- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 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 says 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 Mr. Riddle for the finer points of pampering a pachyderm. They are attending the 10th year of the International School for Elephant Management, an educational summit of sorts for elephant keepers who must care for large and individualistic animals.

The pedicure is functional; keeping the animal’s nails even and 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,” Mr. Groeneveld said. “I look at what they do, and I think, why didn’t I think of that?”

All of the students call Mr. Riddle’s elephant sanctuary 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 Mr. 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, Mrs. 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 Riddles established the 367-acre sanctuary in the foothills of the Ozarks in 1990 as a safe haven for all elephants. Some came from smaller zoos that couldn’t afford to care for them; others came after years of poor treatment with circuses or private owners.

For zookeepers, it is 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.

Elephant species are identified most easily by the size of their ears: Africans’ are huge and look like the continent, while Asians’ are smaller. Each variety has its own dispositions and tendencies, Mr. Jackson said, and each individual animal has its own moods, speed of learning and need for guidance.

A recent addition, month-old Maximus, an African male, has brought some extra training in motherhood and caring for young and fragile elephants.

Maximus was named after the character from the movie “Gladiator.” Keepers said he was a rambunctious and virile calf almost immediately after dropping from the womb of his mother, Lil’ Felix, who came with Artie and Solomon from the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe after their herd was culled.

“He was all male,” said Mark Easley, a worker at the sanctuary.

The sanctuary also hosted the birth of Batir, believed to be the first African elephant born in the United States.

Several of the students come from zoos with breeding programs in the works. The Cincinnati Zoo, Mr. Jackson said, plans to bring over one of its cows to breed with one of the Riddles’ bulls.

Mr. 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. Trainers have limited contact with the animals and perform close inspection only when the animals are anesthetized.

Mr. Groeneveld said he prefers the “hands-on” method used at the Riddles’ place, 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.

Keeping Mr. Riddle’s facility running is a constant battle for resources. Donated items are vital — railroad tracks for fences, an industrial scale to weigh the youngsters, or even art supplies for Mary, an Asian who holds a paintbrush with her trunk to create works on canvas to be sold to help pay expenses.

“It’s always a struggle,” Mr. Riddle said. “As the facility grows, our needs grow.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide