The Elephant Keeper
The modern zoo is a world unto itself. While the public sees it as a place to go and watch the animals on a sunny afternoon, insiders sees it in a different light. To a conservationist it's a place where threatened species can live and reproduce in peace, a place that ensures that future generations of humans will have a chance to view and study animals that are at risk of being pushed off of the evolutionary ladder. The zoo keeper sees yet another aspect. To the zoo keeper a zoo is also a place fraught with danger, a place where inattention can mean injury or death.
Indeed, even within the community of around 200 American zoos the topic of the role of the zoo--or zoological garden as they are more formally known--is a subject for debate. Some zoos see themselves as places where they can profit by exhibiting animals for the entertainment of humans. Others see themselves as conservationists whose role is to protect and propagate. Others see themselves as trainers and presenters. Most probably see themselves as a combination of the possibilities. The important thing is that how they handle their animals is determined by how they view themselves. Basically, there are three methods of handling zoo animals:
Free contact - animals are handled frequently and are trained to avoid behaviors that would pose a risk to handlers;
Protected contact - animals are kept in cages and handled only in emergency situations;
No contact - animals are not handled under any circumstances in order to avoid contamination and conditioning.
Brian McCampbell, The Elephant Keeper
Because safety is so important and the majority of zoo animals can't be sufficiently trained to ensure the safety of the keepers, most of the major zoos in the United States have adapted a "no contact" or "protected contact" approach to handling their animals.

One frequent exception to this approach is the handling of elephants, where a free contact approach is used because it takes advantage of the intelligence of the animal and allows their health to be closely monitored. Free contact has definite advantages and disadvantages. For example, it gives the zoo keepers the advantage of being able to handle and care for elephants as they see fit; but, because bull elephants are difficult to handle, free contact generally rules out adding these larger, more powerful and less manageable mammals to their collection. The keeping of bulls generally means adapting a "no contact" approach and accepting the cost of installing an elaborate system of hydraulic doors to move the animals from one place to another. The Philadelphia Zoo, one of America's oldest zoos and the place where Brian McCampbell works, uses a "free contact" approach to handling its elephants.

Elephants are awesome creatures. Weighing anywhere up to 8 tons, and reaching heights of nearly 13 feet, to stand next to one is to understand the meaning of intimidation. Although they move with shuffling, almost effortless grace, it is a dangerous mistake to confuse their ambling gait with slowness. Able to reach speeds in the neighborhood of 25 mph, they are far from slow. And even if it is a myth that they never forget, it is an established fact that they spend their 60 or so years of life operating within a strict social order; they are moved to order by such powerful instinct that even a pair of elephants, if they are kept together, is compelled to establish a dominance-based relationship.
As if that wasn't problem enough, the keeping of elephants is made more complex by their need to perceive their keepers as an integral part of their herd relationship. It is no joke when, during the daily public demonstration involving the Philadelphia Zoo's elephants, the narrator asks the question, "Which is the dominant animal in the elephant yard." The narrator waits for the answers--most in the audience pick the large African elephant--and then laughs and points to Brian McCampbell, dwarfed by the hulking creatures but firmly in charge.
Brian McCampbell
Question: Where does a 300 pound gorilla sit?
Answer: Wherever it wants to.
Question: Where do two 7,000 pound elephants sit?
Answer: Wherever Brian McCampbell tells them to sit!
To see Brian McCampbell work with his two charges, an Asian Elephant named Dulary and an African Elephant with the unlikely name of Rose Petal, is to see someone exercise absolute control. And for good reason: although they seem docile and slow to the unschooled observer, elephants are regarded as a zoo's most dangerous animal and are one of the few animals whose keepers automatically earn hazardous pay. In dealing with their keepers, their instinct and intelligence allow them to figure out quickly who is in control and who isn't. They give respect to those they know to be in control; disdain and danger await those whom they perceive to be weak. In one unforgiving moment a thrust of a tusk, a push of a body, or a whisk of a trunk can put someone down and beyond rescue. Every year there are reports of handlers being killed by "previously friendly and well-trained" elephants. "If elephants don't respect you, they'll hurt you," Brian will tell you. So he is sure to maintain their respect.
But there are other, even more important reasons for Brian's determination to achieve mastery over his elephants. First of all, they must be handled to ensure their care as individuals and their survival as a species. Secondly, held in captivity with nothing to do, elephants become bored, frustrated, and potentially dangerous. Handling and training address both the physical and emotional needs of these complex creatures.
The fact that we need to keep such massive animals in zoos is both a positive and a negative statement about modern times. As Brian explains it:
A lot of people hate zoos... I hate the fact that we have to have zoos, but we have to have them to make sure the species survives. If you can't get around the elephant, you can't take care of her feet, you can't take care of her skin, you can't take care of her daily needs, and the elephant suffers. So training is important, crucial in fact.
