"Cindy is by far the most aggressive, malevolent elephant I've ever seen."
In August by midmorning it is already hot in the San Pasqual Valley where the San Diego Wild Animal Park’s two-and-one-half-acre elephant yard stretches up toward sun-baked hills. Alan Roocroft, the Zoological Society’s elephant-training supervisor, wants to cool off Cindy. He tells her firmly, “Lie down, Cindy.’’ The four-ton Asian elephant goes down on her haunches and rolls over to one side on the concrete pad. She is the size of a Mack ten-wheeler turned over on the freeway.
Cindy saddling up for children's rides. "Everyone wanted to know why we were taking this ‘vicious’ elephant."
Roocroft plays the hose across Cindy’s hide. The dust with which she earlier had sprayed herself sluices off her belly with the running water. Cindy lifts her outside foreleg and paws the air. To an observer, it appears that Cindy enjoys the gentle hosing.
Her bath over, Roocroft says, “Stand, Cindy,” and her giant ears flutter. Back on her feet, Cindy shakes and water drops fly. The six-foot-long trunk, actually an extra-sensitive nose with 40,000 muscles, lifts and forms an easy loop.
Alan Roocroft with Cindy. "In Sri Lanka you’ve got the wild elephant in the national parks, you have the worker elephant in the logging camps, and you also have the zoo elephant."
Offering Cindy an apple, Roocroft remarks that she is one of the easiest animals he has trained in his twenty-year career. Cindy takes the apple with her trunk and deftly places it between her four breadbox-size molars. This is the same animal that newspaper headlines once declared “the most dangerous elephant in captivity.”
Cindy eating hay. Although no one in the happy-family ambience of the zoo staff will say so, a change in elephant-care philosophy occurred when Roocroft arrived.
Back in the late spring of 1982 at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Cindy posed a problem. She had been the zoo’s first elephant and was still its only elephant; she had paced her cramped enclosure (which included a 300-square-foot asphalt yard) alone for seventeen years. The zoo administration wanted to proceed on the remodeling of Cindy’s quarters, but had no place to keep the elephant.
Roocroft cooling off Cindy. “When the show elephants went by, poor Cindy was so scared she ran to the barn and hid."
Cindy had never been formally trained; since the late Seventies only one keeper. Rich Johnson, could work around her.
When zoo veterinarian Mike Jones tried to tend to Cindy, there was trouble. “She picked me straight up in the air,” Jones said, “and if Rich [Johnson] hadn't been there, I wouldn't be here either.” The only way to treat Cindy, the veterinarian said then, was to tranquilize her. But that, he claimed, posed a danger to Cindy’s life. “She cannot realistically stand tranquilization,” Jones said. “One day we'll go out on a routine matter, put her in tranquilization, and she won't come out.”
Roocroft walking with Cindy. Eventually she will become a mother. By the end of this year the Wild Animal Park’s Asian Elephant Breeding Facility will be ready.
But Cindy never struck Johnson, and on his days off, because Cindy scared other keepers, Johnson came in to clean her stall. She had become a “one-person elephant,” Tacoma’s zoo curator said. “If something should happen to Rich, or if he would choose to work somewhere else, no one could get close to her.”
Early that summer of 1982 Point Defiance hired Roger Henneous, the senior keeper of elephants at Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon, to evaluate Cindy’s behavior, to “retrain” her, and to train keepers to care for her. Zoo workers have a healthy respect for elephants, and rightly so; although the public believes lions, tigers, and bears are the most ferocious zoo residents and circus performers, those zoo and circus workers who are killed or injured most often fall victim to elephants. Henneous’s five days with Cindy were frustrating. At one point, after he tapped her on the nose with a training tool known as a bull hook, Cindy stuck her trunk through the bars and knocked Henneous to the floor.
Point Defiance then hired Richard Maguire. Called “The Hammer,” Maguire breaks “bad” or “rogue” elephants. It was during Maguire’s “retraining” that Johnson, according to Tacoma’s News Tribune, “broke down and sobbed at the sight.” Maguire’s week with Cindy, like Henneous’s five days, ended in frustration.
Tacoma's Metropolitan Park District Board, which oversees the Point Defiance Zoo, met in October of 1982. At that meeting a letter from Roger Henneous was read. The News Tribune quoted this portion of the letter: “[Cindy is] by far the most aggressive, malevolent elephant I've ever seen. Why Cindy hasn't killed or maimed someone already is a complete mystery to me, but it is only a matter of time until she does so.”
Tacoma zoo director Gene Leo told board members, “Several staff members have been hit, picked up, rapped and thrown.” Keepers had been instructed not to work around Cindy. Leo suggested that only three alternatives were available: sell Cindy; sell Cindy and buy a baby African elephant, which would cost from $20,000 to $30,000, including subsidiary costs; or hire a trainer to retrain Cindy at a cost of $32,000 to $35,000. Leo favored the third alternative, although he told the board that only a fifty-fifty chance existed that the “retraining” would work, and added, “This is a very difficult decision, given Cindy's popularity in our community.”
