I’m so very proud to have been able to participate in the Newburyport Literary Festival, forced to go virtual thanks to COVID-19. You can access the various segments on YouTube, and see mine here: Newburyport Festival
Host John Valeri was kind enough to add me to his roster of authors. You can watch the interview here.
By the end of our day at the zoo–and walking around Portland, window-shopping and stuffing ourselves with great food–I was more toast than human. We’d planned on driving the three hours of Bend, OR that night, but Ed and I were both so wrung out we opted to spend another night in the City of Roses. Morning had us on the road bright and early, bidding a tearful goodbye to my friend Wendy, who had to head home to Delaware.
If you’ve never driven from Portland to Bend, I heartily encourage you to do so. It’s a windy trek of road, and often a bit congested depending upon the time of year, and one can become caught behind a laboring big rig. However, there are compensations:
You watch Hood from a distance, then begin the climb up its flank. Suddenly, you round a turn in the road and the mountain is right there, in your face: miraculous, immense, ancient, and breathtaking.
Before you know it, you’re over the mountain and heading into the high desert country of eastern Oregon. I had little experience of desert before coming to Bend the first time, a couple of brief visits to Arizona was all. Against all expectation from this water-loving, Scottish-weather sort of girl, I fell in love with the high country. Maybe my love of Westerns fed it, at least in part, but there was something comfortable about the feel of the place against my skin and against my mind. I can’t explain it any clearer than that. I’ve never been in a position to pull the car over and get out to snap some pictures (there’s precious few places wide enough to pull over and the road can be busy), but thanks again to the folks at Pixabay, I can show you what it looks like. (Photos courtesy of ArielJ and Ally Laws.)
So, we at last landed in Bend, one of my favorite cities, at the home of Don and Bev Henneous (Roger’s brother and sister-in-law) who were generous enough to save us from yet another hotel room. I’ve stayed with them before and it’s always a good time. Poor Bev had fallen a few days earlier and broken her kneecap which prevented them from attending the big launch event in Portland. But Bev, being Bev, wasn’t about to let something as significantly insignificant as a broken bone deter her when the events to come were practically in her own backyard.
That evening’s event was held at Roundabout Books, an independent shop in Bend owned by Cassie Clemans. If you’re in the area, go. This is a nifty, nifty bookstore; small, but packed to the gills with so much wonderfulness that I was disappointed I didn’t have time to browse. (That time constraint likely saved my bank account.) Cassie and the other women who run the store were unable to be there, but left the program in the capable hands of their spouses Andy, JD, and Jonathan, who are terrific guys all-around and managed to pack about 40 people into the exhibit space. Because Roger’s hands are quite afflicted with arthritis, his daughter Michelle was thoughtful enough to provide a signature stamp so he could add his name to mine. The audience was engaged, enthusiastic, and so much fun to be with. Plus, their questions were terrific.
(Beginning top left: Roger and me with some of the wonderful crew from Ooligan Books: Vivian Nguyen, Julie Collins, and Emma Wolf; the Roundabout events board; signing the author table; during the presentation; the book display; Roger and me signing books; Roundabout interior; connecting with Roger prior to the event; and Roger gets to sign the table, too.)
Our last event of the World Tour was held at Sunriver Books & Music (Fact, Fiction, and Flights of Fancy) in Sunriver, Oregon. I jokingly say that Deon Stonehouse, who owns the store with her husband Richard, accosted me at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Trade Show last October, but that isn’t far from the truth. I’d no more made my way from the podium after giving my seven-minute presentation, and sat down at the table where I’d be signing ARCs (advance readers copies) when this whirlwind of a woman appeared and breathlessly announced, “Your book is the only reason I came to this!” (What writer doesn’t want to hear that?) She inquired whether I could be induced to come west again to appear at her store and of course I said yes. Now here we were at last, face to face once more, with the added delight of meeting Richard and the rest of the Sunriver Books & Music team (including a German shepherd puppy that near-about stole the show.)
