How did you get this job?
My opportunity at Indianapolis was the result of a fluke. Literally I went to the zoo with some friends, ran into a guy I’d gone to high school with, asked them if they had any openings. I sat down with them that day and met with the curator. He called me two days later and offered me the job, and I took it. I started at $2 an hour. When I left I was a supervisor. I’d gotten three raises. I was making $2.36 an hour, came here and started as a trainee and was making almost twice that.
Where did it start for you with elephants?
You connect with elephants in a way you don’t connect with other species. Part of the relationship is a social relationship. They don’t allow you to interact with them without interacting on their level. There’s an element to it that you don’t get working with anything else. So if it grabs you, it never lets go.
You clearly enjoy that element.
Absolutely. Everyone who works with elephants does. You develop a relationship that is based on mutual respect, and it really is mutual respect. You interact with these animals the way you interact with anyone else. Coco, the male we lost in February 2011, I had worked with him for 35 years. My son is not 35 yet. It’s like losing a brother.
Is this a dream job?
I didn’t intend to do this. When I took the job in Indianapolis, my brother and I had a garden-supply stand. He ended up working for the EPA and I went to the zoo, and we were gonna quit in February and start our plants and go back to the stand. I recognized the dream after I got here; I didn’t know before.
What traits do you have that suit you well for this job?
I think I’m a patient person, and you have to be patient, particularly when you’re talking about training and working with elephants because you may have gotten the sense that elephants can be very slow and deliberate. Empathy, awareness … If you’re going to work with elephants, you know it the first time you work with them. That connection is pretty instantaneous it grabs hold of you and you never lose it.