The board postponed its decision on Cindy’s fate, but the elephant remained in the news. Although Cindy had never injured anyone to an extent requiring hospitalization, “mad elephant” stories circulated through the city of 160,000 people. At the same time, there were rumors that the zoo was considering destroying Cindy. On October 20, 1982 zoo director Leo commented on the rumor that suggested the elephant would be destroyed. “I think that’s an ultimate — the final step.”
Then at the end of the month the News Tribune printed allegations that Cindy had been abused in her summer's retraining. According to Tacoma's newspaper, Cindy had been beaten with boards, jabbed with a pitchfork, stabbed in the trunk with a penknife, zapped with an electric cattle prod. At least once she had been chained by all four feet to the enclosure fence, the report asserted, and was left there without food or water for three straight days. Further, the newspaper stated, “It was learned that Cindy fell to her enclosure floor in exhaustion and remained there for four hours on one occasion and six hours on a second occasion, both during the same twenty-four-hour period. The trainers were reportedly unsuccessful in their use of cattle prods, finally coaxing Cindy to her feet after her leg chains were loosened.” One source told the newspaper that the chains dug two inches into one ankle. Another source called the retraining methods “sickening.”
There was ugly talk going around town. A park groundskeeper told friends he had seen Cindy beaten with two-by-fours, that hay was tossed into her pen atop her excrement, that she was being starved.
Four days after the News Tribune’s article appeared, on November 4, 1982, Tacoma’s park board met again to discuss Cindy. One hundred Tacomans packed the room. While television lights blazed, twenty-three citizens gave testimony, both for and against the elephant. A keeper who had filled in while Johnson was on vacation testified that “Cindy slammed me with her trunk, threw me six feet, broke my glasses, and I lost consciousness. That was the most terrifying experience of my life.” At least two citizens brought up the successful 1977 $7 million bond issue for zoo rebuilding. Cindy’s photograph had appeared on the issue’s advertisements, but her new housing, promised in the bond proposal, was never built. One Tacoman, reminding the board of this promise, said, “Removal of Cindy is being hidden under the guise of abnormal behavior.”
At the meeting’s end the board resolved to consummate a permanent breeding loan agreement with the Zoological Society of San Diego. The provisions of this loan would stipulate that Tacoma’s zoo would continue to own Cindy until she produced a female calf. Tacoma would get the calf, and San Diego could keep Cindy. Financially it would be a good deal for San Diego. Asian elephants have been declared an endangered species, and a breeding-age elephant can cost $35,000. She would increase the breeding stock and gene pool for the then-planned Asian elephant breeding program. San Diego would have to pay only a $6000 transportation fee.
The weekend after the Tacoma board met, Gary Miller, at that time the elephant trainer at the Wild Animal Park, flew to Tacoma to visit Cindy. On his return Miller reported to the Zoological Society that Cindy was an excellent candidate for the breeding program. He did not believe she was dangerous, but only that she was “bored, for lack of companionship.”
In the diplomacy practiced among zoo personnel around the United States, it would have been unthinkable for Miller to make public comment on what he did or did not know about Cindy’s alleged “retraining” abuse. Zoo employees do not discuss with zoo outsiders the often quite real skeletons in one another’s closets. The usually outspoken Alan Roocroft, asked to be specific about Tacoma’s treatment of Cindy, explained that negative talk about other zoos was simply “not professional.” Nor, according to the News Tribune's late-October article about Cindy, are zoo employees likely to discuss their own zoo’s troubles. “Contacted by the News Tribune,” the paper noted, “Johnson, a veteran employee who has worked with Cindy for many years, said he had been ordered by zoo officials to refer all media inquiries to zoo development officer Sue Vernon. He said he had been threatened with loss of his job if he commented on zoo-related matters.”
Neither Henneous nor Maguire was available for comment in the October newspaper article, but Mike Jones, the zoo's veterinarian, did speak in the zoo’s defense. Persons unfamiliar with professional elephant-training methods may view those methods as abuse, he explained, when in fact they are merely necessary applications of discipline. In answer to charges that Cindy was struck by boards, Jones told the Tacoma newspaper that Cindy was struck with boards only when the four-ton elephant attempted to attack trainers. “She’s the size of a Sherman tank,” he said. “You can’t use your hand and expect her to feel it.” About the penknife, Jones said, “An elephant trainer did use a penknife on Cindy only because no other elephant hooks were available. Her thick hide was not jabbed any deeper than one-quarter inch." Jones also admitted he had purchased and used the cattle prods himself, but they had little effect on Cindy. “She barely noticed,” he said “You’ve got to recognize how thick that hide is.” To the charge that Cindy had been chained and left without food or water, the News Tribune noted that Jones replied, “Food and water were withheld on occasion in order to use nourishment as ‘rewards' for appropriate behavior.”
In a phone conversation last month, Roger Henneous did not recall that the News Tribune tried to contact him about the alleged retraining abuse. Henneous, who has been with Portland's Washington Park Zoo for fourteen years, said, “I don’t pretend to be a trainer, just a keeper. I have no illusions about being an authority.” Although at the Portland zoo Henneous is used to working with three bulls, he said about his encounter in 1982 with Cindy, “I never met a female elephant with such an in-your-face-Jack, impolite attitude." In his opinion Cindy is not vicious by nature, but is an animal who was permitted to “rough people up” without any consequence attached to that behavior.
