Elephants in Arkansas

Shannon has a real affinity for elephants and horses, elephants more than horses. So when she found that she could spend a weekend up close and personal with real elephants, she signed us up. It would be a long weekend arriving Friday afternoon and leaving Sunday evening.

We arrived in Greenbrier, Arkansas at Riddle’s Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary late in the afternoon after driving an hour north from Little Rock through a hard rain. The ranch was modest and had three or four small buildings and about an acre fenced in with mules/donkeys (I haven’t learned the difference yet) and two Scottish long-hair, long-horn bulls. After a quick tour of the bunk house and the cook house from our friendly greeter, Sue, we wandered over to visit the bulls while we waited for dinner.

We expected dorm-type food but were pleasantly surprised when the meal was quite tasty and even a little adventurous (at least for most of the other patrons – they’d never heard of jicama). At the end of the meal we were introduced to each other, the staff and the proprietor, Scott Riddle. Scott talked a little about his previous experience and answered just about any question anyone had. As interesting as it was, we weren’t sure when it was going to end. So Shannon made the first move towards the bunk house and the others followed quickly after.

The bunk house was a dorm-style layout with about 10 or 12 rooms and two shared bathrooms with showers. The beds were mostly singles, two per room, mounted on rollers. This was interesting because every time you made an adjustment to your sleeping position, the whole bed moved into or away from the wall depending on your movement.

The next morning we rolled out and met in the cook house around 7am for breakfast. Shannon could hardly contain her anticipation so she didn’t. If you weren’t excited about the day before talking to her, you were afterwards.

At about 8am, the adventure began. We walked over to one of three large metal barns following the handlers into the structure. The structure was the size of an airplane hangar and lit by natural light filtering in through the large garage doors on each of the four walls. Inside were pens constructed of something like 6-inch steel pipe running vertically from the floor up to about fifteen feet tall. The pipes were set wide enough for a person to slip through easily but not the elephants. The layout of the pen was in a ‘T’ pattern with two large pens on either side of the ‘T’ with sliding gates to separate the pens from each other. In the middle was the corridor leading from the pens in the barn to the outdoor enclosures.

Once inside the barn, we filed along the wall about 15-20 feet from the nearest pen. Our eyes finally adjusted to the relative darkness to reveal two African elephants in their respective pens. Most of us gasped or grinned from ear to ear at the sight of the enormous animals. While Scott talked of the enclosures and the elephants within, the other handlers prepared food and delivered it to each of the elephants. This barn contained a mother-daughter pair.

After feeding, the handlers washed each elephant with garden hoses. The elephants really enjoyed this part of their morning. The mother was instructed to bend down, which she did so the handler could get water on her forehead and the top of her head with the hose. After the rinsing, the hoses were tidied up and you could tell the elephants knew what was coming next as they both began swaying their heads and trunks back and forth, rocking from one front leg to the other. The handlers then moved some of the enormous gates to put the two elephants together in the near pen.

Together in one pen, the youngest elephant continued her excited state by running around and under the mother’s head and trunk while jutting her trunk out towards all of us visitors still lined up on the wall.

Following an impromptu question and answer session, the handlers moved some more giant gates to allow the pair of elephants into the bottom of the ‘T’ that would lead them to the outdoor enclosure where they would spend the rest of the day. We watched their little parade following the handler through the ‘T’ with the young elephant following the mother in the classic form of the following elephant holding the tail of the leading elephant.

Once the pair of them was in the outdoor enclosure, we were directed to slide through the bars and follow the elephants outside. We were again asked to stand 15-20 feet back from the giant steel fence of the outdoor enclosure (though these pipes ran horizontally and further spaced) while we watched them forage for their hay and cover themselves in dirt.

All of this was very interesting but we were becoming a little disappointed that we would only be allowed to be within fifteen feet of the elephants. Fortunately for us, this was just the warm-up.

The final barn we visited had two Indian female elephants. Like the previous two barns, we watched from a distance as the handlers fed the pair of elephants. Instead of bathing them and then escorting them through a steel pipe corridor as before, these two were allowed to wander to a grassy field across the road leading to the barn. We followed in anticipation of a more personal experience with the elephants.