(From top left: the presentation, showing a picture of Roger taken on his last day at the zoo (he always expresses gratitude for those sunglasses, so no one could see his tears in taking leave of his girls); Q&A time; Roger signs books while I get to wear the famous hat (he was a complete chick-magnet); two Sunriver Books interior shots; the after-party with family and friends; the crowd begins to gather; two shots of the book display.)
This crowd gave me some of the best, most thought-provoking and insightful questions, opinions, and observations of the entire trip. We could have easily slipped into a brainstorming session on how best to secure the survival of elephants … which is precisely what Roger hoped the book might do, inspire others to use their resources (mental, physical, financial) to carry the elephants into the future. I could not have been more pleased.
Sunday brought us early to the Portland airport (watching the sun rise over the desert and illuminate Mount Hood is an image I’ll never forget) and a long flight home. There aren’t words enough to thank everyone involved: Roger’s family and friends who came out in force to support him and me; the folks at Powell’s, Bob Lee and his team at the Oregon Zoo, Roundabout, and Sunriver who believe the book has merit (I agree!); and my wonderful crew at Ooligan (with a special shout-out to Abbey Gaterud, Julie Collins, Melinda Crouchley, Vivian Nguyen, and Emma Wolf. Special-special kudos to Sydnee Chelsey and Faith Munoz, who jumped into a car and drove three hours from Portland to Bend with extra books because we were afraid we’d run out).
Particular thanks to the Henneous clan, who welcomed me so warmly into their home and their lives; to Wendy Carofano, who wildly decided to hop a flight and come 3,000 miles just to provide support to a friend; and particularly to my husband Ed Everett, who kept all the loose ends (including this author) from flapping in the wind. I love you all.
And then there’s Roger–muse, mentor, friend, father, ally, and partner on this journey. There’d have been no book without his trust in me, his willingness to tell his story, and his bravery in facing down the dark days of the past. I love and admire him beyond words. We drive each other crazy sometimes, as often happens in the very best of relationships, but we always have each other’s back. I love him immensely, and can’t imagine a world without him in it.
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.”
Okay, so maybe not the entire world, but let’s not get too picky here. I did cross an entire continent for these events, and it’s a grand thing I’m a morning person, because I usually have to get up at something like o-dark-stupidly early to catch a flight to Oregon. This trip turned out to be far more civilized, with a departure time of 10 am. What luxury! Usually, I’m up at 2 in order to eat, shower, and drive to the airport because I’m one of those obsessive people who doesn’t like to challenge the notion of being there two hours before flight time because God knows I MIGHT MISS THE FLIGHT!!!!!!!! (I’ve been known to arrive at the airport as much as three hours in advance of my flight if I’m not sure of how to get to the airport. Also, I don’t much like to drive in the dark–blame my cataracts–so that’s an added thing.)
I heard that. Shut up.
We left Hartford on time and landed in Chicago without incident. (That’s what you want on a flight, isn’t it? No incidents. The lady sitting next to me as a tad on the bitchy side–she griped at the edge of my jacket straying over onto her section of seat–and then talked about nothing but her family, although I hadn’t said a word to engage her in conversation. Turn-around in The Windy City was brief (just under an hour, during which I fielded a series of emails regarding an additional television appearance to promote the book and my appearance at Powells) and then we were on our way again. I spent this longer leg of the flight trying to read, failing abysmally at Sudoku, and working on my presentation.
Portland, Oregon at last! Oh, frabjous day, callooh callay! (As Lewis Carroll put it.) Ed, my brilliant husband and chief member of what he called my entourage, made our hotel reservation for literally minutes from the airport, so a quick drive deposited us at Hampton Inn. Ten minutes later, we joined company with one of my oldest and dearest friends, my heart-sister Wendy Carofano, who I’ve known since seventh grade. She flew all the way from Delaware to offer moral support and serve as my “roadie.” How’s that for devotion?