Asked if he felt uncomfortable about the allegations of abuse, Henneous said, “No. If I had been guilty, I would.” He reiterated what many elephant trainers and keepers say: “The layman does not understand elephant training, or elephants.” About elephants, he said, “They are big, smart, and if they ever take it in their head to snuff you, it’s all over.
“Had I gone into Cindy with a chain saw and a .22 and physically scarred her,” he said, “then I would feel bad. But the simple matter is that if you start with an elephant at a young age, then you don’t have to be that rough. But if you wait until an elephant is Cindy’s age and size, there’s very little poking, gouging, and thumping you're going to do that will injure it.”
The “evil elephant” stories began rolling in to San Diego after Gary Miller went to Tacoma. Jeff Jouett, a spokesman in the zoo’s public relations office, received a call from the San Diego Associated Press bureau. “They had a story from Seattle,” he says, “that Tacoma’s zoo wanted to send us this vicious elephant.” Immediately the sensational aspects of media coverage became overwhelming, with stories calling Cindy “dangerous” and “malevolent” appearing in newspapers nationwide. “I backtracked,” Jouett recalls, “and discovered that Henneous’s statement was originally that ‘under these circumstances, Cindy was dangerous . . .' et cetera. But for the sake of brevity, I guess, the qualifier got dropped. And at that point the Zoological Society trustees almost decided against accepting Cindy. They had heard so much about her being a killer that they were not sure they wanted her.” The board, however, asked Miller to come before them to discuss Cindy. Satisfied with his diagnosis of her as “bored,” the trustees voted unanimously to accept her.
After that decision, headlines read, “ ‘Dangerous’ Pachyderm Finds Home,” and “Brooding Elephant to take up Breeding.” Then, Jouett says, “I began receiving calls at home at night and throughout the day at work. Everyone wanted to know why we were taking this ‘vicious’ elephant. And with every story this ‘vicious’ reputation grew.” Jouett’s public relations goal became twofold. He had to debunk Cindy’s reputation as a killer. Yet, he admits, he had to be careful “not to insult the Tacoma zoo," because, he adds “I truly believed the Tacoma zoo was doing the best they could on a limited budget.”
Debunking Cindy’s reputation was not easy. “Even after I told press people that Cindy was a victim of her past treatment, of being locked up in a small enclosure, of having untrained supervision, even after I would explain Cindy’s behavior from an elephant’s point of view,” Jouett says, “people would not include those items in their story. The stories would always start out with that ‘most dangerous elephant’ angle.”
But the worst of Jouett’s problems were yet to come. Media representatives wanted to be present when Cindy arrived in mid-December. The elephant trainer and keepers wanted no one there. They were concerned because Cindy had not seen another elephant for seventeen years. Furthermore, she would have been jostled in a truck all the way down Interstate 5 from Tacoma for more than twenty-four hours. And she was going to be chained. “But for different reasons than we felt the press would assume, given her reputation,” says Jouett. The chain, Jouett explains, would permit the trainer to move her and keep other elephants from pushing her into the moat around the two-acre park enclosure.
The decision was made to bring Cindy in at night and not to notify the media. Jouett says that he still feels guilty about this, but that he saw no way out of it. If Cindy did behave in a berserk manner, there was no way to protect the reporters. And at night, in complete darkness, Cindy would receive fewer stimuli. So near midnight on December 14, 1982 Cindy arrived.
Over the next few days headlines around the country read, “Cindy Arrives in San Diego — No Problems,” and “Cindy’s Bad Temper Fades as She Joins More Elephants.” By the end of December, newspaper stories about Cindy were fewer: “Tusk! Tusk! Maybe Reputation Unearned,” “New Elephant Is Wallflower,” and “Ferocious Cindy Gentle as a Lamb.” By January a reader could learn that Cindy was “Happy at Last!”
Into this situation of an abused elephant with an unearned killer reputation came Alan Roocroft, hired six months after Cindy arrived at the park. Roocroft is the First person to be in charge of elephants — Asian and African — both at the zoo and at the Wild Animal Park. Until he joined the staff, supervision of the two areas had been separate. But in January of 1983 an administrative reorganization, designed to harmonize zoo and park collections, created general positions to supervise both park and zoo collections. Now Roocroft’s position, which pays in the low thirties, is, he says, the highest-paid elephant job in a United States zoo.
Roocroft’s passion for the massive beasts began in his home town of Manchester, England, where he was born thirty-six years ago. Before Sri Lanka closed its doors to the export of elephants, they were easily obtainable, Roocroft explains. “Our local zoo had a lot of elephants come through. ’’ Each elephant was accompanied by a mahout, or keeper/driver, who stayed with that animal until it became acclimated. “Like spaghetti to tiles,” Roocroft says, “these guys stuck to Manchester.” Roocroft’s father, a Manchester Zoological Society member, “more or less adopted one of these keepers,” Roocroft says. The keeper took a job at the local zoo, working with the elephants. And at fourteen, Roocroft, eager to begin work with elephants too, left school and took a job digging graves until he was old enough to work at the zoo.
