I’m very pleased to announce that my article “Return of the Elephant Man,” appears in the most recent JEMA, Journal of the Elephant Managers Association, Volume 29, Number 1. The article is based on a portion of my book The Man Who Loved Elephants, which tells the story of Roger Henneous and his 30 years working with elephants at Oregon’s Washington Park Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo).
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!
Stoney with his mother, Pet
Born June 17, 1973 — Washington Park Zoo, Portland, Oregon
Died August 28, 1995 — Las Vegas, Nevada
Well, my intent was to blog regularly and we all know how that ended. Seems every time I “plan” to do it, those plans are flung awry by circumstance. In this case, I don’t mind.
For some time now, I’ve been trying to arrange a visit by my friend Roger Henneous to see the elephants at the Oregon Zoo. This isn’t just someone with an interest in elephants going to the zoo, this is the man who was senior keeper to those elephant returning after twenty years. Pretty damned momentous, particularly given that Roger once declared that there were too many bad memories associated with the place for him to ever consider going back.
Bit of clarification – Roger was senior keeper from roughly 1968 to 1998, give or take. Lots happened then, both good and bad. Several sweet calves were born. Roger went head-to-head with administration more than once, and busted his hump to give the elephants the best care he and his team could provide. (Details will be provided in my book THE MAN WHO LOVED ELEPHANTS.) The worse part was that during his last five years at the zoo, he lost several elephants to foot disease, his father to emphysema, and his mother to cancer.
To say the man was beat is to put it mildly. And so he withdrew.
Then an annoying little flea of a writer named Melissa Crandall (c’est moi!) got in touch with him about writing his memoirs. Initially, Rog thought she was “a quarter-bubble off” (if you know anything about working with levels, you’ll get the reference), but he agreed to talk with me and soon we were conversing 3 hours a week and I was scribbling madly. During the course of all this talk, Roger made it clear that he was NEVER, EVER, EVER going back to the zoo.
Okay, sez moi. No worries.
Except that one day, in passing, he said how nice it “might” be to see the old place and all the changes. “If you really mean that, Roger, ” I replied, “I’ll move Heaven and Earth to make it happen.” Roger agreed.
This was no a smooth journey, by any means, and toward the end I began to doubt whether it would happen or not. But Roger trusted me–thank you for that, my friend–and with the help of his wife RoseMerrie, daughters Michelle and Melissa, elephant curator Bob Lee, and veterinarian Mitch Finnegan, we made it happen.
Thanks to those listed above, and to the old friends who came out to welcome Roger back after all these years: Jim Rorman, Margot Monti, Rick Hanes, Diana Bratton, and Ivan Ratcliff. Thanks as well to the elephant staff to made our day so much fun: Gilbert Gomez, Shawn Finnell, and Pam Starkey.
And here’s the proof it really happened:
Roger meets Shine again for the first time in 20 years.
Roger and the old gang:
The good news is that I’m healthy at last. I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. I’ve been sick before, but never has anything been so persistent as this last round of whatever it was. Four weeks it went on. But, you know, even that had an upside – at least I didn’t catch the stomach bug that’s going around (touch wood).
Another good–no, GREAT!–thing that happened is this:
Congratulations to Stacey and Jason at Books & Boos Press, and congratulations to my fellow authors in this project. Well done, us! A ginormous THANK YOU! to everyone who voted for us.
With the new year comes a new round of book submissions via my lovely agent Bonnie Solow. Fingers crossed that we connect with an editor who’ll love and nurture THE MAN WHO LOVED ELEPHANTS. (In case anyone’s interested, I’d prefer one of these two pictures for the cover:
The not-so-great news is that I woke this morning to another story rejection. Not a great thing to see first thing, but I took it on the chin and am determined to get two out to magazines this week, plus work on two more in the pipeline. Also cruising for a new book topic, something narrative nonfiction, if anyone wants to send ideas my way.
Hope this finds you well. However you plan to spend Inauguration Day, I wish you peace.
I’ve been laying a bit low these past couple of weeks. You’re familiar with the drill: the hoopla of Thanksgiving leading to the crest of the hill you barrel down until you smack into Christmas like the landlady in Kung Fu Hustle sailing into the billboard. (Click the link; you’ll see what I mean.)