While a career as an elephant trainer might seem an unusual choice for most, for Brian it was a clear and logical move. Although schoolrooms held little interest for him, he had an zealous curiosity about the habits and care of wild animals. Even at an early age, in his home town of Fowler, Kansas, population around 400, he was the person to whom neighbors would bring wounded animals for care. Snakes, raccoons, birds, and even an occasional skunk would find its way to him for healing. So when he graduated from high school, applying for a job at the zoo in nearby Garden City, Kansas, was the only sensible thing to do.
They hired me to work with small mammals and reptiles, but they had an elephant who had hurt his keeper and were having trouble finding someone to work with him. I was just 18, so when they said, 'Do you want to try and work with the elephant?' I figured it was worth a try.
It was a step he never regretted, and it put him on a career path that would take him to a series of zoos--and even to a company that trained and supplied elephants for television and movie work--before settling in Philadelphia.
Working as the lead elephant keeper draws on his years of experience, calm demeanor, and "aw-shucks" approach. Although quiet by nature, it's obvious that Brian welcomes the times when visitors show an interest in his elephants and he can hold forth like a proud parent--indeed, he claims that he'll never have children because the animals take all of his attention. At these times, standing on the wall that surrounds the elephant yard and usually accompanied by one or both of the 4 ton "girls," anecdotes and bits of elephant trivia pour forth.
In a voice that seldom rises above a drawling whisper, he'll tell of the physical and behavioral differences between Asian and African Elephants, discuss the need to protect the creatures from ivory hunters, and detail the elements of their care and feeding. As he talks, as he stands with Pet or Dulary nuzzled against him, it becomes clear how much the elephants mean to him and how important he feels it is for everyone to understand and appreciate the wondrous nature of the elephant.
Having spent seventeen years caring for elephants, he readily admits that part of the allure of keeping elephants is the ego massage that comes with the job. But just as quickly, he brings the discussion back to the difficulty and importance of training:
An elephant's a lot like a 2 to 4 year old child; they're always watching you, always testing you, and if you give them an inch they take a mile. They'll train you if you don't train them. But in order to keep the elephants properly, you have to train them; train them that you're the boss. If you're not the boss, you can't train them to pick up their foot so you can work on it; you can't tell them to lie down so you can give them medication or shots; and if you can't get around them, you can't keep them properly.
As you watch Brian work around Pet--zoo legend has it that an earlier keeper, while being chased through the yard and trying to get her to end the chase, decided that "Rose Petal" was too long a name to work with--and Dulary, it's clear that care is the issue, providing care is what the training is all about. The animals willingly respond to commands and allow themselves to be poked and prodded as they are checked for signs of trouble. Feet, skin, and teeth are a particular source of concern, since a problem with any one of these can lead to the loss of an animal. Witnessing the morning routine in the elephant house is much like watching an airline pilot walking around his plane prior to take-off: all systems are examined, all of the structures are inspected, and, as much as possible, all parts of the body are checked for any unusual marks or abrasions that might warn of a problem ahead.
And while it's necessary to assure the keeper's safety by chaining the animals, the routine seems pleasant to them. They seem eager to please by cooperating in the process. Little coaxing is needed, as they appear to anticipate the next step in the check-up. Showing their willingness, they lift their feet, raise their trunks, get down on their knees, and even lie down completely so that they can be looked over. Even extraordinary procedures, such as sawing off ends of badly chipping tusks--chipped as a result of fighting over herd dominance--are accepted without any anesthetic and without any noticeable objection. As Brian is quick to note, "You have to be able to do certain things to do what's best for the animal."
In this case what is best seems to be to train them so that their human keepers, weighing less than one thirty-fifth of their charges' weight, can assure that they continue to live long, healthy lives. It isn't easy, it isn't always fun, and the scrutiny of a public that tends to see even the universally accepted elephant hook as a cruel and inhumane device makes it harder. Brian complains that,
We're under the microscope and people think they know what's best, but they haven't seen what happens to an elephant that can't be handled and has to be put in 'no contact' care. They become lonely, bored, and desperate for attention. In a way it's a death sentence.
Fortunately, neither Pet nor Dulary is lonely, bored, or desperate for attention. They willingly hurry to Brian and the rest of the crew, begging for apples, looking for favor. If he's outside the elephant yard and they spot him, they hasten to the area and call to him with little calls that sound like a trumpet being blown deep within a cave. They don't attempt to touch anyone--they know that that's against the rules--but they do seem to understand that while Brian may be in absolute control, in this case absolute control also includes having the keys to the apples.
Elephant Keeping - A Gallery
Morning turnout.
