Newburyport Literary Festival Goes Virtual TODAY!

NBP FestivalHey, everyone. When COVID-19 struck and changed all our lives, the lovely folks behind the Newburyport Literary Festival were convinced it spelled the end of this year’s event.

NOT SO! Just check out their website, Newburyport Literary Festival to find out about all the wonderful options.

I’m delighted to be part of things, and will appear, live and in person, at noon to talk about ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd.

I hope you’ll join us!

World Tour – The Final Two Days

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:

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Mount Hood, taken by David Mark from Pixabay

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.

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By Harry Wegley for Pixabay

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.)

Sunriver - Bev & DonSo, 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.

Me and Roger (taken by Bev)

Photo taken by Bev Henneous

World Tour – Intermission

I’m sorry to have been away for a couple of days. Like the rest of you, I’m dealing with the Corvid-19 threat as best as possible, but refocusing my efforts into wiping down surfaces, taking an inventory of what we have, what we need, what’s an indulgence, and what we don’t need (like hundreds of rolls of toilet tissue; what’s up with that?) has taken up quite a bit of my time.

The reason I’m calling this post an intermission is not so much because I’m taking a hiatus from reporting on the World Tour, but because I want to focus on something a bit more closely.

Signing at PowellsAfter my talk at Powell’s, we opened the floor to questions, followed by book signing. The questions were great–thoughtful and well-expressed.

There was a young woman in the audience who, from her questions, the polite and slightly tense tone of her voice, and the flyers she placed on a table advertised her affiliation with a Portland-area animal rights group called Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants or FOZE, which describes itself on its website as “compassionate citizens from all walks of life, committed to freeing the five remaining Oregon Zoo elephants from the harsh realities of captivity. We bring to light the suffering they, and all captive elephants, endure, creating a groundswell of public pressure to end the Oregon Zoo’s breeding, acquisition and importation of elephants. Our end goal is the gradual phase-out of the elephant exhibit and the relocation of the elephants to sanctuary.”

I was asked by Powell’s staff if I wanted the flyers removed and I said, “No. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.” Shutting one another out/off is part of the problem in the volatile arena of elephant preservation (and elsewhere in the world), but I’ll get to that in a moment.

There were those in the audience afterward who referred to this woman as my “heckler.” I want to stress that she in no way heckled me and was, in fact, polite in her questioning. Judging from her expression and body posture, I think I frustrated or annoyed  her, but that was never my intent. I was trying, in a limited venue, to answer her questions as honestly as I could. In truth, I’d have appreciated the time to sit down with her and hear her at length, without judgment, provided she would do me the same courtesy. Unfortunately, there wasn’t the opportunity.

But I’d like to touch on what she asked me, because I think the questions are important. (In fact, I thanked her for bringing them up.) Please bear in mind that I did not record her questions verbatim, but can give you the gist.

  1. The first question had to do with my own feelings about elephants being kept in zoos. I’m generally not what I would call a fence-sitter, but I definitely straddle the idea of elephants in zoos versus elephants not in zoos particularly after writing ELEPHANT SPEAK; not because I’m wishy-washy, but because I’m still forming my opinions. I don’t like the idea of animals in zoos, but can’t deny that those in zoos are not only ambassadors for their wild cousins, but provide valuable biological and psychological information to researchers who (to mention only one case) are striving to eradicate Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus, which can kill an elephant in 24 hours. Caring for them is the big issue, and that encompasses everything from diet to exercise to stimulation to the preservation of herd dynamics … and so much more. Even Roger, who cared for them for 30 years in a captive environment, feels torn. These days, he concedes that if not in a zoo, then where? “When did you last see enough wild to accommodate elephants?” he asked me. “We’ve eaten up their range territories.” Sanctuaries have their place (there are several–three here in the U.S. and three in Thailand come immediately to mind), but can be limited in scope due to available land and, in truth, are far from “wild” since the elephants are still cared for, vetted, and provided with food by humans. And, like zoos, they are only so good as the people (and finances) behind them. A well-regarded wild-animal veterinarian recently shared a horrific story about being called in to consult on an elephant at a North American sanctuary and arriving to find the animal’s feet in deplorable condition. Despite his recommendations, nothing was done. (The facility vet called him, sobbing, because they weren’t allowed to do anything.) In the end, the elephant was euthanized. So the upshot is that broad statements are dangerous: there are facilities (and people) which are good, and others which are not.
  2. Her second question was more of a comment. In my talk, I’d mentioned the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and she informed me there were other sanctuaries in the U.S. I responded that I knew that, however, the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee was one with which I corresponded quite a bit in my search for information. It their credit, the PAWS Sanctuary at ARK 2000 also provided information and generously gave permission to use a photo of one of their elephants.
  3. Her third question was in a slightly confrontation tone, which is when I realized I was somehow  upsetting her. It had to do with two elephants at a sanctuary in California having been rescued from the Oregon Zoo. She asked if I knew about them and I said that I did, but I did not go into detail at the time and should have.
    Chang Dee 1