He stayed at Manchester one year. Then he went on to the Chester Zoo, working there until he was twenty-one. At that point the keeper there sent him to Sri Lanka. “Sri Lanka,” Roocroftsays, “is 170 miles wide and 170 miles long, an island that rides off the southern tip of India in the Indian Ocean.” This island was once connected to the Indian subcontinent. “But when it got isolated,” Roocroft explains, “it also isolated the elephant herds there. Before the Portuguese came, before the French, and last but not least of all, before the British — who really screwed things up — there were a lot of elephants there. ” To get to Sri Lanka, Roocroft sold everything he owned. Once he arrived, his host, a keeper at a zoo in Colombo, gave Roocroft food and shelter.
“What attracted me to Sri Lanka is that there you’ve got everything you want. You’ve got the wild elephant in the national parks, you have the worker elephant in the logging camps, and you also have the zoo elephant. So I had three different aspects of the elephant in a day’s drive from one another. I got a chance to participate in working with the more docile elephants, the ones you could say anything to, and they would go anyway. But mostly I listened and I watched. It was a real experience seeing people work with animals that we call unmanageable.”
After Sri Lanka, Roocroft went to Hamburg. Karl Kock, the elephant supervisor there, is “one of the few men outside the East who really knows elephants,” Roocroft says. When Roocroft arrived at Hamburg he spoke no German. His boss and co-workers spoke no English. “The first five years, I cried,” Roocroft recalls with a pained half-smile. But he adjusted during his ten-year stay there. He learned German. His daily work around elephants enlarged his experience. Kock, he says, “gave me self-confidence. I am still learning from him,” he adds.
The Wild Animal Park maintains a herd of eight African elephants, seven females and one male. Five African babies have been born at the park. Three survived. At the San Diego Zoo there are three African females and one male baby African. Worldwide there are 1.3 to 1.5 million African elephants remaining, according to Roocroft. “The African elephant is going faster, now, than the Asian,” he says. Even with attempts to reduce illegal ivory dealing and with the protection of these animals in safari parks and game preserves, African numbers continue to decline. This decline is due not only to the ivory trade, outlawed since 1976, but because expanding human populations constrict the elephants’ range.
There are five female Asians at the zoo, and at the Wild Animal Park there are seven cows, including Cindy, and one bull. Roocroft estimates that 46,000 Asians remain worldwide. “War cut the throat of the elephant population in Asia,” he says. “In Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, they were shooting elephants right, left, and center. If you can’t shoot a person, you shoot an elephant, right?”
The Asian elephant was declared endangered in 1973, and can no longer be exported from Asia. For a zoo to acquire an Asian is both difficult and expensive; in the past ten years, only nine Asians have come into the United States legally. Sri Lanka gave President Reagan one elephant; the Seattle Zoo received two from Thai Airways, which gave the elephants as “complimentary gifts” to Seattle’s Boeing Company; and the Ringling Brothers Circus acquired six Asians (which however, had already been living in Europe) in 1973.
“We run a really serious risk 2000 years from now,” Roocroft says, “of having wiped out the whole animal population.” And a time will come, even sooner, he fears, “when the only places people can see animals will be in institutions.”
Norman Winnick, Point Defiance Zoo director for fifteen years, was there in 1965 when the zoo acquired Cindy. Contacted recently, Winnick said that a man in Nevada offered Cindy to the zoo as a gift. But the zoo had to pay for transport. In 1965, Winnick recalled, ‘”[ Port Defiance] had a zero budget for acquisition. We were, back then, a roadside zoo with a few niceties.” Winnick contacted the newspaper and told his story. After the paper ran a front-page article, a local roofer offered to transport Cindy free in his new flat-bed truck. The zoo shop built a crate for the flat-bed. (The crate still stands in the zoo storeroom.) Money was found to fly Winnick to Nevada to work with Cindy for ten days. All that Winnick knew about the elephant was that she was young, in good health, and had grown too large for her owner to keep.
Cindy was originally purchased to serve as a children’s attraction at a resort and casino complex under construction in Boulder City, a town thirty miles from Las Vegas. Before 1960 the 130-acre property, which included twenty acres on Lake Mead, was a largely undeveloped area around the Gold Strike Inn. Then the Gold Strike owners leased the property to a promoter who called it Ft. Lucinda. He planned to turn the development into a large-scale tourist attraction, and Cindy was part of his plan.
When Winnick arrived in Nevada, Cindy was in the care of a man who called himself Jo-Jo the Clown. Cindy was about four feet high at the shoulders, perhaps four years old, and a little on the thin side. Dressed in her red velvet caparison that bore her name emblazoned in gold letters and wearing her diamond-shaped hat, Cindy often went into Ft. Lucinda’s small bar, a room that held gaming tables and slot machines. Winnick learned that because of her size Cindy had begun to knock over tables. She had also become fond of maraschino cherries, using her trunk to extract the cherries from customers’ drinks.
