AN AUGUST ADVENTURE…. A road trip to visit elephants and their keepers.
This trip actually began a year ago when I was invited out to Woodland Park Zoo to represent Asian elephants at their Asian Animals Festival. It wasn’t possible for me to make that trip but I asked for a raincheck and so planned for a year to attend their 2016 event. I’ll begin telling you about this trip by saying that I managed to plan a 19-day, 10-zoo, family, and donor trip all around the wrong date for Woodland Park’s 2016 Asian Animals Festival! My thanks to a most generous Bobbi Miller and all at Woodland Park for a gracious ‘save’, allowing me to give a presentation about AES’ work to a very enthusiastic crowd, as well as have a wonderful visit - on the 16th of August.
But, let’s start the trip at the beginning. Cynthia Christison, an AES supporter and volunteer, agreed to accompany me on this trip, and I’ll admit up front that it would not have been as easy or as much fun had I covered what ended up being 6,126 miles on my own! An elephantine Trunks Up! to Cynthia.
We departed St. Louis on August 10th, with our first destination the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, where elephant keeper, Joel Locke, introduced us to their African elephants. It is always good to ‘talk elephants’ and especially hear how these were settling into their new home. We had visited last year when the new barn and yards were under construction, so it was delightful to see it now finished, and inhabited! The next day, we checked out Fort Laramie (because we could) and made a spur of the moment decision to follow a sign saying Riverside Park Zoo in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. A little and quite lovely zoo, and a good break in a long day of driving.
Seattle is a good distance from Omaha, so we routed ourselves up through the Grand Tetons and included a drive-through of Yellowstone, eating our lunch while awaiting Old Faithful to, well, be faithful.
Arriving at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington, the morning of August 15th my first surprise was hearing someone call, “Linda!” and see Bruce Johnson, a fellow traveler with director Barbara Davis and I, on a zookeeper trip to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in 2011. Friend Melissa Crandall and her hubby, Ed, from Connecticut, were also visiting. After my presentation to staff and volunteers, John Houck, Deputy Director, Melissa, Ed, Cynthia, and I enjoyed a great seafood lunch on the wharf, which is practically a next door neighbor to the zoo – and with a great view of Mt. Rainier! After lunch, John took us on a wonderful tour of the Point Defiance Zoo and elephant keepers Katie Burone and Piper Lieper were generous with their time, showing us the barn and introducing us to their Asian elephants, Hanako and Suki. John, Katie, and Piper, were new acquaintances, and as this trip proved over again and again, whether making new friends or reacquainting with old ones, talking elephants with those who know these amazing creatures the best and are definitely the most dedicated to them always energizes my own commitment.
Tuesday, August 16th: the day that isn’t Woodland Park Zoo’s Asian Animal Festival! What a gracious and enthusiastic group of people. The morning started having coffee and talking elephants with Bobbi and several of the docents particularly concerned about Asian elephants. Among them was Sue Connell who I first met on River’s Edge when I was on docent duty at the Saint Louis Zoo…but we knew of each other from AES’ work in Sumatra which Woodland Park Zoo, including their docents, help fund. I was humbled by the large audience of volunteers and staff that filled the auditorium for my presentation. It was good to get to say hello to Fred Koontz and Pat Maluy, who I met a few years ago but haven’t seen recently. Cynthia and I spent the afternoon visiting all of the zoo and everywhere we went, if we had a question, it was answered quickly, as I’ve yet to meet so many and such enthusiastic docents as greeted us throughout the day. And I promised Bobbi that if she invites me to a future Asian Animals Festival, I will definitely get the day right!
The next morning finds us at the Oregon Zoo in Portland where we meet up with Sharon Glaeser, a dear friend who was a director of AES in our early days and remains chair of our grants committee. Sharon has been involved with elephant research at the Oregon Zoo for many years and takes us on a grand tour of their exciting new elephant barn and yards. I have had the pleasure of visiting Oregon Zoo a few times in past years, so met both old and new friends, and always good to see their Asians: Packy, Shine, Rose-Tu, Chendra, Sam, and their little Lily.
A stop in Fremont, California, to say thank you in person to generous AES supports, George and Carol Spindler, resulted in a delightful evening visit with them, meeting their daughter, Heather, and their two rescue pooches: Lady and Bella. My initial suggestion that we meet at a restaurant was overrode by a lovely home cooked dinner. A real treat when on the road for as long as we will be!
Friday, August 19th, we drive from Fremont to Fresno and visit the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. At present, they have both Asian and African elephants and elephant keeper Kim Cook spent her day off at the zoo with us. I presented our work to both the Asian and African elephant keepers using our printout of the power point presentation, and it is delightful to hear about their elephants while watching them in person. I knew Amy from her story, A Cowboy and His Elephant, long before I met her when she resided with our friends, Scott and Heidi Riddle, where she gave birth to her daughter, Miss Betts. Heck, I first met Miss Betts as an ultrasound image which her human ‘mom’ convinced me was just the most beautiful little elephant ever. Kim has been hosting an annual CPK event for us and this was a great opportunity to give her our sincere thanks in person.