    Chang-Dee/Prince as a calf

    A bull elephant by the name of Prince resides at ARK 2000. He was born at the Oregon Zoo on May 24, 1987 to Me-Tu and Hugo, and his original name was Chang-Dee. In 1988, ownership was transferred to Ringling Bros/Barnum & Bailey in an exchange deal for his sire. (You can read more about Hugo, the “Master of Disaster” in ELEPHANT SPEAK.) In 2010, Prince was retired to Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation. From there, he moved to PAWS in 2011. So, yes, he has been rescued (although I might hesitate to use that word), but not from the Oregon Zoo. (You can see a picture of the adult Prince on the PAWS website.)

    Tina and Judy

    Tina and her half-sister Judy

    The second elephant is a cow named Tina, who was born at the Oregon Zoo on April 26, 1970 to Rosy and Thonglaw. At the age of two, she was sold to the Vancouver Game Farm in Aldergrove, British Columbia, where she spent most of her life (apart from a brief move to African Lion Safari in Cambridge, Ontario, in 1989). In 2003, Tina’s owners donated her PAWS. Sadly, she died a year later. A necropsy showed the underlying cause to be heart disease, very possibly a genetic defect. So, as with Prince, Tina was rescued (or, rather, given) to PAWS, but not taken from the Oregon Zoo. (You can see a picture of the adult Tina on the Elephant Sanctuary website.)

    The topic of elephants in captivity is an understandably volatile one, but as I pointed out during my talk at Powell’s, unless the different camps are willing to sit down and actually listen to one another in a non-judgmental way, our hopes of finding a solution to the elephants’ survival dwindles. There are many viewpoints. Some are usable, others not so much, but we must come to understand that there is no one answer, no one solution, no one way to solve this problem. And we are throwing away an important opportunity if we don’t step back from our deeply and rigorously held beliefs in order to hear one another, consider another’s perspective, and display a willingness to compromise. Without that, we and the elephants will lose.

March Events

As the ELEPHANT SPEAK launch date approaches, I thought I’d give everyone a run down for the month of March (so far):

March 4 – KATU “Afternoon Live” appearance (to air between 2-3 pm)

BOOK LAUNCH – Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside Street, Portland, OR                      at 7:30 pm.

March 5 – Elephant Lands Keeper Talk – Oregon Zoo, 4001 SW Canyon Road, Portland, OR                    at 12:30 pm. Book signing to follow at Gift Shop.

March 6 – Roundabout Books – 900 NW Mt. Washington Drive #110, Bend, OR at 6:00 pm.

March 7 – Sunriver Books – 57100 Beaver Drive, Bldg. 25C, Sunriver, OR at 5:00 pm

March 14 – Bank Square Books, 53 West Main Street, Mystic, CT from 1-3 pm.

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Do Tell

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Image by Gerhard Gellinger from Pixabay

T’other day, it were pourin’ down when the turkeys came from the woods–single-file, bunched, single-file, bunched–like one of them wire slink toys kids like to make march down the stairs. It were a miserable rain, what the olders call a “wet rain,” and by that they ain’t bein’ stupid or smarty-pants sarcastic. What they mean is rain that does more than wet you on the outside; it gets you from the inside, too. How’s rain make wet on the inside something that’s already pretty sloppy once you cut past the skin bag that holds us together? Why, it’s the chill. That chill, it don’t sink into you, it digs into you, like fingers. It burrows in like chiggers. It chews its way deep inside and wraps around your bones until you can’t get warm for nothin’.