Winnick was not told everything. He did not know Ft. Lucinda was in financial trouble, nor did anyone tell him that the humane society had spoken of its concern for Cindy to Ft. Lucinda’s promoter. And nobody could tell him of Cindy’s origins. That story begins far from the sands of the Nevada desert.
Morgan Berry, who eventually was killed by one of his elephants, began importing elephants into the United States in 1952. He brought in 120 of them over the years and sold them to zoos, circuses, trainers, and private individuals. His son, Ken Berry, lives in Seattle. Berry worked with his father and continues in the elephant business (he delivered San Diego’s bull, Ranchipur, to the Wild Animal Park). Asked if he recalled Cindy, Berry did not remember an elephant by that name. But he did remember taking one of the Berry elephants to Boulder City, Nevada.
Berry was to deliver the elephant on payment of $4000. “I picked up someone at the Sands,” he remembered, “who gave me the check and drove with me to Boulder City.” Berry was put up in a motel for a week. Part of the $4000 included Berry’s teaching someone to care for the elephant.
The elephant, who only later would be called Cindy, had come from domesticated timber stock in Thailand, where she was bom in 1962. Berry's father bought her from an animal dealer in Bangkok when she was six months old. She came to the United States in the belly of a Boeing 707, and the Berrys kept her until she turned two.
David Belding, now a thirty-eight-year-old Reno attorney and a part-owner of the Gold Strike Inn property, was eighteen in 1964, Cindy’s last summer in Nevada. Belding remembers Cindy well. The summer of '64 he worked in a gas station from midnight to eight. Cindy lived in a nearby tent, and Belding would sometimes bring her to the station. Shiny things attracted her. She liked to take off Belding’s watch, and he taught her to crush pop cans with her trunk. One night, Belding remembers, a drunk passed out on the seat of a trolley car on the property. Belding tiptoed to the sleeping man and put a pop can on his stomach. Then he led Cindy to the trolley. She grabbed the can. “The man sat up, took one look at Cindy, and ran,” Belding said. “He never came back.”
During the day Cindy gave rides to children. She was moved to a shed and was kept company by a billy goat. The temperature would rise to 120 degrees in Ft. Lucinda, and Cindy had no shade. She collapsed several times. The humane society complained. In 1966 the Ft. Lucinda empire folded and the owners took back the land, but Cindy was already in the cool climate of Tacoma by then.
“Cindy really became [Tacoma’s] star,” ex-zoo director Winnick said, “and she was also really the first attraction, the first kickoff for getting support for the zoo.” Winnick recalled helping her first keeper, Ray Hamlin, in those early years. He sent Johnson to Portland’s zoo for two weeks for training in elephant health care. (Winnick, too, would give Johnson Cindy’s red velvet caparison, given to him in Ft. Lucinda by Jo-Jo the Clown. Johnson also has kept two of Cindy’s baby teeth and a bracelet made of several of her tail hairs.)
When Cindy entered adolescence Winnick tried to arrange with the Portland zoo to breed Cindy. But this never worked out. Winnick also hoped that after the 1977 bond issue the Tacoma zoo could build larger elephant quarters and also purchase a second elephant. But by 1980 Winnick was gone from Point Defiance.
Winnick feels the “evil elephant” story got out of hand, that Cindy was not “malevolent,” only lonely. Left without elephant companionship, Winnick believes that Cindy tended to approach keepers as if they were also elephants. Winnick recalled that at the same time newspapers called Cindy “dangerous,” young children were still being held up by mothers to hand Cindy one of her favorite treats — Life Savers. “Cindy would take these delicately with her trunk from their tiny little fingers,” Winnick said. “She was doing this up to the day she left for San Diego.”
On the Friday before Cindy headed to San Diego, fifty Tacoma residents gave her a going-away party at the Tacoma zoo. Partyers stood beneath a green and yellow circus tent, sipping hot cider and munching animal crackers. Stickers were passed out that bore an elephant sketch. People tied four bouquets of balloons to Cindy’s fence. Cindy looked up at the balloons while she munched the fresh hay Rich Johnson spread in her yard.
Had the elephant we now call Cindy remained in Thailand, and had her life been without catastrophe, she would have been born into a family unit of six or seven elephants and would have remained a part of that unit for sixty, even seventy years. Alan Roocroft, sitting one recent morning in the trustees’ meeting room on the grounds of the San Diego Zoo, helped to reconstruct what Cindy’s life might have been. For the first years of Cindy’s life, he says, she would be with her mother all the time. “And there would be one other elephant with them, the auntie.” The “auntie” and the mother come together by mutual agreement. Because the time of birth is for the female elephant a time when she is in the most vulnerable position, the two females will choose a place to give birth where the mother will be protected on at least three sides. “Sometimes,” Roocroft says, “it will be a stream bed.” But the auntie, he adds, “will always stand on the fourth or unprotected side.” In Asian jungles a tiger will often track the pregnant mother and the auntie for weeks. “The tiger senses the animal is going to give birth,” Roocroft says, “and if the tiger is hungry, it will attack. Because the auntie has stationed herself on the fourth side, she will be attacked first.”