We met up with Michelle Henneous for dinner and then called it an early night because the next day was
We arrived at television station KATU for their morning show, Portland AM Northwest, and were directed to the Green Room where we met the other guests and generally hung out talking and sharing news until it was time for each of us to be outfitted with a remote microphone and take our turn in the hot-seat with show host Helen Raptis. (That’s me with Wendy on the left, and with Ed on the right.) If you’d like to watch my segment, just click here.
I’d never done a television interview before, but Helen and her crew made the entire process a breeze. I wasn’t the least bit nervous, probably because I’ve been immersed in this subject for five years. What was there to be afraid of?
Once we were through, we had a few hours lag time before returning for the KATU afternoon program, Portland Afternoon Live, so we tooled around Portland. We grabbed lunch at a small but amazing salad place (kale! Yes!) and made a brief visit to Powell’s City of Books where I saw ELEPHANT SPEAK on a store bookshelf for the first time, quite a thrill I must say. Wendy immediately went into sales mode with a gentleman who was looking at it, and the next thing I knew, he was asking me to sign his copy.
Back we went to KATU’s Green Room for my afternoon piece. (Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a link to that on their website, but the interview was much the same as the morning one.)
By the time we left the studio I was … how shall I put this? … I believe toast is the correct word. Some of it was due to travel the day before, but the greater part of my fatigue was because I am, at heart, an introvert. I have to work very hard to engage with people, particularly strangers, and find it difficult to be “on” for protracted lengths of time. We had several hours to spare before the evening book launch (!!!) at Powell’s, so I opted to return to the hotel, climb under the covers, and close my eyes. I didn’t sleep, but did rest some, and spent part of that time zoning out with the new Godzilla movie.
Ed chose an awesome Italian restaurant called Allora, at 504 NW 9th Avenue. Wendy went exotic with rabbit ragu, and Ed had cioppino (a seafood stew), but I opted for down-home, stick to your ribs goodness with their house-made polpette (essentially spaghetti and meatballs). Wine and panna cotta rounded out the meal, and by the time we arrived at Powell’s, I was raring to go.
Let me tell you a bit about Powell’s City of Books, the ultimate book mecca for anyone who loves the written word. They’re the largest independent bookstore in the world and have been serving the city of Portland since 1971. They employ over 530 people in five area stores (and Powells.com) and their book inventory (take a deep breath) exceeds two million volumes. (The main store takes up an entire city block.)
To quote in part from their website, “Powell’s roots began in Chicago, where Michael Powell opened his first bookstore in 1970 … Michael’s dad, Walter Powell, a retired painting contractor, worked one summer in the Chicago store. He so enjoyed his experience that upon returning to Portland he opened his own used bookstore. Walter swamped his original location by buying every marketable used book that came through the door, finally pushing the whole operation into a former car dealership on Northwest Burnside … In 1979, Michael joined Walter in Portland, creating a bookstore with a unique recipe that, though viewed as unorthodox, worked: used and new, hardcover and paperback, all on the same shelf; open 365 days a year; and staffed by knowledgeable and dedicated booklovers. Four decades later, Powell’s Books is a cornerstone of the community and continues to operate as a third-generation family-owned business with Emily Powell at the helm. Says Emily: “My grandfather taught me that our job is to connect the writer’s voice with the reader’s ear and not let our egos get in between. My father taught me not only the love of the book itself but also how to love the business of bookselling.”
Small wonder that walking through the door left me feeling like I’d just come home. (I’m there in the small print, on the left, fourth from the top.)
And what a time it was! The Powell’s staff was energetic, engaging, and serious about their work. They had me set up in no time, and I watched is something like disbelief as the crowd gathered … and gathered … and gathered … until more chairs had to be brought in. And with that, I began. (More to follow tomorrow)
It wasn’t my intention to be absent from this blog for so long, but I was waylaid by a vestibular migraine, something I’ve experienced most of my life, but was actually diagnosed last April. For those who don’t know (and who would, unless they had them?), vestibular migraines (in my case at least) present with no headache pain, but with debilitating vertigo and motion sensitivity, as well as sensitivity to bright light and sound.