I wondered if the turkeys felt the same chill as me. They don’t have the luxury of a home fire when the outdoors is cemetery cold. Oh, they can roost, but roostin’ don’t fill an empty belly and they’re all about belly-fillin’ which suits me just fine. They rake the forest duff, all those fallen leaves and twigs and whatnot, spyin’ out bugs, worms, ticks, and whatever else they call food. It’s a hard life, bein’ outdoors in all seasons. They’re welcome to whatever they can find, most ‘specially them ticks.

So it’s rainin’ steady, sometimes gentle, what we call a “soaker,” but more often drumming down in lines so thick you can see ’em, but not past ’em, like a curtain of gray wet, what I’ve heard call a “goat-drowner,” and here come the turkeys. I’d like to say I can tell ’em apart, but that’d be a lie. They’re pretty much of a size until spring when the toms do their Thanksgiving impression and puff out all plump and gorgeous like they know it, bronzy-green, tails erect and fan-spread, chest feathers fluffed, wings rattled half-open to display the white bars, naked heads flushed scarlet and blue. Gobble-gobble-gobble! If you never heard it, you should. It’s one of them sounds everyone should hear at least once in their life.

In between spates of Biblical flooding, they spreads out across the yard, each to its own, hunting-pecking. Then the rain comes, flash-flood quick. They freeze, bodies hunched and bunched, each like a single fist of feathers. Water subdues their colors ’til you half expect to see it run down their legs and puddle on the ground. There’s a line of lighter feathers that runs up their backs from tail to neck, splitting them in half. It’s murky in the wet half-light, like cream with a bit of mud mixed in.

Meleagris gallopavo silvestris. I only know that because I looked it up. Makes me wish I’d named the biggest male “Silvester” or “Pavo,” but he’s been “Barry White” ever since I first heard his sultry, deep-throated, come-hither call last spring. This boy, he’s all about one thing. But today I learned a big mistake. I thought the flock was him and eight hens, but I’m wrong. How wrong will depend on my ability to count next time they come through. I’ve been wondering about these spiny-hairy beards that hang down a turkey’s chest and it turns out only the males have them, which means a good portion of Barry’s harem is made up of other males. Not only that, but I read that males and females mostly travel separately except when it comes time to breed. Now I understand why we didn’t see any poults (chicks) taggin’ along last spring.

I also understand that what I really know about turkeys could be stuffed in a sack the size of a walnut and have space left over. That’s okay. With luck, I got time to learn.

Happiness is a Warm Paperback

Especially when you wrote it!

Just had to share the smiling faces of my friends at Ooligan Press when they unboxed copies of ELEPHANT SPEAK the other day.

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I can’t speak more highly of their great team. We are exactly five weeks out from launch, and I’m so excited. As a bit of surprise to myself, I’m not all that nervous. I guess I expended all that getting ready for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show in October. Now I’m ready to send my baby out into the world with these, my loyal midwives.

 

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Isn’t this pretty? Many, many thanks to Linda Reifschneider and Janie Chodosh for the pull quotes.

The Shadow Years

IMG_0814It’s hard on the heart, watching a pet grow old, but it’s not like I haven’t been here before.

When I was a kid growing up across the span of the late 50’s-70’s, we lived in a rural area where the general consensus was to let one’s pets roam free. I understand now how irresponsible that is, but back then it was everyone did. I don’t remember any of our pets coming home with injuries from fights, but someone shot my first dog, Yogi, a reality I didn’t discover until a misplaced remark from my sister decades later.

Mostly our animals died under car tires. We didn’t live in a densely vehicular area, so it’s always been a bit of a wonder to me that so many perished that way. On one occasion, my best friend at the time (the same David I wrote about the other day) confided to me that my cat had been sitting on the side of the road and he’d seen the driver purposely swerve to hit it. If that’s true (and I have no reason to disbelieve David), I hope that person had a truly shitty life. (Let’s face it; anyone who would do that was probably already having a shitty life.)

In later years, I learned to keep my pets indoors, even the cats. That’s worked well to extend their longevity, but it’s meant we get to watch the slow creep of years steal bits of them away, like watching one’s parents age.

It’s not fun.