Elephants, Roocroft says, form matriarchal family units. In contrast, the herds in captivity are entirely artificial, being composed of animals from different family units, different herds, even different subspecies. The Asian bulls, who when they mature go through periods called musth and can become violent, are isolated from this matriarchal society and have, he says, “their bachelorhood. The cows chase the bulls away from the herd and they are allowed in only for mating.”
A pecking order exists among the females. The “lead cow,” or head of the unit, will tend to be the animal in the herd who has lived longest. Individual members of the herd are very close. “Elephants who are dying, who are sick, they don’t just die suddenly,” Roocroft says. “They go down. The other elephants will try to motivate the sick elephant, to get it on its feet. They will try to get that elephant to want to live. The little males will try to mount it if it is a cow who is dying . . . not as asexual thing or as a perverted act. . . but as a motivation for life. In a herd in the wild the elephants will stay with a dying member of the herd until he or she is either up and moving, or dead.”
Because elephants in the wild are the most voracious of feeders among land animals, consuming 300 to 500 pounds each day of leaves, bark, branches, grass, and other vegetation, they must stay on the move to have enough food. The lead elephant, Roocroft says, will know where, and in what seasons, to find food. “Her mother will have showed her, and her mother’s mother before her. Cindy might have become one of these leaders, or a subleader.
“She would have had lots, lots of contact. Elephants,” he says, “need touch. They need to feel other beings. She would not have been isolated. Isolation, you see, it’s the worst thing for an elephant. When they are isolated, their whole life is distorted. Add to that the inconsistency of human beings working with them, their lack of knowledge and experience of the animal, and then it is no wonder some elephants hit at people. A dolphin has the smarts to commit suicide when caught in such a situation.”
To listen to Roocroft talk about elephants, about zoos, and about elephant training is to begin to realize that Roocroft has chosen zoo work only because he feels deeply for the elephants. He takes the elephants’ perspective. He is looking out, with the elephants, from their enclosure. His identity is with them. “Working with elephants, I go for gut feeling. The animals are dealing with their instincts. Our instincts have been slowly beaten out of us. We have become a regimented machine. But the animals are dealing with their instincts. To work with elephants, you have to go with your own gut feelings, feelings that are a leftover of the instincts.
“It’s no secret,” he says, “that in the West we don’t have the smarts to work with elephants. In the West we lock up the elephant house and then go home, where it’s Starsky and Hutch and The Love Connection. It is a world totally apart from what the keeper or trainer is doing with the elephants. Yes, you’ve got the elephants in the back of your mind, but the only time you really think elephant is when you go back again in the morning and turn the key in the elephant house.
“In Asia? It’s totally different. Out in the jungle you have no Starsky and Hutch. You have no media. The whole jungle runs on word of mouth. In the evening they put their elephants next to the place they live, like you or I park our cars in the carport. They care for that animal twenty-four hours a day. They sit down at the table and they talk elephant. It’s a never-ending discussion. About elephants. All the time. Day in, day out. They have been talking elephant all this time, for the last three and one-half, four thousand years.”
Roocroft’s conversation about elephants is based upon an assumption of the rupture between man and animals, man and nature. It is as if his talk echoes from a lost Eden, and his hopes are that he can approximate a restoration of that Eden. Since we have zoos and circuses, where animals are secluded from their natural lives, where they are exhibited and taught tricks that please man’s need for animals to imitate him, what Roocroft will do is try to make the best he can from the broken life of the animal, and for the elephant in particular.
An elephant's life in captivity is, of course, very different from its life in the wild. “In the wild,” Roocroft says, “an elephant will be moving at least eighteen hours each day. The feet, then, will take care of themselves.” But in a zoo, elephants develop overgrown toenails and overthickened foot pads. “The most important part of health care in an elephant’s captive life will be the feet. An elephant cannot be kept on concrete, on rocks. She does not live on rocks. An elephant needs sand. An elephant needs Mother Earth.”
Water, he says, is a necessity. “Not just for drinking, but for bathing and for recreation, too. Skin care, water and sand — mud — are a part of the elephant’s day. When they get wet, then they itch, and they need rocks and stumps to rub against. They need sand to toss on themselves.”
The diet of the elephant in captivity has always been a problem. “People imagine the bigger the animal, the more you feed it,” Roocroft says. “But that is not necessarily so. Basically, you give an elephant as much hay as she will eat. But you have to remember that in the wild, eighteen out of twenty-four hours, she would be moving. She would pull up a tuft of grass, or break off a branch, and eat that, and that tuft gets her to the next tuft or branch.
“Now, in captivity an elephant stands in one place and we throw hay to her all the time. This is where instinct, the gut feeling of a keeper must come in. A farmer can tell you when it’s going to rain. Well, I can tell you when the elephant is not eating right, is not moving right. If she is not moving enough, she is getting too much food. So we must cut back her feed a bit. I would rather, always, give them a little less and motivate them more, achieve movement to ‘that next branch’ as it were.
