Going to the Elephants

IMG_2884When I began the first tentative work on my book ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd (Ooligan Press, March 2020), I never anticipated the opportunities it would present over the course of almost five years.

Yup, you read that right; five years from my initial query letter to Roger Henneous asking if he would allow me to tell his story–through months of my then-agent offering the book to big name publishers around the globe–through the disappointment of rejection despite praise and encouragement from many editors–to my agent saying she’d done all she could and was parting ways with me–to my determination to not give up–to at last finding a home at Ooligan Press. Writing is not for the faint of heart, and anyone who thinks the work is easy, or publication guaranteed, is fooling themselves.

Despite the ups and downs, the nights when I tearfully wondered if I had it in me to write the book, let alone see it through to being an actual reality in my hands, I’ve had a wonderful time and gained so many precious experiences and memories. Chief among those is the friendship I’ve developed with Roger Henneous. He and his wife RoseMerrie and their extended family welcomed me into their home and their lives, generously throwing open not only numerous boxes of memorabilia of Roger’s years as Senior Elephant Keeper at the Washington Park Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo), but also their hearts. Every author should feel so encouraged.

ELEPHANT SPEAK involved a great deal of research apart from my interviews with Roger. I hunted down his former colleagues where I could, and they kindly answered my questions. Present-day elephant people–those working in zoos and sanctuaries, those involved in research, and many others whose lives revolve around elephants–as well as people in such diverse areas as city governments, state police, and the Coast Guard, offered information and guidance, and I’ve attempted to acknowledge them all in the back of the book.

And then there’s Bob Lee and his crew of elephant keepers at the Oregon Zoo.

Bob made it possible for Roger to return not just to the zoo, but to the new elephant facility; to get a glimpse behind the scenes and reacquaint himself with his old friends, Sung Surin (aka Shine) and Rose-Tu. (You can read about it here.) During that visit, I half-jokingly inquired whether I might someday job-shadow a keeper. “Sure,” Bob said without missing a beat. “I think we can do that.”

Oh, my!

It was something I couldn’t dare arrange until the book was done, the final edit complete, the manuscript in the capable hands of the folks at Ooligan. Only then did I feel my time was again my own and I could give myself a small vacation. I’d promised Bob I meant to work for my opportunity–I can shovel manure with the best of them and my vegetable-cutting skills are excellent–but if this is work (and I know it is), it’s no wonder the keepers each told me, independent of one another, how much they look forward to coming to work every day.

So, thank you Bob Lee and Pam Starkey, Tarah Bedrossian and Joe Sebastiani and Matt Miles. Thank you, Shine and Rose-Tu. Thank you, Samson and Rosko (aka Samudra) who, in my busyness, I didn’t get pictures of, and Chendra who accepted my offering of a cantaloupe with such delight. Words can’t do my visit justice, so here are the pictures:

 

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Me with Sung Surin (aka Shine)

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Me with Rose-Tu

Article Published in JEMA

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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 Elephantswhich tells the story of Roger Henneous and his 30 years working with elephants at Oregon’s Washington Park Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo).

Where To Go For Elephants

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.

Roger pontificating

Photo courtesy of Roger Henneous

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!

Blessings Abound

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.

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Roger Henneous

Roger and the old gang:

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