I’ve done a bit of traveling over the past year, mostly to the west coast of the U.S., and mostly to Oregon to visit Roger Henneous, who is my dear friend as well as the subject of my latest book, “The Man Who Loved Elephants.” This is him,
with his lovely wife RoseMerrie.
For almost 30 years, Roger worked–and worked, and worked, and worked–as Senior Elephant Keeper at the Washington Park Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo). Those who’ve been mislead by romanticism may imagine that a zoo keeper’s life is one of bucolic interaction with the animals he cares for–and there can be some of that–but mostly it’s as Roger once wrote on a job description: “Days, weeks and months of back-breaking labor punctuated by moments of abject terror.”
The elephants were Roger’s friends, but they were also his children. Like children, it was up to him to teach them the rules of life in the barn so as to keep them safe and healthy: “thou shalt do as the keeper asks, thou shalt not knock the keeper down.”
Although the general media sometimes seems bent on having us believe that all zoo keepers are deplorable monsters who torture their animals, this is not the case and Roger is proof of that. “You can make an elephant do one of two things,” he’s fond of saying. “Run away or kill you. But you can get an elephant to do an amazing number of things.” He learned that “elephants are kind of subtle,” so he’d best keep his eyes moving all the time. He learned that they have a sense of humor, but a sound whack from an elephant’s trunk can severely injure a person, so that couldn’t be tolerated. He understood that he couldn’t out-weight them or out-reach them, so he needed to out-think them; to offer them a better deal when they thought mischief was the best course of action.
Although many of the elephants Roger knew have long since passed on, several remain.
One of these is Hanako, who resides at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wa. Hanako (which means “little flower child”) was a five-year-old youngster when Roger arrived at the Washington Park Zoo, the daughter of Tuy Hoa (pronounced tea-wha) and the bull Thonglaw (pronounced tung-law). It didn’t take him learn to realize that this was an elephant of a different stripe; an animal with a nervous and unpredictable personality. “She was not, thank God, particularly vicious,” Roger stresses, “but she was flighty. It took nothing to set her off and there were times when I never could figure out what had triggered her.” On one occasion, she attempted to kill Roger as he was inspecting her newborn calf.
Hanako’s tendency toward violence led to her being transferred to Point Defiance, where they had in place a “protected contact” system that allowed keepers to care for her without having to be in the enclosure with her. Under protected contact, elephants are trained to present their ears, feet, and trunk through a variety of openings so keepers can inspect them, file their nails, and treat any injuries. The bars of the enclosure are wide enough to accommodate an enormous bristled brush, and this is used to scrub down the elephants.
This summer, I was most fortunate to receive an invitation from John Houck, Deputy Director at Point Defiance (and a former co-worker of Roger’s from the Washington Park
Zoo days) to come visit “the next time you’re out this way.” Along with my husband Ed, Linda Reifschneider, President of Asian Elephant Support, and her associate Cynthia Christison, we received an unexpected and thoroughly enjoyable behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo. Best of all, thanks to the generosity of John Houck and elephant keeper Kate Burrone, we actually got to meet Hanako and her pal Suki! Not only that, but we got to feed her. The high-point for me, however, was standing beside her and being regarded by her beautiful eye as she took in my scent and figured out who the heck I was. She behaved beautifully and this will forever be one of the high points of my life. Thank you, John and Kate!