One of the world’s greatest elephant men died today.
Roger Henneous knew nothing about what he came to call “the great gray clowns” when he took the zookeeper job at the Portland (Oregon) Zoological Gardens back in 1968. All he knew was that he wanted to work with animals more than anything in the world. His 20 years of experience with farm stock laid a good foundation upon which he knew he could build the necessary zoological training. As he told the curator who interviewed him, “Near as I can tell, all animals need pretty much the same things: clean water, good food, adequate shelter, and protection from people who might do them harm.”
For the next 30 years, he provided all that and so much more to the animals in his care. As he put it, “Caring for livestock is a seven-days-a-week, twenty-four-hours-a-day, fifty-two-weeks-a-year proposition. Animals don’t know that it’s Christmas or Thanksgiving or your birthday or whatever and wouldn’t give a damn if they did. They’re standing in their own crap, they’re hungry, they need a drink, and some need medical attention. If you’re worth half a shit, you’ll do those things. If you’re not prepared to, then you need to get a desk job shuffling papers.”
During that first year as a fledgling keeper, Roger did all that and more. He scrubbed the odious duck pond and cleaned his share of garbage cans (keepers also did a lot of maintenance in those days), but he also learned to teleport (figuratively speaking) when a full grown African lion pounced at him; earned welts the size of half-dollars from the punishing beaks of geese; pedicured sheep, goats, and even a giraffe; served as bait to an enraged bull elk; nearly lost his job for (unknowingly) threatening to kick the ass of the director of the zoo; met his first new-born elephant; learned that some keepers are abusive; and came to understand that sometimes even those in charge don’t get their way.
But the best part was the elephants. It didn’t take long for him to fall in love, and he was struck uncharacteristically dumb when, just after that first year, he was nominated to be their senior keeper upon the retirement of his mentor, Al Tucker. From that moment on, Roger had two families: a human one, and one made up of elephants.
“Elephants have no manners whatsoever,” he said. “And that trunk will go where it pleases. But, boy, when they’re checking out your gender, it’s a bit disconcerting.”
Over the years, Roger earned the reputation of a dedicated keeper who would fight for his animals, as well as one with a somewhat unique view of animal care built upon the “Laws of Tucker”:
He advocated seeing problems from the elephant’s perspective, and based every moment of every day on trust.
There were wonderful days in the elephant barn (newborns, successful training, and any time he could be in the enclosure with “his girls”), and not so great (human-human conflict, human-elephant conflict, arguments with administration, and elephant deaths), as well as the day-to-day grind of hauling feed, shoveling manure, trimming feet, and dispensing care. Roger took it all in stride, blessed (most) of the keepers he worked with, and reveled in the good days.
I met Roger in 1997, the year before he retired. I was a fledgling volunteer assigned to the elephant barn as part of a program to maintain watch on Belle, one of two matriarchs. Roger was the keeper stuck with having to keep an eye on the elephant, but also on me. Belle had undergone crucial foot surgery in an attempt to save her life, and Roger was understandably more interested in her than he was in me. Still, something clicked between the grizzled veteran and the nervous novice. We lost touch after I moved from Portland, but that time with Roger and Belle haunted me until, nearly 20 years later, I tracked him down, and we resumed—and recreated—the close connection that began that night in the barn.
Now he’s gone.
Roger, I’m not sure what I’ll do with my Thursday afternoons now that you’re not at the other end of the phone. Thank you for being a best friend and, in many ways, a father to me. Thank you for the occasional arguments (my God, you were stubborn….but so was I). Thank you for facing your reluctance to relive the zoo years, and for telling your story to me and to the world. Thank you for having faith in me to do it right. Thank you for facing your fears and revisiting the zoo after nearly two decades to reacquaint yourself with Sung-Surin and Rose-Tu, and meet the other elephants.
Roger used to tell me that if there is an afterlife, he figured he’d be met by a bunch of angry elephants for the way he’d let them down (somehow believing he had the power to keep them alive forever). He’s wrong. I know exactly what happened:
“Roger opened his eyes the other side of death and saw gray – a massive elephant head looking down at him, turning side to side to view him from one eye, then the other. A gentle trunk snuffled his chest, armpits, face, and hair. Not quite believing, he reached to touch behind Belle’s ear, that special place, soft as silk, where he used to pat her. Her rumble of welcome filled his soul. “
Bye, Roger. I’ll miss you forever.