Sometimes my job and my standing in the equine world opens up some incredible doors for me. I am so fortunate to do what I do and I have met so many interesting people through my travels; some of whom have becomes friends for life. Yesterday was no exception.
It was like a dream come true for me. I got to meet, up close and personal, five amazing Asian elephants: Dixie, Rosie, Becky, Kitty and Tai. What incredibly beautiful, intelligent, kind and gentle animals! To stand in the middle of five huge elephants while they surrounded me, sniffed me all over with their trunks and felt around my face; hearing their deep guttural purring, their barking and screeching calls as they greeted us; and getting fanned by their giant ears was a special thrill I’ll never forget.
I had met the owners and renowned elephant trainers at a horse expo in California a couple of years ago (they also have a team of matched ponies that perform liberty acts) and after hearing of my fascination with elephants, they extended an open invitation to come visit their farm and yesterday, Twyla and I took them up on their standing invitation, after we finished a clinic in Norco, CA.
Their facility is incredibly beautiful with spacious areas for the elephants to hang out; it is meticulously clean, neat and safe for the elephants and the care these animals get on a daily basis far exceeds what you would expect to get at a 5-star spa. Here, they explain to Twyla and I how the bull's pen was constructed, while Kitty and Tai have a drink behind them.
We arrived at the southern California elephant farm a little after 8:00 am, two hours after the daily chores had begun and just as the last elephant was finishing her daily bath and head-to-tail scrub down (with Murphy’s Oil Soap). She’s not inside an enclosure or restrained in any way as picks up her feet, lifts her trunk, lays down and turns around on command as three handlers scrub every square inch of her body; they use a power washer to rinse. This daily cleaning is essential to maintain healthy skin but it is clear that the elephants love every minute of it. Their hide is thick and leathery with coarse hair all over.
The entire time we were at the farm (about 4 hours) the elephants were totally loose, with no restraints of any kind and all the gates wide open (except, of course, the perimeter fence which doesn’t so much keep the elephants in as keep the rest of the world out). Keep in mind this is a private training farm-- not open to the public. Most of the time the elephants obediently walked by the handler’s side, doing anything they asked with simple voice commands spoken softly: “Rosie, come here,” “Kitty, move over,” “Becky, lay down,” “Tai, trunk,” (means lift your trunk and prepare for a command). The elephants are happy, content and want to be with their handlers; obedient to every cue and repsonsive to the slightest gesture.
After bath time, it’s time for their daily exercise and with the simple command, “tail,” they got in a single file line, grabbed on to the tail in front of them, and began their march around the large pen (with the wide open gates). They walked in a line, trunk to tail, deep into the corners, maintained a steady march and went through their paces without argument or protest. I thought about how hard it is to get a horse to do this when you are on top of him and holding onto two reins and guiding his every step yet these gentle giants (mega herbivores—the technical classification) did it willingly from one voice command from the handler standing at a distance, with no physical contact.
After about 20 minutes of walking, Gary showed us some of the tricks the girls use in their performances—a 360 degree spin, lay down, sit up, do a hand-stand, wave their trunks, stand on their hind legs. All of this done with simple and quiet voice cues. With incredible grace and strength, they happily performed these difficult maneuvers, clearly eager to please Gary and perhaps to show off in front of us. Here’s a video—turn up the volume so you can listen to his soft simple commands.
When the girls were told it was okay to do whatever they wanted, with an “alright, go on,” cue from the handler, all five of them immediately came to us, clearly eager to check out who we were and to say hello—just like a friendly dog would. It was an incredible experience to be surrounded by five elephants, each over eight feet tall and weighing over 8,000 pounds. In their excitement, they started screeching, barking and making deep guttural purring noises as they vied for our attention, feeling and smelling us up and down with their trunks, fanning us with their ears, but all the while moving gently and carefully around us. While I would never stand in a the middle of five strange horses vying for attention, I had no concern with the elephants—they are so polite and gentle, coming close but never pushy. Here’s the video I took while holding my phone—again, turn up the sound and listen for the deep purring.
We toured around the farm, looking at all the specially designed pens, barns and trailers. These elephants perform in movies, commercials, parades, circuses and fairs around the country and around the world. Every detail of their safety, care and well-being is catered to—from the 9” diameter pipe fencing, to the spotlessly clean barn, to the custom built trailers that carry such a precious load. During our tour we found out that there are only about 300 Asian elephants in this country—in all capacities, including zoos, privately held and performance animals. Each one is precious and the responsibility of their handlers is keenly felt. They have worked relentlessly, all of their lives, to take care of these majestic animals and help preserve this endangered species and educate people about them.
After showing us around the exquisite training farm, two elephants had head dresses put on so that we could ride them. The huge halter-like head-dress fits over the ears and under the throat and was not there for control or restraint, but just for the rider to hold on to. I got to ride Tai, a forty-six year old female and the star of Water for Elephants. Her trainer of over 25 years asked her to kneel down, I stepped up onto her leg then hoisted myself up onto her neck much like getting on a horse bareback. As we paraded around the farm in their slow lumbering gait, I felt like I should be wearing leotards and sequins. At one point, Gary said, “Hold on Julie,” and gave the command and Thai lifted her front legs up into the air like a rearing horse. Holy cow! What a ride!
The trainers were awesome to show us their precious elephants and let us get up close and personal with them. They answered my constant stream of questions about their behavior and training and care. Oddly, they said that training elephants was really no different than training horses. You break it down into small components, reinforce and reward; you maintain a strong and quiet leadership and authority and the elephants want to be with you and please you. At least the females—the male elephants are only tractable until they are about 15 years old or so. Once they reach sexual maturity, they become very dangerous to handle or be in the enclosure with.
After four decades of living for and with elephants, the trainer's sense of responsibility for their charges and indeed for all elephants everywhere is very clear to anyone listening or observing. At this elephant farm, there is only one way to do things—the best way. Their entire word revolves around the elephants—not just to the ones that they feel so fortunate to have spent their lives with, but to all elephants everywhere, Asian or African. Since elephants have a life span similar to humans, and they are all middle-aged, the trainers hope to spend the rest of their lives with Kitty, Rosie, Dixie, Becky and Tai. In a perfect world, they and their five girls will all die peacefully of old age in the same week.
Thank you for a meaningful experience I will never forget. I cannot wait until the time when our paths cross again.
Enjoy the ride,