins for a horse,” says Gallaway. “The elephants are trained to move away from the touch of the ankus.”
The animals have also been conditioned, through slow and growing contact, to accept a human touch anywhere on their bodies. Nevertheless, when a stone-cold sober Nancy submitted—without argument—to invasive gynecological tests, even Galloway, the affable chief elephant trainer, was surprised.
“We just kept feeding and talking to her,” says Galloway, who parlayed a volunteer position into full-time zoo employment. “She didn’t budge for close to a half-hour with a truckload of equipment involved in the procedure.” Sedation had been withheld, as usual, because an elephant will be asphyxiated by its own great weight if it lies down for more than several consecutive hours.
Although Nancy may lie down at a trainer’s behest, the National Zoo’s biggest, bossiest, and only tusked elephant won’t take orders from another member of the herd, nor would a wild matriarch. But while herds in the wild—oriented toward the “family values” espoused by the Republican Party, which has made the elephant its mascot—are always limited to blood relatives, members of this motley crew are not even from the same continent. In a lesson in multiculturalism, 39-year-old Nancy—the sole African elephant—lives as a family with a trio of Asians.
The National Zoo’s herd is all-female by design, in order to mimic nature.
Support City Paper!
In the wild, only young males live with the herds. Once they reach puberty, male elephants are evicted from the herd, destined either to set out on their own or join smaller “all-male clubs”—to revisit matriarchal herds only for hit-and-run mating episodes.
A similar boy-to-man coming-of-age transition was played out with a twist at the National Zoo about 20 years ago when Nancy shared the yard with a young male elephant named Dzimbo. As the bull matured, Nancy’s tolerance for him waned, just as it would have in the wild. But because knowledge of elephant social life was still relatively unsophisticated, Dzimbo was not removed. It was finally an attempt to mount Nancy that served as the last straw: The matriarch scooped up the assaulter—her tusks supporting his weight and her trunk wrapped around his belly like a securing bungee cord—escorted him to the edge of the yard, and hurled him into the partitioning moat. Dzimbo eventually died from wounds sustained during this battle of the sexes.
If the pachyderm pecking order is topped by Nancy, it bottoms out with Toni, a spindly, spiny 27-year-old with a zig-zag tail. Toni is so intimidated by Nancy that she backs out of the elephant house if the matriarch is already in the yard—a posture that protects Toni from risking a facial gesture that Nancy could construe as disrespectful.
Occupying a mid-management position within the hierarchy of the herd is Shanthi, who is currently pregnant by an interzoo union. Such attempts at captive breeding are complicated by the relative scarcity of captive male elephants—unpopular because of their aggressiveness and because, as natural loners, they lack the hierarchical respect that makes training possible. Nevertheless, the ever-shrinking habitat of the endangered elephant makes reproductive programs essential to their long-term conservation.
After scrutinizing every zoo with an eligible Asian and considering the genetic implications of potential suitors, Lehnhardt selected a tusker from Burnett Park Zoo in Syracuse, N.Y., for a tryst with 17-year-old Shanthi. An interstate trek in an elephant-ready truck in March 1991 was followed by Shanthi’s introduction to the Syracuse herd. Over the next few months, Hile—who remained with Shanthi throughout her Syracuse stay—watched the newcomer lose her nervousness and agitation. Within about a year, Shanthi was “with pachyderm.”
Shanthi returned home in November 1992. Surprisingly, her sudden reappearance in the yard barely elicited any response from her old cohorts. Absent from the reunion were the paroxysms of trumpeting, rumbling, bumping, and caressing that mark seemingly celebratory, sentimental reunions among itinerant herd members in the wild.
But perhaps tipped off by wafting hormones, Nancy, Ambika, and Toni—who, like all elephants, are olfactory oriented—responded to the pregnant Shanthi with a new protectiveness that suggests an understanding of her condition. On many a morning, for example, Ambika yawns through her exercises after a night spent selflessly and sleeplessly standing guard over the resting mother-to-be.
Shanthi also reflects the change. Though blessed with a particularly pleasing and docile personality, she has mellowed even more during the pregnancy. And Shanthi’s new-found fondness for hovering over a large plastic tub in the yard, just as an elephant mother protectively straddles her sleeping calf, may also portend the blessed event.
Because of her apparent kinship with the pregnant pachyderm, 45-year-old Ambika will probably serve as a kind of “auntie” for the calf. During the labor, Ambika will be positioned next to Shanthi in order to help soothe her during the ordeal, just as herdmates do in the wild—perhaps whispering something akin to “breathe” in a frequency inaudible to humans.
