By the time my Powell event began, we were 130 strong (or more). Staff had to bring in more chairs, and even then there were people standing in the back. I was delighted that so many came out to wish the book Happy Birthday and learn about Portland’s elephants and the man that cared for them all those years. Thank you.
For those who are interested, here’s a copy of the talk I gave, minus any extemporaneous remarks. (The words in bold is where I showed a particular slide, and I’ll include those here as well.)
Back in March 1997, I spent several hours in the Oregon Zoo elephant barn with senior keeper Roger Henneous and a remarkable animal named Belle. She was recuperating from surgery and I was one of several volunteers assigned to keep an eye on her for the next few days.
The barn was quiet when I arrived; no clang of hydraulic doors opening and closing, no chatter or bustle of visitors or staff; everyone gone home for the night except the man dressed in keeper brown, wearing a battered campaign hat, who stood beside the elephant in the front exhibit room, her left front foot wrapped in thick bandage secured with gray duct tape.
I watched for several minutes, until Roger noticed me and came out to introduce himself. Belle turned away, face to the wall, and rocked from side to side. I could sense she was in pain, but so was Roger; it was clear on his face, though it was a different sort of pain from hers, one that had nothing to do with surgery and everything to do with his heart.
Several days earlier, Belle had undergone a procedure to remove necrotic tissue and infected bone brought on by pododermatitis, the technical term for what elephant keepers graphically call “foot rot,” a condition to which captive elephants are prone. Zoo personnel came together with several local businesses to convert an area of the barn into a surgical suite complete with a sling to help lift and position Belle during the operation, and a team of surgeons from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine had generously donated their services. Belle’s prognosis was good, but guarded. A procedure such as this was a rare thing, and no one, not even the doctors, could guess its outcome.
Roger was gruff, gravel-voiced, and disinclined to conversation, so we sat in silence as time passed. Belle continued to shift from side to side, an unnerving thing to watch when you aren’t familiar with elephants. At times, she leaned so far to the right that I was afraid she’d keel over. Roger assured me she wouldn’t fall, but I perched nervously on the front edge of my chair ready to jump up if she did. What did I expect to do? Catch her?
Two hours into my shift, Roger excused himself and disappeared into the back area of the barn. He emerged in the exhibit room carrying a large plastic garbage can with fronds of bamboo sprouting from the top. He offered a stalk to Belle. She accepted it, moved it around in her mouth, and dropped it on the floor. He next offered a banana, then some hay. Nothing seemed to tempt her. Finally, she ate an apple, bits of pulp dropping from her lips, but refused anything else. Roger put the can away, brought out a hose, and waited while Belle drank her fill.
When he rejoined me, his expression was glum. “She’s got no appetite,” he said.
“But she ate a little,” I replied, “because you asked her to.”
Roger shrugged, unwilling to take credit for that minor success. He thumbed back the brim of his hat. “Belle and me, we’re like an old married couple,” he said. An unexpectedly sweet smile curved his lips. “We respect each other,” he added. “But neither of us is terribly impressed anymore.” He chuckled. “Although she did save my life once.”
The name Belle means little to zoo visitors these days, but for decades she was a fixture in the elephant barn, a matriarch famous for the birth of her son, Packy. As the first successful elephant birth in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years, Packy’s arrival generated a frenzy of interest and ushered in the era that transformed Portland from the “City of Roses” to the “City of Elephants.” The zoo received hundreds of phone calls, telegrams, and bouquets of flowers, even baby bibs and blankets. Zoo Director Jack Marks fainted while telephoning the momentous news, and LIFE Magazine devoted an unprecedented 11 pages to the event. The crowds that descended on the zoo broke every attendance record. By the end of that year, more than one million people from around the world had visited the celebrated newcomer and his mother.
These days, no one remembers Roger either, though he carried his own brand of celebrity back then, serving up caustic wit and homespun wisdom in equal measure to anyone that wandered within earshot. (That’s him, second from the left, during his rookie year.) He was unfailingly polite around children, choosing his words carefully so as to not swear in front of them, and completely the opposite with the reporters who dropped by the zoo whenever there was a slow news day hoping for a colorful remark. Roger was always happy to oblige. His Midwestern work ethic made him a legend among keepers, and he alternately delighted his coworkers or drove them insane. And there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for his elephants.