Fun times, no? Decidedly no.
The after effect is bone-deep exhaustion, making it difficult to do much of anything for several days. Again, no fun.
But I’m back on the horse, as they say, and although I’m having some residual minor side-effects, overall I feel pretty well. Well enough, anyway, to announce that yesterday was amazing.
How so, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.
First came the news that ELEPHANT SPEAK received a wonderful review in Publisher’s Weekly! If you’d like to read it, click here, but be aware that there are spoilers. (And one teensy error. Where “Crandall” shows up about half-way through, substitute “Henneous.”) I’m honored that they felt my book merited a review.
The second bit of news is that I’ve been chosen to be a guest at the Newburyport Literary Festival in Newburyport, MA on April 24-25, 2020. I’m a huge fan of Newburyport and have been visiting there, and on Plum Island, for decades, so I’m really looking forward to spending time in one of my all time favorite places, put in some hours on the beach, and get to know lots of writers and readers. Plus, Newburyport is home to Jabberwocky Books, and they don’t get much better than that. Oh, and let’s not forget the infamous Pink House on Plum Island, long may it stand, and at least one meal at Bob Lobster. (Best fried clams ever.) This is a great honor, and I’m so appreciative.
Spring is shaping up to be busy, but a lot of fun. Stay tuned.
After the book launch at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR on March 4, I’ll be following it up with a visit to Sunriver Books and Music in Sunriver, OR on March 7. Come and say hi!
I’m proud and honored to have been chosen to present my book ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd at the “7 Coming-Up Author Showcase” at the recent PNBA Tradeshow held October 6-8 at the Red Lion on the River in Portland, OR.
The event–which rounded out the show, attracting booksellers, librarians, and publisher and sales rep exhibitors–featured seven authors from around the world, representing various genres, speaking for seven minutes on their books, which will appear from now through the Spring of 2020, after which book signings and giveaways took place. Joining me on stage were authors Gretchen Berg (The Operator), DJ Lee (Remote: A Love Story), Jody J. Little (Worse Than Weird), Daniel Mathews (Trees in Trouble), Abigail Hing Wen (Loveboat, Taipei), and Erin Yun (Pippa Park Raises Her Game).
(FYI, ELEPHANT SPEAK is due to be born on March 3, 2020, and will be available from Ooligan Press, as well as through your favorite independent bookseller and other online sites. Please support independent publishing and booksellers.)
(On left, with supportive Project Manager Julie Collins. On right, with Publisher Abbey Gaterud, who talked me off the ledge at least once)
Seven minutes isn’t a very long amount of time in which to convey something special about your book, something readers won’t learn by reading it. (On the other hand, seven minutes can seem like forever, as I’m sure you’ve all experienced.) I chose to focus on the evening I first met Roger Henneous. What follows is my talk, as given:
From 1968 to 1998, Roger Henneous cared for the largest captive herd of breeding elephants in North America and he did it right here, in Portland, at what was then called the Washington Park Zoo.
I met Roger in March 1997. He was the Senior Keeper of Elephants and I was a fledgling zoo volunteer drafted to assist in an around-the-clock medical watch on Belle, the herd matriarch. Surgeons from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine had recently excised infected bone and necrotic tissue from her left front foot, the result of pododermatitis, an affliction better known by the evocative name “foot rot,” a chronic disease to which captive elephants are prone. The operation had been risky given Belle’s age, size, anatomy, and other health concerns, but she’d tolerated the procedure surprisingly well and there was every hope for a full recovery.
When I arrived in the elephant barn that night, I found Roger standing with Belle behind the glass of the front exhibit room. Not a big man, he seemed even smaller beside the towering elephant, his bearded face shadowed by the brim of a battered campaign hat. Belle stood in an attitude of deep concentration, her foot wrapped in thick bandage secured with gray duct tape, gently rocking from side to side as she listened to him.
Let me tell you a little about Belle. She was only a few months old when she came to the United States in 1952. She was so tiny that her owner, an animal trainer named Morgan Berry, drove her around in the back of an old Cadillac, the rear seat removed so she could stand with her trunk hanging out the window, waving at people.
