For Cookie, Cha-Cha, Cindy, Mary, Carol, Jean, Nita, and pregnant Connie, the San Diego Zoological Society’s first Asian elephant mother-to-be, it was just another elephant day at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Soon after sunrise, the keepers vigorously dusted off the cows with janitors’ brooms and scrubbed grey, corrugated skins to blue-black. They manicured the huge nails and slicked each long tail with Vaseline. Throughout the day, Mary, Cookie, and Cha-Cha gave rides to park visitors. At 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., before rapt audiences in the Elephant Amphitheater, Carol and Nita negotiated a logging routine, similar to that which their wild cousins execute as lumber camp workers in Asian jungles. The routine demonstrates an elephant’s agility and intelligence (ranked between dolphin and pig), its capacity for precise movement, and its Herculean strength.
After the 3:30 p.m. show, park visitors were invited to assemble at a fence between the amphitheater and elephant yard to dole out apples to the cows gathered there. The cows chirruped. Their trunks furled and unfurled across the fence. From the visitors’ uplifted hands, they deftly picked the apples with their trunks, while park animal trainer Jean Hromadka (pronounced “Row-madka”) answered questions.
“How can you tell an Asian elephant from an African?”
Noting that there are two species of elephant — the African Loxodonta africana and the Elephas maximus — and that the elephants they were feeding were Asian, Hromadka pointed out the park’s African elephants in the distance. The two species can be distinguished by ear size and shape: an African’s ears are larger and roughly the shape of the African continent. The Asian’s ear describes the outline of the Indian subcontinent. Male and female Africans have tusks. Female Asians, and a large percentage of males in some populations, do not have tusks, only nubby outgrowths. The African elephant’s head is relatively flat, while the Asian’s has two humps. The African elephant’s trunk has two fingers at its tip. The Asian elephant’s trunk has one finger.
Extremely sensitive, with 40,000 nerve endings, the trunk’s dexterity is such that an elephant can pick up a dime. Hromadka explained that when the park’s Asian elephant barn was designed, light fixtures were planned in a manner that would keep the elephants from unscrewing the light bulbs.
“Wow,” said several visitors, among whom even older faces showed childlike delight at learning new facts about the exotic animals.
“Why do elephants toss dust on themselves?”
“To protect their delicate skin from sun and insects.”
“How long is an elephant’s trunk?”
“Six to eight feet.”
“What is a trunk?” asked a young boy.
Pushing sun-streaked bangs off her forehead, Hromadka explained that the trunk is both nose and upper lip, that paired nostrils run through its length.
Cookie and Carol twined trunks and thrust the trunk ends into one another’s pink mouths. Calling attention to this behavior, Hromadka said, “Elephants are always touching and caressing one another with their trunks. They are very social, very affectionate, extraordinarily sensitive and intuitive.”
When an elephant places a trunk in another elephant’s mouth, the elephant gathers information. “It’s as if you asked a friend, ‘What’s your stress level today?’ and ‘What did you have for lunch?, said the animal trainer.
Someone wondered aloud how many months an elephant’s pregnancy lasts. Amid sighs prompted by Hromadka’s answer — “Twenty-two!” — a freckle-faced girl piped up, “When will Connie’s baby be born?”
“By the end of July, we hope.”
After more queries, the last visitors drifted away, and the elephants’ workday ended. A pale light — milky, hazy, and tinged with the failing sun’s old gold — hung between the hills that ring the San Pasqual Valley.
Hromadka ordered the cows to tail up, and each cow grabbed the tail of the elephant in front of her with her trunk. Walking in front of the cows, Hromadka, at five feet, seven inches, appeared Lilliputian; the park’s cows range from seven to nine feet in height and weigh from 5000 to 9000 pounds. In a line, the cows followed the trainer into the park’s two-and-a-half-acre Asian elephant yard.
Cha-Cha lazily tossed hay stems onto her back. Nina spewed dust from her trunk onto her back. Ranchipur, the bull, penned alone in his nearby enclosure, trumpeted.
Elephant training supervisor Alan Roocroft, Jean Hromadka, and I sat on the edge of the deep concrete moat that surrounds the elephant yard. Whenever the elephants are out of the barn, one person from the six-member park Asian elephant staff remains with the herd. “Someone is always available to them if they need something or if there’s an argument. Caring for elephants in captivity,” Roocroft smiled wryly, “is labor intensive.”
Six feet tall, a chock of sun-bleached brown hair above startling azure eyes, and dressed in the park khaki uniform, thirty-nine-year-old Roocroft has a movie star’s good looks. He has worked with elephants for almost two-thirds of his life. His passion for these animals, whose progenitors roamed Earth millions of years ago, led him from his home in England (where he quit school at fourteen and shortly after became a keeper in the Manchester Zoo) to Sri Lanka and the zoo in Hamburg, Germany, where he worked for ten years. Since 1983 Roocroft has been at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
Hromadka began her own career with elephants after graduation from high school. One of the few women elephant trainers in the United States, she joined the park staff in 1984 and is national president of the American Association of Zookeepers.
Listening to Roocroft and Hromadka, one learns that to care for elephants takes more than the college degrees in zoology and biology that they do not have. An elephant presents a many-tonned demand for physical care. Hromadka talks — ruefully — of her year at Cincinnati Zoo, how in below-zero temperatures, she hauled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow load of urine-soaked hay from the stalls.
The job requires muscle and more than muscle. Roocroft and Hromadka spoke of the need for dedication, compassion, and, added Roocroft, “the willingness to put up with the monotony, day after day, of hauling hay, shoveling shit, scrubbing out the barn, and scrubbing down the animals.”