Boot camp trains pachyderm keepers worldwide

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

GUY, Ark. -- When Betty Boop gets a pedicure, it's a huge day at the spa.

After hosing down the elephant's feet, revealing wrinkled gray skin beneath a caked-on layer of clay, trainers clean and smooth her yellowed nails with a foot-long file, rounding the edges with care.

From the bottom of her feet, they scrape mud and grime, then gently slice off a layer of calloused skin to give her better traction in the grassy fields of Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary.

"Booper. Still ... still," instructor Scott Riddle said softly, slightly nudging her feet when the 31-year-old animal gets restless and starts to lean too far forward.

Seven elephant keepers from zoos around the world watch, asking Riddle for the finer points of pampering a pachyderm. They're attending the 10th year of the International School for Elephant Management, an educational summit of sorts for elephant keepers who must care for very large and very individualistic animals.

The pedicure is functional; keeping the animal's nails even and its feet clean of dirt and rocks prevents abscesses and uneven bone growth in the legs. It looks better, too.

For Stefan Groeneveld, the pedicure is one of several finer points of elephant care he plans to take back to a wildlife park in Tilburg, the Netherlands.

"I see so many good things here," Groeneveld said. "I look at what they do, and I think, why didn't I think of that?"

All of the students call Riddle's the best place in the world to work side-by-side with the largest land animals on earth, in a setting with plenty of room and expert advice from Riddle and his wife, Heidi.

"You could have something you've been doing for 15 years, and then they'll show you a whole new and better way to do it," said Cecil Jackson Jr., elephant manager at the Cincinnati Zoo.

In the past decade, Heidi Riddle said, the elephant keepers of nearly every major zoo in the world have come to Arkansas for training in topics like handling, maintenance, and spotting the symptoms of pachyderm health problems.

The 367-acre sanctuary in the foothills of the Ozarks was established in 1990 by Riddle and his wife as a haven for elephants. Some come from small zoos that couldn't afford to care for them; others came after years of poor treatment with circuses.

For zookeepers, it's their only chance to work closely with the different varieties and sexes of elephants. Some zoos have only Asians, or only Africans, or only males or females.

Most easily told apart by the size of their ears (Africans' are huge and look like the continent, Asians' are smaller), each variety also has its own dispositions and tendencies. And each individual animal has its own moods, speed of learning, and need for guidance, Jackson said.

Groeneveld, 23, came the farthest for the school, at his own expense. His determination to work with the largest mammals on earth is strong, even after seeing his mentor at the Safari Beekse Bergen park in Tilburg trampled and killed Feb. 19 by a female African elephant.

Shortly before the accident, he said, the park had switched to a "hands-off" method, in which trainers have limited contact with the animals and perform close inspection only when the animals are anesthetized.

Groeneveld said he prefers the "hands-on" method used at Riddle's, in which trainers work right next to the animals and guide them with quiet voice commands and light nudges with a pole.

"With hands-on, if they get hurt, you can give them better care," he said. Without it, the animals have to be put to sleep temporarily, which is sometimes risky for an elephant weighing tens of thousands of pounds.


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