Cover Photo: Busch Gardens, Tampa Bay
Emmy winning Carolyn Hennesy’s long list of credits include major roles on TRUE BLOOD, REVENGE, COUGAR TOWN, GENERAL HOSPITAL, Disney Channel’s JESSIE, NCIS, ADAM RUINS EVERYTHING, A SNOW WHITE CHRISTMAS and she may currently be seen in Darren Bousman’s horror feature, “St. Agatha.” She has a successful career as a writer, creating the popular “PANDORA” (Bloomsbury USA) tween book series and penning the NYTimes bestseller “The Secret Life of Damian Spinelli” (Hyperion). Hennesy lends time to a number of causes but she focuses on animal rescue and advocacy with her online podcast, “Animal Magnetism,” which highlights global animal advocacy issues. And she flies trapeze.
Having been involved with animal advocacy in varied forms for a number of years now, I continue to remain honored that my personal perspective is sought out by those who’re on the frontlines of conservation…especially when it comes to something as important as enriching the lives of our animal brethren in human care. I’m not in the trenches (would that I were) and can only comment on what I see and experience around me, a most valuable tool in my chosen profession. Over the past 14 years, I have seen astonishing enrichment programs at a number of facilities, even if they weren’t necessarily labeled as such, and one of the most eye-opening presented itself early in my advocacy education.
I was lucky enough to be taken to Busch Gardens in Florida by the man who would quickly become my advocacy mentor, Dr. Grey Stafford. It was in fact my first meeting with Grey (after his having reached out some weeks before in response to a mis-informed tweet on my part)—and my first real behind the scenes look at modern zoological care; I had no idea what I was getting into at that point. I just knew I was going to hang out with elephants. Very cool. But Otto Fad, then head of the elephant program and a good friend of Grey’s, had arranged an incredible day; one which would profoundly expand my vision. And it went like this:
We arrived at the elephant enclosure and after meeting Otto and his team of keepers, I had a tour of the barn (where I was politely told not to take photos because the appearance of bars for protective contact could and would be used by radical activists in their batshit crazy efforts) and the husbandry area where I witnessed some (very) large foot care. Then I was introduced to the true purpose of my visit: to experience the enrichment program.
Things of its ilk may be standard procedure, but at that time it was new to me. First I was led out into the enclosure itself—absent of elephants, naturally—and handed a shovel. I spent about 15 minutes shoveling…I’ll let you guess. Then 10 other people who paid an additional fee (bringing in further revenue to the park) were also let in. With the keepers, we hid apples, melons, various other treats in nooks and crannies in the rocks surrounding the enclosure and in the impossible-to-destroy enrichment balls and cylinders. One keeper—and they were all rockstars—placed a watermelon on a post waaaaaay out in a gully. As I was pondering the certainty that no elephant would ever be able to retrieve it, Otto handed me a packet of Skittles. As I tore into it hungrily, he calmly said, “No. Those are for the elephants.” Deprived of my snack, I reluctantly hid colorful bits of sugar in every place I could (okay yes, I ate a few.) We finished and were all taken out to watch the real fun begin. As a call went out over the park loudspeakers, people came from everywhere to see. It was a huge draw; folks jockeyed for position at the railing. The elephants, all cows, strode in—all but one who was still in the barn, having the most fun with a large roll of toilet paper—and went straight to hunting; trunks prying loose apples from tubes, Skittles from crevices, other fruits from way up high or way down low or back around and behind.
And I realized, watching a trunk extended waaaaaay across the gully to slowly, gingerly remove the watermelon from atop the post, that I was witnessing brilliance.
Otto and his rockstars had developed a program that was indeed geared for elephant enrichment and mental stimulation; but on a far deeper level, it was for us; a bridge of bonding for those of us watching the genius, the cleverness, the adroitness. These beautiful creatures were behaving in ways many, myself included, had never seen, doing things we thought only humans could do. Reason, deduce, be patient, find solutions and so much more.
One of the first lessons taught to me by Grey was: we don’t care about what we don’t know about; the Busch Gardens program gave everyone either involved with the hiding or not-so-simply watching a chance to know about elephants in a far more profound way and I will venture to say that at least a few minds were opened on a conscious level, but probably far more on an unconscious level. Even after the treats had all been found people stayed on, I like to think, by a curious newfound connection, unaware they’d just been educated.
I turned and asked Otto about the elephant who hadn’t participated but had instead stayed in the barn banging around a roll of Charmin, her trumpet calls pealing off the metal roof. He said everything was done on the elephants’ time and if she didn’t feel like participating in this or that particular moment she would never be forced to. That applied to everything, including husbandry—not our time, their time.
As I say, I’ve seen other enrichment programs at wonderful zoos and realize that pretty much any animal will have a more satisfying, fun, healthy, happy and contented life when humans charged with stewardship go that extra mile and apply what’s known from an ever-expanding base of knowledge, but Otto, his keepers and Busch Gardens left a conservation imprint that continues to inform my respect and astonishment for the minds, heart and souls of all animals.
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