“But,” he says, rubbing his own fingertips together, “it is a fingertip feeling, a feeling that you get from an animal that tells you this.
“We are doing all this in the hope of conserving the elephant. But there are so many needs, not purely dietary, that are not being met. What must these animals be going through," he asks, wincing, "at the mercy of men and institutions?”
A list made by a Zoological Society employee in 1978 shows that at least fifty male elephants have been killed in this country. Mandarin, a Bamum and Bailey circus elephant, is one of two males who have been hanged. Early in the 1900s Mandarin killed three men: a drunk who teased him, a trainer, and a stable boy. Mandarin was hanged from a ship’s winch. An elephant named Tusko died in 1962 at the Oklahoma City Zoo from an overdose of LSD. The LSD was administered in the hope that it would calm Tusko. In I Loved Rogues, by elephant trainer George “Slim” Lewis, Lewis mentions “Toto . . . who was hanged from a tripod made of huge logs when he refused to obey his trainer.” The huge combative Ziggy who would eventually spend twenty-nine years locked in his barn in solitary confinement at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, escaped the San Diego Exposition in 1936 and took refuge in Balboa Park. But Hari, a male who came to the San Diego Zoo with Lucky and Maja (who are still resident here), is the only elephant who has been executed in San Diego. In 1945, after Hari attacked his keeper, the elephant yard was roped off and Hari was shot before the zoo opened for the day.
More recently at the troubled Atlanta Zoo, zoo veterinarian Emmett Ashley recommended that a fifteen-year-old Asian elephant. Twinkles, be shipped to a farm to recuperate from a joint ailment. According to the Atlanta Constitution, the farm belonged to a circus owner, and Twinkles died “under mysterious circumstances” in North Carolina while traveling with the farm owner’s roadside circus. Twinkles’ keeper throughout the elephant’s eleven-year tenure at the Atlanta Zoo testified before an Atlanta Law Department hearing that Twinkles was not ill and did not need to be moved. Twinkles, the keeper told the hearing, “had no problems eating and drinking at all.”
Nothing in the morning's conversation in the trustees' meeting room elicits as much discomfort from Roocroft as does the talk of the training of elephants. Roocroft will talk with vivid anger about “thumpers" and “beaters," and will scowl furiously and redden when he repeats the philosophy of the more violent animal trainers: ‘ if you can ’t fit it, hit it."
Too many people, Roocroft says angrily, want to be elephant trainers for the wrong reasons: to acquire a glamorous image; to impress people; and, for a man, to be in a prestigiously “macho" occupation. The only right reason, Roocroft insists, “must be based upon the desire to be someone for the elephants, and even that desire is not enough. It takes a person who can show passion toward another human being. If he can’t, he doesn’t have a hope in hell of showing it to an elephant."
Asked what goes wrong when a trainer becomes a “beater," Roocroft says, “First, if you have an aggressive, uncontrolled manner, you should never work around an animal. Period. You quickly learn what your own in adequacies are when you work with animals. If you don’t, the animals will teach you. The frustrations take over when people can’t teach an animal a behavior. I’ve done it. You feel like an asshole. My own inadequacy, you see, would take over. You just stand there, just before taking an action you know is not right, but you do it . . . and then you come back to yourself, and you say, ‘What in hell are you doing?’ ”
Roocroft continues. “You see people brutalizing animals. You see situations in which an animal is so frightened it will not come to its trainer. I have seen elephants who have been beaten cower. But twenty, thirty years ago? You could do anything. It was a given mode of authority — man over animal — that nobody questioned.
“You get a new elephant. What do you do? People say, ‘Well, you beat it. Beat it into submission.’ Well, that’s bullshit. You have to bring these animals into the awareness that they are in captivity, whether they have been totally wild or come from another institution. They have to be shown that they are in your hands.
“The first step is to introduce yourself to the animal, to develop what my boss in Hamburg called the appellee [‘the call’].’’ Roocroft explains the appellee as “teaching an animal that it is being taught.’’ And if you cannot teach an elephant that it is being taught, he adds, “then the rest of the training will be torture for the animal.’’
He uses Cindy as an example. “When Cindy is out in the elephant yard, she is an animal with other animals. When she is with me, she is being taught. She knows at my command at any given moment how far she has tolerance. I have bred that into her. That is the basis of teaching.
“You can either produce something very, very fine for both the animal and the trainer, or, if you are a thumper, by your own actions you can produce a monster: you will get an elephant that is nuts,” Roocroft says.
“Too many trainers begin their work with an elephant by visualizing a little man in the elephant’s head,’’ Roocroft continues. “The trainer is trying to train, so to speak, that little man. When that little man does not respond — when the elephant does not do what the trainer has asked it — then the little man grows larger. And the harder you fight the little man, the more the human ego becomes involved and the bigger the little man gets. It becomes a contest of wills. This never works. What you have to do is to ‘think elephant.’ ’’
Roocroft has seen an entirely different relationship between man and elephant in Sri Lanka, where the two have worked together in logging camps for centuries. “In the West man has to conquer the animal, the elephant,’’ he says. “In the East if an animal does not live up to expectations, they just turn him loose . . . toss a few firecrackers after him ... let him go back into the jungle."
