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)
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)