Scott had spent the most time training these two elephants so they would be the elephants we would be allowed to interact with. One of the handlers gently coaxed one of the elephants to lie down on her side. Then the next one did the same. It’s truly amazing to see such an enormous being gently, almost delicately go from the traditional standing position to lying on their side. But that was only the beginning.

A bucket of brushes like you would wash a car with were provided and we were asked to pick one up and to walk around the head of the relaxing elephant where we would be able to scrub the caked mud off the backs of these magnificent animals. I hung back to take pictures as I watched my wife become overwhelmed with emotions to the point of tears as she caressed the skin of the toppled elephant. After recording the moment and being uncertain of how long the elephants would be on the ground, I hurried to join Shannon in brushing and touching the elephant.

The skin of an elephant is almost indescribable. It’s rough as you would imagine but surprisingly pliable. There is a jet-black, wire of a hair sticking out of a star-burst of wrinkles about every two or three inches, some of the rays of one star-burst leading to the center of the next star-burst and another singular wire of a hair. And depending on the area of the elephant you are near, the color can vary from a uniform brownish-gray to that same brownish-gray speckled with pink freckles, usually around the head, ears and trunk.

As they are so large, the elephants can’t lie down for extended periods and so they were instructed to get back to their feet and allowed to wander in the field in which they had lied. The caressing experience would have been satisfactory but the intimate encounter didn’t end there.

After some time of wandering and foraging through the hay field, one of the elephants was coaxed next to the barn where she would perform a circus-like feat so she could have her nails tended to. There were two circus stands, or drums, placed about six to eight feet apart. The elephant was coaxed on to the first one where she stood with all four feet on the one drum. She then was gently directed to bridge the gap with her front feet, which she did hesitantly but elegantly. We were then given wood rasps and shown the way to file the elephant’s toe nails. On its own, this event was interesting but it was more amazing being allowed to interact with the trunk of the elephant while others were filing nails. It was similar to the way a dog might sniff around you trying to figure out what you’re all about except it was a powerful elephant with a boa constrictor for a nose. She explored clothing, faces, hats and hands of anyone who would stand nearby long enough. At one point, she wrapped her trunk around my forearm and gave me a gentle squeeze. It was at that point I felt only a small fraction of the strength she would be capable of with just her trunk. Shannon also spent some time with the elephant’s trunk, holding it like a child’s hand or alternating smelling the breath or breathing into her trunk. It was a magnificent moment for both of us and hopefully for the elephant too.

We retired for lunch and excitedly discussed the different experiences we each had with the elephant, her trunk and her nails. After the lunch break, we returned to the same Asian elephants and them wandering in their outdoor enclosure wondering what experience would be next.

The handlers directed the elephants close to the same area where we scrubbed them previously and had them lie down again while she discussed more about the elephants. It was then that we were informed we would be allowed to ride the elephants! One elephant was fitted with a sort of saddle that was more of a bottomless, thin-piped, square structure in which we would sit. It was more of a device to give the rider something to hang on to than anything else. Those that wanted to participate were assisted on to the back of the elephant and taken for a short out and back walk. For Shannon it was just another opportunity to physically connect with the enormous animals she has such an affinity for.

The final elephant experiences of the day would be watching the handlers run the morning process in reverse as they brought each pair of elephants back into their respective pens. Once in their pens, they were fed and secured for the night and we moved on to the next pair. We finished with the Asian’s we had become so intimately familiar with, still high from the earlier contact.

The next day was a repeat of the morning before where we watched from a distance the feeding, bathing and release of each pair of elephants into their daytime enclosure. It of course couldn’t be as rewarding as the day before because we knew we wouldn’t be as close to them again. But it was more of an opportunity to get to know the handlers better. They are an amazing breed, the handlers. They are virtually donating their days to working with the majestic creatures that are elephants.

I will never forget the experience and I will be forever thankful for the opportunity to touch and be deeply touched by an elephant.

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