There are times when you do a story, and it changes your life, your outlook, or puts you back in touch with something that was once important to you. The elephant training story was one of those. I have loved elephants since I can remember, and I have interacted with them on numerous stories, but this was so much more than that. Asking a four ton animal to do something is a great responsibility, and, consequently, a great joy.

And there is no one you would rather have right by your side than this man, Willie Theison. I have said it before, and I will say it again. He is one of the top elephant managers in the world, and his knowledge of elephant behavior is uncanny. It is more than knowledge, actually. It is an integral part of his being. He has been a crucial part of the success of the breeding program here in Pittsburgh.

When we had talked about doing this, the plan was to use the eight year old female, Victoria. I was stunned when he brought in Tash, the matriarch. She is my favorite, and I really love her. But working her for the first time was quite a different matter. In hindsight, it ranks right up there with flying with the Thunderbirds. Of course, I threw up three times in the little bags the pilots put in your flight suit, so I guess Tash comes out on top.

Speaking of bodily functions, Tash poops and urinates on command. I wanted to show that, but others at work thought it might not be very appetizing during the dinner hour. Why, you say is “pooping on command” necessary? Well, if you are going to do a pregnancy test, or ultrasound, it would be a good idea if you don’t have a canal full of poop. Willie was emphatic about why they train elephants. None of their contact with the elephants is to dominate them. It is for their care. While most of us wish no animals needed to be in captivity, I believe they are a valuable tool in trying to educate people about the conservation mission. It is unacceptable to think that these astounding creatures could disappear from the forests and plains of Africa and Asia. Some compromise must be worked out. But in the meantime, Willie, Zoo Director Barbara Baker, and Mammal Curator, Amos Morris, not to mention all the other keepers, vet techs and veterinarians who work with them, strive to make their herd, their captive experience as natural as possible. That is what the International Conservation Center is all about in Somerset County. But I digress( which is nothing new–it is why I stink at golf).

While I am at it, I do want to mention all the guys and gals who work with Willie–this is Joe Galvanek, a great young man who just got married to one of the zoo’s vet techs, Libby. It was Libby who drew the blood from Tash when Willie made me ask her -Tash, not Libby- to lie down. How brave they all are! Oh, and listen to this! Joe asked Libby to marry him by writing it on the back of the ear of Victoria( I think it was Victoria, but I know it was some elephant), where Libby was about to draw blood. What a great proposal. I personally think it can’t get any more romantic than that!

Then there are Brian McCampbell, Ed Brown, and Lisa Caruso. She has a little toddler, and she is so great with the big bull, Jackson. Of course, he is not handled in what they call natural contact. He is worked in protected contact, but he really likes Lisa. All of them have experience in Willie’s mantra–something he was told when he first started. “The only thing you can make an elephant do is run away. Everything else you make them want to do. “

Many zoos have gone to protected contact, for a variety of reasons. But Willie believes the success of our breeding program hinges on the health of the pregnant cows. As he says, birthing a 200 pound baby takes quite a lot of energy, so his exercise program with the elephants involves running up hill. And that has to be done in natural contact. In the wild, elephants walk great distances for food. They don’t have to do that in a zoo.

Willie also emphasized that they don’t work the ellies all the time. Only when they need to do it. The rest of the time, they get to be elephants in a herd. To make it easier for the growing family (two elephants are pregnant now) to be together, they are building a “family room.” And there will be big glass windows so the public can watch them all together.

Willie said that all these elephants are trained in protected contact. So, if Barbara would, as he said,”heaven forbid,” retire, and someone else came in as a protected contact proponent, the elephants could switch over. But he explained that it would mess with the elephants more than it would mess with the keepers, because the ellies wouldn’t understand.

It comes down to this. Walking Tash back to the herd, turning and waving good-bye, and seeing her reach her trunk toward me and Willie (okay, she was reaching toward Willie probably, or she wanted another treat–just let me anthropomorphize, okay?)–well, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Thanks to all mentioned above, and Tracy Gray and Connie George in the Communications department for making it happen.


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