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Zoo News: Animals create memories, passions

Submitted Photo Deneen Bullock gets reacquainted with Ellie, an Asian elephant at the St. Louis Zoo. Next to Ellie, center, is one of her calves. Zoo visitors, whether to Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot, the St. Louis Zoo or another zoo, often connect with a particular animal.

Being a zookeeper is more than a job. It is a lifetime of memories and what-ifs. I saw the epitome of this recently when I traveled with my wife, Deneen, to the St. Louis Zoo in Missouri so she could see an elephant she worked with in the 1980s. As an elephant keeper at the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida, she worked with three African and one Asian elephant. The Asian elephant, Ellie, was one of her favorites as she spent hours every day doing elephant rides. We left the Jacksonville Zoo around 1990, but Ellie remained and produced a calf via artificial insemination prior to being transferred to the St. Louis Zoo with her calf. Since that time, Ellie went on to produce three more calves and even became a grandmother.

My wife has always been reminiscent about her days working with the elephants and was especially concerned about Ellie. As a special gift, I arranged for a trip to St. Louis for her to see Ellie. She wondered if Ellie would remember her or not since it had been over 30 years since she last saw her. The St. Louis Zoo staff were wonderful and hosted us for this brief visit, allowing us to spend time with her in an off-exhibit area with her calves.

Initially, it did not appear that Ellie remembered her, but after all, Ellie is 53 years old now. But the more she talked to her Ellie seemed to make that connection and by the time we had to leave, she was responding to my wife and to the surprise of her keepers performing behaviors they had not seen her do. The area supervisor had been working with Ellie for over 20 years and was amazed. They shared stories and my wife gave them insights on medical issues that plagued Ellie back then and the therapies used to treat them. The trip turned out to be so much more than a visit to an old friend but turned into a sharing of information between zoo professionals.

As we sat in the airport to leave St. Louis, my wife struck up a conversation with a fellow flier. The conversation turned to the zoo. As a resident of St. Louis, he remembered the zoo fondly, but it had been a while since he had visited. The one thing that had stuck with him was the bull elephant, Raj, that he remembered as a kid growing up.

It is those memories that we carry from our childhood that for some reason stick with us as we grow up. Whether it is a special pet or an animal in a zoo that creates that connection, it is those individuals that stick with you. My wife worked with a whole herd and cared about all of them, but Ellie stood out to her. When I arrived in Minot, I found out that Clover, one of the zoo’s Amur leopards, was part of a litter of cubs we raised at the Greenville Zoo in South Carolina. We love to see all the animals when we visit the zoo, but which one will be the one that connects with you? It could be a young animal like JaKiya (lion cub) or one of our more senior residents like Kianga (giraffe). That individual can create a passion that can ultimately guide your life’s work.

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