As he walks Pet out of her cage in the morning, Brian looks toward Dulary's cage to ensure that she's also being started out. Because elephants pose a considerable risk to their keepers, Pet's handling is carefully staged to coincide with the handling of Dulary. The two elephants are cleaned and checked at the same time, have their cages cleaned at the same time, and receive food at the same time. Even such a simple task as leading Pet out is only done when another keeper walks Dulary out.
Putting out the morning meal.
Depending on the size and age of the animal, a large mammal will eat up to 350-pounds of food a day. For the elephants, the zoo's commissary prepares a mixture of grain, feed pellets, vegetables (potatoes, carrots, and beets), and apples. This mixture is supplemented by a couple of bales of hay and washed down with about 30-gallons of water.
Opening the cage.
Once the elephants have been chained--one chain runs from a floor-mounted eye to a front leg and one from an eye to a back leg--the doors are unbolted and opened. The animals are trained to readily accept the chains, which are used for the safety of the keepers. While performing their daily inspection, it's important that the keepers have the ability to move safely around the elephant, and chaining keeps them in the middle of their cage.
Training new keepers.
Under Brian's supervision, Rick Lurty learns how the zoo handles its elephants. Although Rick is an experienced keeper, having worked at other zoos and with circus elephants, the fact that these are not fully trained animals means he is only gradually introduced to Pet and Dulary. Brian describes the behavioral difference between Asian and African elephants as being like the difference between a dog and a wolf, with the Asian being like a dog. Because she's easier to handle, Rick is first trained to work with the Asian Elephant.
Looking for trouble.
As the massive African Elephant waits patiently, Brian scrapes her back with a common hard rake, looking for problems that come with dead skin. As he rakes, pea-sized chunks of skin come off and make way for healthier skin. The animal seems to actually enjoy the process!
A quick drink.
At the command, "Pet, trunk," the elephant raises her trunk and is rewarded with a drink from the hose. Moments of playful exchange such as these keep the animals and Brian from becoming bored with each other and their routine.
Checking for problems.
After they've been washed, Brian checks and rechecks each foot.
Checking tusks.
While both sexes of African Elephants sport tusks, only male Asian Elephants have the specialized teeth. Tusks even have a nerve growing in them, so it's important that they be checked and maintained on a regular basis. Since zoo animals don't have the opportunities or needs to use their tusks like animals do in the wild, it falls to the keeper to maintain their health.
Releasing other large mammals.
Other members of the zoo's large mammal collection are released using sets of movable partitions. Chutes are formed by closing and latching 5-foot high, 1/4-inch steel partitions on either side of the inside cage door. The partitions span the corridor that runs between the inside cages and the yard. Here a female rhinoceros passes through the chute on her way to the yard. Once she's in the yard, the doors will be closed, the partitions will be returned to the stored position, and the use of the corridor will be regained. If Pet and Dulary weren't trained, large, hydraulically operated partitions would have to be installed to handle their movement.
Waiting for the day to begin.
Dulary waits anxiously for her morning routine to begin. The stainless steel cage door, looking small with the 11-foot Asian Elephant standing next to it, is designed to keep her in but allow a keeper to easily slip between the bars if a problem arises. The yellow line in the foreground marks the point where a visitor can stand safely out of reach. This line would not, however, protect an unwary visitor from the elephant's tendency to throw pieces of manure at those they don't recognize and consider welcome.
Cleaning up.
The down side of an elephant's eating 350-pounds of food and drinking 30-gallons of water each day is that each one deposits about 400-pounds of manure that must be shoveled up and disposed of. Morning clean-up alone necessitates removing two large wheelbarrows of manure from each elephant cage.
Working together.
Pet willingly submits to being hosed down, bending on command to make it easier for Brian to see what is beneath the previous day's buildup of dirt. Elephants commonly toss dirt on their backs as a way of insulating themselves against the sun. It's necessary for Brian to remove this dirt so that he can check for any cuts or abrasions that might lead to problems. The elephants are trained to respond to simple, two word commands: in this case Brian ordered, "Pet, down," and she responded.
Checking the eyes.
No part of Pet's body is overlooked in the course of her daily routine. Here Brian looks at her eyes. From his pocket dangles the elephant hook that he uses to cue the elephants. The points, one on the end and one at the tip of the hook, are sharp, but not so sharp that they would penetrate an elephant's skin or even a human's skin. They are never intended for penetration, only for prodding.
Washing the feet.
One of the most vulnerable places on an elephant is its feet. Looking and feeling like a well padded leather bar stool, the underside of the foot can be penetrated by a sharp object and, if not detected quickly, lead to a fatal infection. Several times a day the elephant's feet are checked, showing one of the benefits of "free contact" handling.
While thin-skinned humans would cringe, Pet seems to enjoy being brushed with a wire brush. In areas where the rake is too severe, a wire brush, similar to the type used to remove paint, is used to remove dead skin.