Elephants cannot be sonogrammed, so the gender of Shanthi’s calf will remain a mystery until the birth—expected before year’s end. Nevertheless, a successful birth would be a major achievement both for both Shanthi and the National Zoo. For one thing, North American zoos have hosted only 80 elephant births since the late 1800s. First births are usually the most problem-prone for mammals, and elephant births are particularly complicated by the animals’ exaggerated proportions.
If, for example, the presentation is other than feet-first, the contorted geometry that becomes inevitable all but guarantees potentially fatal damage to the 200- to 300-pound calf. Such problems are not amenable to rescue from zoo trainers and vets; neither the mothers nor their calves have survived previous attempts at C-section delivery. Shanthi’s life may also be jeopardized by the same types of infections and complications that, until recently, killed so many human mothers during childbirth.
Births and deaths among the elephants are not the only transitions that shape the membership of the National Zoo herd. The trainers, dedicated though they may be, are subject to their own turnover.
“All of us trainers have different personalities, and there are four elephants with four different personalities, so each trainer naturally gets along better with certain elephants, just like it works with people,” says Hile. “Though the elephants do form specific attachments, the blow of a departure is buffered by the availability of six trainers to work with the elephants.”
But nothing can buffer the difficulties of working one’s way into the herd. The first time that former trainer Melba Brown faced down the elephants, she was awed by their size and power. “It felt like three walls were moving around me,” Brown once told a TV interviewer.
During the weeks and months that followed, Brown slowly learned how to direct those walking walls. Initially, she only watched, silently shadowing the established trainers, studying the nuances of command delivery and the intricacies of ankus application. Emphasizing that respect in the elephant house is not automatic, but earned, the animals ignored many of Brown’s first commands—only to hear them echoed by a backup trainer until they were heeded. By reinforcing Brown’s directions, the other trainers helped elevate her status to their level.
If an elephant herd resembles a sorority, then the initiation of a new trainer resembles a hazing—complete with fortitude-testing moments of truth that weed out the faint-of-heart. The moments that challenged Brown most came during confrontations with Nancy, who, as the herd’s dominant elephant, withheld her cooperation longer than the others. Conquering one of the last hurdles en route to the apex of the pachyderm pecking order, Brown remembers trying to hide her intimidation from the stubborn grandam: “I wanted to run. But I knew if I ran I would have to run right out of the elephant house because I wouldn’t be able to work the elephants.” She stood her ground and eventually commanded authority over the entire herd.
Full integration into the herd generally takes about a year. In addition to respecting commands, the elephants express their acceptance of trainers with a variety of gestures. Nancy may extend an invitation to swing on her trunk. Ambika may offer the elephant greeting that puts her trunk—which alternately inhales to pick up identifying scents and exhales a blow-dryerlike stream of air—over a trainer’s body. Or Toni may open her mouth and boldly solicit someone to pet her tongue. Easing of their relationships with the elephants also allows the lucky trainers to ride the elephants or frolic in the pool with four frisky pachyderms on a hot summer day.
But even after a trainer has been accepted, the danger does not dissipate. Indeed, vigilance is the trainer’s constant companion.
“You may see us laughing, looking like we are just having a good time, relaxing,” says Galloway, outfitted as always in her safari-style Banana Republic hat. “But we are always watching the elephants, aware of where we are, and where they are, what they are doing, and what their next move might be.”
“When elephants get aggressive, they are purposeful,” adds Hile. “They know why and how they are injuring someone. It’s all very calculated.”
The National Zoo’s general philosophy on injuries is that trainers make mistakes, elephants do not. Although male elephants can lash out unpredictably, female elephants who turn rogue have invariably been aggravated by abuse, neglect, or a trainer’s mistake—such as the recent fatal faux pas of a trainer in a San Diego zoo, who tried to calm two squabbling elephants by stepping between them.
Many of the dos and don’ts—as well as the interspecies language followed by modern trainers—have been copped from Asian mahouts, who have employed elephants as beasts of burden in logging camps for over 3,000 years. Both in Asia and the U.S., the tricks of the elephant trainer’s trade are passed down from one generation to another solely through on-the-job apprenticeships; the trainer/elephant language is not written down anywhere. Mahouts do enlist male elephants in their labors, and more are killed by elephants than are zoo trainers, who favor females and usually avoid hands-on contact with males.
Although the National Zoo’s record is free of trainer deaths, an ornery elephant has occasionally stepped on the toe of a trainer. “It hurt,” says Galloway, answering a commonly asked question. “But it wasn’t as bad as you might think, because the impact was softened by the elephant’s foot padding.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.