Ten years later, in April 1962, Belle made history when she delivered her son Packy. As the first successful elephant birth in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years, the event triggered a media circus. Belle and Packy became instant celebrities and, for the first time, the zoo’s annual attendance soared past the one million mark. Overnight, Portland was transformed from “The City of Roses” to the “The City of Elephants.”
But that was all in the past. What mattered most the night I met Roger, was getting Belle back to her old self.
When he eventually appeared on my side of the exhibit room glass, Roger brusquely introduced himself and offered me one of two metal folding chairs. I settled onto it and he took the other, elbows on knees, hands clasped, his eyes on Belle. He fretted over every elephant in his care, but she was indisputably his favorite, and had been ever since she’d held at bay another elephant determined to kill him.
Time passed. Belle’s constant rocking unnerved me. There were moments when she leaned so far to the right that it seemed she might fall. It was too easy to imagine her great body losing its balance and crashing sideways. Once, in panic, I blurted, “She’s going over!” because it seemed impossible that she could recover from so steep a cant.
“No, she isn’t.” Roger’s voice was gentle despite the grate of smoker’s gravel. My cheeks went hot, embarrassed by my outburst … by my fear that something bad would happen on my watch, or that I’d say or do something ridiculous and make a fool of myself—which, of course, I’d just done. Roger didn’t hold it against me. My obvious concern for Belle’s welfare granted me all manner of forgiveness.
Mid-way through my four-hour shift, Roger excused himself and returned to the exhibit room, lugging a large plastic garbage can with bright green fronds of bamboo sprouting from the top. Belle took what he offered and dropped it on the floor, clearly disinterested. Roger dug deeper into the can, produced an apple, and held it to her mouth. She lipped the fruit, but didn’t eat. He offered a banana, and this she accepted, grinding it into pulp between her immense molars. She refused anything further, so Roger put the can aside, brought out a hose, and allowed her to drink her fill.
Later, he returned to sit by me again. “She’s got no appetite,” he said grimly.
“She ate a little, though,” I pointed out, “because you asked her to.”
He shrugged, reluctant to take credit for anything. Cocking back the brim of his hat, Roger folded his arms across his chest. “Belle and me, we’re like an old married couple,” he said. For the first time that evening, a tiny smile curved the edge of his lips in an expression made up in equal parts of tenderness and exasperation. “We’ve known each other a long time and we respect each other, but neither of us is terribly impressed anymore.”
Some great love affairs never die. So it is with Roger and the elephants. More than twenty years since that night, he remains as enamored as he ever was and, I hope, quietly pleased by the mark he’s left on the field of elephant care. In an era when the standard procedure for dealing with such immense and intelligent animals might involve confinement, abuse, isolation, and starvation, Roger labored to create a compassionate and rewards-based environment grounded in mutual respect. He cared little for the accolades gathered along the way, including the Marlin Perkins Certificate of Excellence. The only thing that mattered was the elephants.
“Abuse is the lazy man’s solution to a problem,” he told me. “Maintaining control is an exercise in intellect. More can be achieved with kindness than with brutality.”
When Roger first arrived at the zoo in 1968, he was just looking for a job working with animals. He’d no particular interest in elephants, and no idea they would soon take over his life, affecting every part of it, ultimately influencing his notions of dedication, determination, empathy, compassion, and family. During his 30 years at the zoo, he inspired both loyalty and consternation among his coworkers, and never stopped moving from the moment his boots hit the ground in the morning until he took them off at night. Along the way, he dispensed common sense, sentimentality, and sarcastic wit. Once asked by supervisors to describe his job, he replied, “Days, weeks, and months of back-breaking labor punctuated by moments of abject terror.” Those who met him, however briefly, walked away with the experience indelibly stamped on their lives.
“I never met a keeper that cared more for his animals than Roger,” said a former coworker. “He was crusty and cantankerous on the outside, but a big soft jelly doughnut on the inside when it came to the elephants. He didn’t romanticize or anthropomorphize, but he loved them for what they were.”