The beautiful scenery continues as we next head to Santa Barbara, California, and the Santa Barbara Zoo. Our first stop is a visit with Connie Speight, a friend I first met some years ago in Thailand, each of us working on behalf of Asian elephants via our separate nonprofit organizations. Connie has a beautiful home in the foothills. The billowing smoke from a wildfire on the other side of the Ynez Mountains is hugely impressive but not a threat….this time! Connie also was a docent and supporter of the Santa Barbara Zoo for years so she joined us the following morning when we visited and I presented AES to their staff and volunteers. Liz Beem and Liz Wilson, elephant keepers, have been hosting a CPK event for AES for the last five years; we see each other at the EMA conferences and they changed their Elephant Appreciation Day to coincide with our visit. It was great to visit again with them and Sujatha (Suzie) and Little Mac, their Asian elephants. A nice buffet lunch was served to all attending the presentations (I did two) and the afternoon was spent up by the elephant’s yard with AES brochures to share with any interested visitors while watching Suzie and Little Mac and all the elephant-related activities. A truly lovely day, capped off with a wonderful seafood dinner on the oceanfront.
Next stop: Los Angeles Zoo where Cynthia’s cousin, Jan Jashinski, joined us for a look at their Asian elephants, although we didn’t get to see their bull, Billy; then lunch, a train ride, a stop at Jan’s home and then off to Perris, California. Perris? California? Yes. We wanted to be on time the next morning for our visit at Have Trunk, Will Travel. Gary and Kari Johnson, Joann Smith, and three of their Asian elephants -Tai (I’m her #1 Groupie!), Rosie, and Kitty - made for a truly wonderful morning of being with elephants the way I need to be with elephants, up close, hands on. We talked elephants for a good four hours while we scrubbed, touched, watched, and simply enjoyed being in the company of Kitty, Rosie, and Tai. And, these people do so much to support Asian elephant medical research and conservation efforts…..this opportunity to be with them again reminds me just why I care so much about this specie’s ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’.
Early afternoon we drove on to San Diego for three nights at my son’s home with plans to visit the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park. My daughter-in-law, Geesoo, is always a lovely hostess with great kitchen talents, so again we had a nice respite from restaurants. And, of course, it is always good to see my family: Mario helped me with my phone; Rostam helped me with my computer, and their two Maltepoos, Georgie and Charlie, provided some good pooch time. We did visit the San Diego Zoo; sadly the day after the euthanasia of their ailing elderly bull, Ranchipur. I am glad I had the opportunity to see him on earlier visits and was there at this time to offer my condolences to their keepers who were very visible to their public answering questions and sharing their mutually sad moment. In spite of the circumstances, had very good visits with Robbie Clark, who has been caring for Ranchipur for the last four years and Victoria Zahn, who has been a keeper with elephants and now rhinos and whom I will be rooming with at the IEF/IRF Symposium in Singapore In November. Our second day in San Diego was to be the Wild Animal Park. It’s wonderful; I was there a few months ago with my family and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, without a specific contact to meet, Cynthia and I decided we needed a ‘day off’ and so we enjoyed the pool and the beach and both seeing and sampling some of San Diego with Geesoo chauffeuring (the only day I never drove!).
Tucson, Arizona was our destination on the 26th, and arrived late afternoon at the home of Rich and Wanda Johnson, dear friends (and AES supporters) I’ve known for many decades. It was a lovely visit and another night not in a Super 8 or Days Inn – thank you Rich and Wanda. A scrumptious hot breakfast before we headed to the Reid Park Zoo while Rich and Wanda readied to leave that afternoon for a week’s vacation. My friend Jenny Joyce, elephant manager at Grants Farm in St. Louis, introduced me to Mara Jameson and the initial understanding was she would not be in today but another keeper would visit with us. So, when we got to the elephant exhibit and met Savannah, I just dove in asking questions and presuming she had come out to greet us. Ahem. She really was headed to do something else but was most accommodating and friendly, and then Mara showed up and spent the rest of the morning with us. I often visited Reid Park back when they had two elephants: Asian, Connie, and African, Shaba and while I loved past visits with them, it was really good to be introduced to each of their new African elephants as well as seeing their great new facility.
Last stop! August 28th we visit the ABQ BioPark Zoo in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Here again I thank Jenny Joyce for introducing me to Rhonda Saiers, elephant manager, who wasn’t at the zoo that day but had keeper, Debra Valquez, meet us and introduce us to all their elephants and visit their barns. I had been there when they hosted an EMA Conference several years ago, so it was good to see their new barn and become reacquainted with their Asian elephants. It was a great finale for our trip.
August 29th: 6,126 miles and back in my own driveway! Again, my thanks to Cynthia Christison for making this journey with me. Whether renewing friendships or making new acquaintances, I am always so humbled by the welcome all these very busy elephant keepers afford us. I guess it’s simply that common bond of dedication to this amazing species that pulls us all together. While I love learning the elephants’ stories and the history of elephants in this country, what really matters is sharing our thoughts and hopes and the ways we are all making an effort for the future of all elephants. Asian as well as African numbers are spiraling downward in a horribly frightful fashion. Poaching is taking a toll, yes; but so too is loss of habitat and the resulting human-elephant conflict. I hope someday we will have sustainable populations of Asian and African elephants in this country. But it is imperative we also help them manage to not just survive, but to thrive, in their native lands. I felt the synergy amongst all the wonderful people I met on this trip – zoo staff, keepers, docents, volunteers. It lifts me up and I hope we will work together even more in the future. And none of what we do would be possible without YOU, our donors, and our supporters. Elephants truly need our help. Thank you so much for being that ‘wind beneath our wings’!