Add to this that I’ve been a bit tense … anticipatory, really … because the proposal for The Man Who Loved Elephants had gone out to a few editors before the Christmas publishing holidays. I feel strongly about the quality of this book and its historical value, as well as its hopeful look at the future of elephant conservation.
So far, the editors haven’t agreed with me.
I’ve been writing long enough that I take criticism and rejection on the chin most days. You can’t be an artist or performer of any kind and maintain a fragile ego. The two just don’t go together. Still, receiving five rejections in a single day was a bit … disappointing.
These were not “thanks, but no thanks” rejections. The editors took time to write out their thoughts about the book and give actual reasons for turning it down. This is a courtesy I truly appreciate, though it didn’t make the sting any less.
I’ll be honest – I cried. For about fifteen seconds. Then I heard THAT VOICE rising from the back of my brain. You know the one, the monkey-mind that snatches opportunities like this one to remind you of how worthless you are. I heard her start to open her big mouth, and I said, “Phyllis, shut the hell up.” (Well, I didn’t say hell … And, yes, I’ve given my deprecating inner voice a name so that when I tell her to can it, she knows I’m speaking to her. It works.) (And, yes, if you want details as to why I’ve done something that on the surface probably sounds wonky, shoot me a message and I’ll tell you.)
Anyway, she did as I asked. And in that silence, I heard myself say, “Screw them.” (No, I didn’t say screw, either). “I’m not giving up.” I gave myself permission to feel my bruises, and then I went to bed. I slept soundly and woke the next morning to plunk myself back at the computer because THAT, dear friends, is what it’s all about.
A bit of good news from my agent as we slide toward the Thanksgiving holiday – she has sent the proposal and manuscript for “The Man Who Loved Elephants” to a handful of editors, with a December 8 deadline. So it begins! This is a very exciting time for me – a bit nerve-wracking, sure, but I have confidence in this book.
Although it’s been a rough year with friend/family illness, two pet deaths, and Holly’s diagnosis of epilepsy and subsequent changes in her personality, I am determined to focus on the blessings I have received. I have much to be grateful for in my life: a terrific husband, a roof over my head, warmth in the cold, food in my belly, a handful of tried-and-true friends (you know who you are), an agent who believes in me, a good friend named Roger who was brave enough to share his story with me and then agree to let me tell it … the list goes on.
Take a moment in this time of unrest to set politics and ideological differences aside and focus on the positives in your life. Send a blast of gratitude into this needy world. It can’t hurt, and it might help. Let reflection and peace take precedence over what time the Black Friday sales start. Refuse to be part of the madness. Instead, be an antidote.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Ah, those good intentions about blogging regularly. How quickly they can evaporate!
In my defense, it’s been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster around here. Our dear old cat-boy, Tuna, is coming to the end of his road. Our dog, Holly, has developed seizures – a journey which has required two trips to Tufts’ Foster Hospital for Small Animals, first for a neurology consult and then for an MRI and spinal tap (…erg…) to rule out brain tumor, stroke, or infection as the culprit. Happily, all tests came back negative, but that leaves us with the rather ephemeral diagnosis of idiopathic epilepsy. Holly’s eight, a bit old to have this just show up, but we always seem to have animals that bend the rules, as our dear veterinarian Dr. Jenny Gamble can attest. At any rate, as of last night she is on meds (Ka-CHING! these things are expensive!) and time will tell. Still, it’s disheartening to know that no good was going to come out of this no matter when the tests revealed.
In addition to all this, a friend’s mother is battling lung cancer; another friend’s brother is fighting colon cancer, and his mother is recovering from a stroke; a third friend just underwent an abdominal CT scan in a hunt for the cancer that may have returned to haunt her after ten years free of the monster and, well, you get the idea.
There is, however, a bit of rosy glow on the horizon, at least so far as I’m concerned. Today, I’ll be talking with my agent Bonnie Solow to decide when we will begin submitting the proposal and manuscript of The Man Who Loved Elephants to editors. This has been a long and exciting (and occasionally frustrating) road. I’m delighted … excited … terrified. Here goes my baby (our baby, I should say, for the book is as much Roger’s child as it is mine) into the world. I hope it receives a warm welcome.
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!