Initially, Roger was reluctant to share his story, uncertain whether he wanted to relive those years, some of which had been indescribably painful. In the end, he chose to proceed not for his own benefit, but for the sake 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.”
Thank you to my “author wrangling” team at Ooligan; to everyone at PNBA; to all the independent booksellers and publishers, librarians and sales reps who work long hours to promote books that might not otherwise come readily to a reader’s hand; and to my fellow writers wherever you are.
We earned this celebration! Denise Morales Soto (Design), Julie Collins (Project Manager), c’est moi, Faith Munoz (Social Media), and Melinda Crouchley (Managing Editor)
In Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert writes about the notion of story ideas drifting about in the ether, coming to rest with one writer or another. If given attention, the ideas stay and grow. If not, they eventually move on to a more receptive audience.
I believe this.
More than two years ago, I visited Gettysburg for the first time. If you’ve never been, do yourself a favor and go. If you possess an ounce of sensitivity in your soul, you can’t help but be affected. There’s a quality to the space … the silence … the sense of energy, of presence, behind that silence. Anyone who thinks it’s a boring old bunch of empty fields dotted with memorials is missing the point. Because of that visit, I will never be the same. I’m grateful for that, and can’t wait to return.
At any rate, shortly after that visit, a line of narrative popped into my brain–a description of a minie ball blasting into the abdomen of a young soldier from Maine on the fields of Gettysburg–and I knew I had the idea for my next book.
But I also had an idea for a book of narrative nonfiction about this man I’d met 20 years earlier who spent 30 years lovingly caring for the largest breeding herd of elephants in captivity. My research into that book–my tentative forays to locate this gentleman–had suddenly borne fruit, and here I was juggling two ideas.
My first inclination was to go after the Civil War story. But the minute I decided that, I heard–literally heard–a voice in my head say, “If you do that, you will lose the elephant book forever.” And I just couldn’t accept that. I couldn’t risk it. Telling the story of Roger Henneous and his pachyderm family was more important to me. It felt vital. It felt necessary. And, in truth, it felt like a goal I’d been working my way toward my entire writing life.
So I set aside the Civil War story and threw myself into the elephant book. In six months, I had a first draft. A very rough first draft, but at least it had a beginning, middle, and end. I’ve since lost count, but my guess is the manuscript went through something like six iterations before reaching a point where I could search for an literary agent–happily accomplished when I signed with Bonnie Solow–and begin the ongoing task of offering the book to publishers.
At long last I could turn my eyes toward the Civil War and all the research books I’d collected in anticipation! Except the power of the story had left me. The drive to write it had withered and vanished. I suspect the idea got tired of being ignored and wandered off to a more fertile field, one ready to accept it.
Every now and then I toy with going back to see if I can revive that sense of vigor and excitement, but I don’t know. I may have missed my chance this time. But that’s okay. Something else miraculous occurred.
Hello, all! I wanted to let you know that I’ve started an adjunct site to this one, focused entirely on elephants and the stories behind my book The Man Who Loved Elephants: 30 Years at Oregon’s Washington Park Zoo, which is being offered to publishers by my agent, Bonnie Solow.
Gruff, bow-legged, and whiskey-voiced, Roger Henneous admittedly “suffers fools lightly, and damn fools not at all,” but when it comes to elephants, he’s nothing but a big marshmallow. For nearly 30 years, he served as mother, mentor, teacher, and therapist to the largest breeding herd of elephants in captivity, among them the illustrious Belle–who made history in April 1962 by delivering the first calf born in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years–and her equally famous son, Packy.
Belle became special to Roger for a different reason when she saved him from being killed by another elephant. From that moment, the two of them were bonded in a way UC Davis veterinarian Larry Galuppo later described as “incredible.”
At The Man Who Loved Elephants I’ll talk about these stories and more, and share photos from Roger’s days at the zoo. I hope you’ll join me there!