For 30 years Roger devoted most of his waking hours to caring for what became the largest and most successful breeding herd of elephants in North America. Sometimes as many as 11 animals tested the seams of the old barn. To give you an idea of what that means to a zoo keeper on a fundamental level, a single healthy adult elephant can produce 250-300 pounds of manure every 24 hours. Multiply that by 11 animals, and we’re talking a ton and a half of excrement needing to be shoveled and hauled away every single day.
What many people don’t appreciate is that there’s more to elephant care than food, water, and shoveling. Elephants need to be scrubbed to loosen dry skin, and weighed to keep them from straying into obesity. Particular attention must be paid to their feet, which require, among other things, the regular trimming and shaping of toenails and removal of debris they pick up while walking. Some elephants require medication or physical therapy. In Roger’s time, a few even needed to be rescued when tomfoolery, a misstep, or an argument in the herd caused an elephant to tumble into the dry moat that surrounded the yard back in those days.
Zoo visitors are generally a bit starry-eyed about the so-called “glamour” of being a keeper, so they often don’t realize there’s a degree of danger to the job. Any animal can have a bad day, and elephants are no exception. Roger survived being kicked, shoved, and swatted with trunks. He earned bruises, scrapes, broken bones, and even one or two close calls with the Grim Reaper, but he never once considered giving up on his elephants. In an era when the standard procedure for dealing with these uncommonly intelligent and potentially dangerous animals might include confinement, physical abuse, isolation, and starvation, Roger chose instead to create a compassionate and rewards-based environment grounded in mutual respect that continues to this day.
“More can be achieved with kindness than with brutality,” he told me. “Abuse is the lazy man’s solution to a problem. Maintaining control is an exercise in intellect.” Barn rules required that he carry a bull hook or ankus, the traditional tool used by elephant keepers, but more often than not Roger got chewed out for misplacing his or purposely leaving it behind. He told me, “The less an ankus is used, the better for both elephant and keeper, because not using it forces you to work harder at communication.”
After that night in the barn Roger and I crossed paths once more, briefly, but the experience of being with him and Belle never left me. Eighteen years later, I finally tracked him down to ask if I could tell his story. He didn’t remember me, and wasn’t sure he wanted to relive those years, some of which were indescribably painful. But it meant a lot to him that I’d known Belle, however briefly, during that anxious time in their lives. In the end, Roger agreed to share his story not for his own sake, but because of the animals he loved. “I don’t much care if anyone remembers me once I’m gone,” he said. “But I’d like it if they remembered the elephants.”
The Oregon Zoo herd is smaller these days, but the accommodations have vastly improved and the dedication of its keepers is just as strong. Miraculously, two of Roger’s original elephant friends are still there. Sung-Surin, better known as Shine, born in 1982 and shown here on the far right, is herd matriarch just like her grandmother Belle. Rose-Tu, in the middle, whose rare birth as one of a set of twins Roger witnessed in 1994, is the successful mother in the herd. Her children, Samudra and Lily, on the far left, are fourth generation elephants whose lineage can be traced all the way back to their great-grandmother Rosy, who in 1953 became Portland’s first elephant.
Today, there are five elephants in the herd—females Shine, Rose-Tu, and Chendra, second from the right, and males Samudra and Samson. Sadly, on November 29, 2018, Lily died unexpectedly from Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus or EEHV, a swift-acting and deadly disease that resides latent in all elephants, but for reasons unknown may suddenly become active. Research is underway to develop a vaccine, but until then keepers everywhere remain vigilant, ready to battle for the lives of the elephants they love. Disease, however, isn’t the only threat that elephants face.
Two hundred years ago, the population of wild Asian elephants was estimated at around 200,000. Today the count places it at around 35,000 or less. Dense vegetation, difficult terrain, and outmoded survey techniques make an accurate census difficult, but the indisputable fact remains that elephant populations are in steady decline worldwide. The three greatest threats to their continued existence are habitat loss, inter-species conflict, and predation. The root cause of all three is us.
But we also have the potential to be the elephants’ salvation. I’m not talking just about keepers and scientists, but all of us. No one can do everything, but each of us can do something to help elephants survive into the next century. For instance, we can purchase elephant-friendly products and avoid buying items that contain palm oil, ivory, or elephant parts. We can contribute to organizations like Asian Elephant Support, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, and the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation which has released over 100 former working elephants into three forest sanctuaries in Thailand to live, breed, and raise their young without interference from humans.
Over 50 years ago, Roger Henneous pledged his life to the survival of elephants. To this day, he remains dedicated to their preservation. “We have to do something,” he told me. “To try and fail is forgivable, but to be so indifferent that you never try is immoral.”