Monday, September 25, 2023 Sep 25, 2023
92° F Dallas, TX

Trainers Keep Pachyderms Purring

By Kathleen Crist |

it’s, not an easy job. The pay could be better. The work means being outside in all weather, and there’s the possibility of danger. But while John Leggett, Kristi Rainwater Richardson, and Allison Hoffman agree that their jobs might not appeal to everyone, they vow they would choose no other profession,

These three are the keepers of Moja and Jenny, the Dallas Zoo’s two female African elephants. Yes, a typical day includes shoveling elephant dung and pitching hay, but there are rewards. Leggett, Richardson, and Hoffman are convinced they have the best jobs in the zoo.

“We get to develop a relationship with them,” says Richardson. “We get to spend so much more time with our animals because we work with them so intensely.”

In the wild, Moja and Jenny would roam the savanna grassland of eastern Africa in a matriarchal herd ruled by one old cow. Here, they need highly specialized, individualized care to stay healthy. Physical maintenance of the elephants involves daily feeding, watering, housecleaning, a bath and body rub, and a daily pachyderm pedicure. In captivity, elephants have foot problems because they are living on what is for them an artificial surface; any injury is magnified by the sheer weight of the animal.

Three times daily the giant attractions are put through a standard routine of physical activities. Using voice commands only, the keepers “work” their charges through an educational demonstration that includes lying down, waving a red bandana, and lifting their feet. The elephants are rewarded with hugs, kind words, and loving pats.

“We teach them these activities as a method of discipline,” says Leggett. “In the wild, they are used to leadership. Working with them reinforces our authority, which makes them feel more secure.”

The keepers downplay the risks of working with their ten-ton charges, although an elephant keeper.was killed at the Fort Worth Zoo last year. But they never enter the compound alone, and each trainer carries an ankus, a short, heavy rod with a flat-tipped hook on one end. “Applied to the right body point, the ankus gives the animals a little more incentive to behave. It can’t really hurt them. We know that any animal can get excited or frightened. We just don’t take chances.” says Hoffman.

Hoffman, Richardson, and Leggett say they have grown to love Moja and Jenny, and the affection is returned. When elephants are happy, they “purr,” making a low, rumbling noise much like a feline purr. Moja and Jenny purr a lot.

“We really have a bond with them,” says Hoffman. “When they purr for us, it sort of makes our day.”