Although no one in the happy-family ambience of the Zoological Society staff will say so, a change in elephant-care philosophy occurred when Roocroft arrived. Two years ago at the zoo it was said that a woman could not achieve dominance in the elephant yard. Now Roocroft, who says ability to work with elephants is not gender-related, has a woman keeper working directly with the animals. There is less talk of “establishing dominance” and more of “making and keeping contact with the animal.”
“We are trying to ask more of the elephants,” says Steve Friedland, who is in charge of the elephants at the zoo. “Not that we are trying to teach them a great deal, but they need to learn to do what is necessary to allow us to take care of them.” This consists, in part, of being able to follow orders to lift each foot, to lie down, to move backward, forward, to the right, and to the left. Roocroft sees this training as “occupational therapy” for the captive elephant. “They are grateful for the diversion,” he says.
By eight o’clock in the morning Friedland and two assistants have let the five female Asians and four Africans, two of which are babies, out of the twenty-year-old zoo barn. While one of the keepers forks out the first of the day’s 1000 pounds of hay, the elephants’ feet, bigger than dinner plates, tread soundlessly across the dirt yard. Dust clouds rise up around the thick legs. At this time of morning, the zoo is so quiet that a passerby can hear the gurgle of water as it is sucked up into an elephant’s trunk. The sun, only now beginning to rise over the edge of the elephant yard, lights the dark hairs that stick up around the elephants’ heads, producing halos.
The massive shoulders and huge rumps bulge and roll under the gray hide as the elephants proceed toward the hill at the end of the yard. They stand on and around that slope, their features set in what George Orwell called “that preoccupied grandmotherly air.” They take up dust with their trunks and toss the dust across their shoulders and back, thereby protecting their easily irritated skin from too much sun and annoying insects. The tails, which also discourage insects, are twitching. The dust scatters in puffs and clouds, and the sunlight catches on silicates in dust motes.
Even in their small zooyard enclosure, the elephants are gorgeous to watch, massing together over mounds of golden hay, and then shuffling apart and tossing hay and dust across their backs. But it is at the Wild Animal Park in the San Pasqual Valley that the elephants appear at their best. There, Cindy keeps to herself. After her seventeen years' exile from other elephants, she is still shy. She remains at the bottom of their pecking order. Given a choice, she prefers the company of Roocroft to an elephant. But this morning she reaches out with her trunk and grabs up some hay from a smaller elephant's heap, a hopeful sign.
On the night Cindy arrived at the Wild Animal Park and the doors to her trailer were opened, a thirty-four-year-old elephant named Nita walked around the trailer. This gave Cindy a chance to smell another elephant. Because Cindy had trouble backing up in the trailer, she was finally harnessed to Nita, who nudged Cindy out of the trailer. When Cindy emerged into the night air she snuffled her trunk along the ground. On her sixty-five-foot chain, she was led into the barn and put between the dominant Mary and the smaller Cookie.
Jeff Jouett went to the park that first morning and watched Cindy from the observation deck. “She reminded me of a big scared kid. She ate dirt. She had never seen it.” Several days later Jouett returned. “When the show elephants went by, trunks holding tails parade-style, poor Cindy was so scared she ran to the barn, which by then was a safe spot for her, and hid. Her big rump — two, three tons — was hanging out of the barn. But she believed she would not be seen if she didn't see them.”
By the end of Cindy’s first month at the park she could — at command — lift each of her feet before she left the barn in the morning, for which she was rewarded with an apple. The worst that happened to an elephant during that time, happened to Cindy. She bumped into what was for her an unknown — the electric fence.
Then in February, 1983, the National Enquirer picked up Cindy's story. They called it a “real-life Cinderella story,” and described Cindy's “miraculous change” in San Diego. According to the tabloid, the “8000 pounds of mean fury” had changed overnight. “After years of loneliness, Cindy has at last found the magic of both love and friendship,” the paper concluded.
Cindy will soon be added to the roster of four Asian elephants and one camel that offer gentle one-lap tours around the park's ride circle. Eventually she will become a mother. Breeding Asian elephants in captivity is now done only at the Portland, Miami Metro, and Bronx zoos and at Circus World in Florida. But by the end of this year the Wild Animal Park’s $400,000, 10,000-square-foot Asian Elephant Breeding Facility will be ready. It is here Cindy will be bred to Ranchipur. When she goes into labor she will be moved into the facility’s maternity unit, in which there is a small room where keepers will be able to monitor the birth with video cameras. After the birth, Cindy and her calf will be moved to the facility's nursery pen.
Cindy is too big to forget easily and too big, too, to bury quietly and without traces. Her story and her size, her huge shadow falling, keep alive in human minds the question of who — as a people — we have become, and what — in the future — our world will be. An old proverb from India says, “Only an elephant can bear an elephant’s load,” by which Indians mean, “The burden is more than I can bear. It is a load for an elephant.”