Our dog Holly is an 11 1/2 year old Australian shepherd, truly one of the world’s best dogs. (Yeah, I know. We all say that, and it’s true every time.) Shortly before her ninth birthday, she began having seizures and was diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy. Those first few seizures took more out of Ed and I–emotionally speaking–than they did her, I think. They’re not fun to watch, not even after we understood that she had no idea it was happening. We’ve learned the routine of those spells–the pedaling gyration of her limbs, the gaping mouth and barred teeth, the arched back. Jesus, it looks painful, although I’ve been assured by several vets that it’s not. We’ve learned to dispense rectal Valium if the episode exceeds two minutes. We sit by her until she lurches out of it, on her feet, pacingpacingpacing, falling down, running into walls. We do what we can to keep her from hurting herself. Get her outside to defecate (she’ll pee while in seizure, but so far has never voided). Because she’s ravenous afterward, we give her something to eat to replace all those calories burned by the seizure. (Note: Never feed by hand. She can’t differentiate between food and flesh, and those snapping, frenzied gulps hurt.) It takes about an hour before she settles down and sleeps.

Each episode steals away bits of her. She forgets commands. Her sense of hearing goes wonky, and she’ll look away from us when we call, seeking us in the opposite direction even though we’re usually within eyesight.

Her vision is poor to begin with. She lost the use of her left eye when she was eight months old (an ill-considered golf shot by her previous owner coupled with a ball fixated puppy. Don’t curse him; he still feels guilty). Her right eye has cataracts. Her hearing wavers, sometimes good, other times not. Her sleep is often scarily deep (something a vet tech mentioned after an overnight stay for pancreatitis, another gift age has bestowed on her). She snores; the only cute part in any of this.

And now she’s taken to wandering in the night, a disturbing echo of my mother’s dementia-induced meanderings when she lived with us. Not every night, but often enough, I wake repeatedly to the click-click of toenails on the wood floor. Sometimes, she just needs to go out. (Another gift of age: the tiny bladder needing to be relieved in the middle of the night.)

She drinks a lot, and is always hungry. This could be side-effects of the many medications she’s on (phenobarbital and potassium bromide for epilepsy; gabapentin and metacam for arthritis pain; ursodiol and an over-the-counter antacid for pancreatitis; another one, whose name I can’t recall, to keep her from leaking urine), but could also be indicative of a larger issue. She’s losing more hair than usual (no bald spots, but I groom her nearly every day and come away with a pile of hair). She’s tired, not surprising in an 11 year old dog. She pants a lot. Could it be liver or kidney disease, maybe Cushing’s? A trip to the vet is likely in order.

And in the end, of course, it’ll make little difference. We’ll do what we can for her–that’s the bargain we struck when she came to live with us, that we would take the best care of her that we’re able–but in the end time will take her. Then we’ll shoulder the larger responsibility of sharing our lives with her, and let her go, what our friend Jenny (who I still think of as our vet although distance (and Holly’s issues) have made it necessary to find another) calls letting her rest.

And, oh, won’t that be hard?

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Holly in the good old days, with her boyfriend Randy, who taught her how to play

Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Tradeshow

Book

It’s a wonderful thing

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)

Melissa TalkingSeven 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.”

Melissa_2Thank 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.

 

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We earned this celebration! Denise Morales Soto (Design), Julie Collins (Project Manager), c’est moi, Faith Munoz (Social Media), and Melinda Crouchley (Managing Editor)

 

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

Ooh, baby, ooh, baby

IMG_2638Most mornings, I wake up somewhere between four and five o’clock. Often it’s courtesy of my cat Ruby, who seems to feel that’s an appropriate hour for breakfast. Lately, however, my alarm has been a soft burbling noise from the woods behind our house, the wake-up call of the local turkey flock.

At some point (and there’s no telling when, as they keep to their own schedule), they’ll appear, stalking through the yard on lean legs, walking with slow ceremony as they search the ground for nuts, berries, and other choice morsels. Most of the year, it’s just The Girls (as I call them), six or eight hens busy about their business. In spring (in other words now) they’re joined by a robust and handsome fellow I’ve nicknamed “Barry White” for his sultry mating call. Barry postures and preens, puffs his feathers until he’s almost spherical, and fans his spectacular tail feathers as he courts his women. (One year, we had a flock of 15 come through, with a fully adult male and two juveniles, all working hard to lure the ladies.)

I suspect Barry will be successful in his wooing, and I look forward to seeing the hatchlings come through the yard, following close on mother’s heels, mindful of the raptors, coyote, and fox that also shelter in our woods.