Wednesday, January 13, 2010
By Dena Potter
Sunday, Jan. 10 2010
GREENBRIER, Ark. — As you walk through the field beside the elephants, it's
difficult to tell if that rumble is the sound of their mighty footsteps or your
heart thumping in your chest.
Then just before you sink into the forest, one of the elephants throws her
trunk into the air and trumpets, and you're certain what you're witnessing is
nothing short of magical.
You're not on an African safari. You're in Arkansas, in the foothills of the
Ozark Mountains, at a sanctuary for unwanted elephants. And this may be the
closest you'll ever get to these mammoth creatures.
Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary will celebrate its 20th anniversary
this year. For years, owners Scott and Heidi Riddle have opened its gates for
the Elephant Experience Weekend, where visitors get close to the sanctuary's
eight African and Asian elephants over three days.
The weekends, held about six times a year, help the small nonprofit cover the
cost of caring for and feeding the elephants. But the Riddles say it's more
about the education and conservation of the animals they've spent their whole
lives working with.
"There might be somebody sitting in that room who might have some fantastic,
positive impact on the future of all elephants in the world," said Scott, who
has trained and managed elephants for 44 years.
But on this weekend, it's the elephants that have the impact.
On the first evening, as guests sit around assorted lawn chairs under a big
white tent swapping stories about who they are and where they're from, a loud
gasp brings a sudden halt to the conversation. It's Miss Bets, the sanctuary's
rambunctious 2-year-old African elephant, and her mother, Amy, and they're
headed to their barn for the night. The handlers stop briefly to allow each of
the 11 guests to feed the baby a marshmallow, her favorite treat.
That night, as guests dine in the chow hall, Asian elephants Peggy and Betty
Boop — affectionately known as Booper — munch on hay and twigs under the stars
a couple dozen feet away.
Over the next two days, guests get plenty of hands-on experience with the
elephants, learning along the way what it takes to care for the massive beasts.
Peggy and Booper lie on their sides and let the group bathe them, using brushes
to remove the mud that gets trapped in their bristly hairs.
One of the most important parts of caring for captive elephants is foot care,
so guests pitch in one afternoon to give Peggy a pedicure. One by one, the
Midwestern doctor, the eBay powerseller from Chicago and even the journalist
from Richmond, Va., take turns using a metal rasp to file each toenail to a
perfectly rounded edge.
"For us to stand there and this 8,000-pound animal standing on top of you, just
to be in that presence was just overwhelming," said Chris Martucci of Chicago,
who was there in May with his wife, Deanna.
The sanctuary sits on 330 acres about an hour north of Little Rock, down the
sort of winding country road where it's safe for a turtle to cross during rush
hour. Red metal barns and buildings, including the dormitory and chow hall, dot
the rolling landscape. Horses graze in the distance, and a rooster serves as an
"It was like a camp, a farm and a sanctuary all in one," said Deanna Martucci.
Most of the buildings were built with grants or donated funds, often with
donated metal or wood. They're not pretty, the Riddles say, but they're
Scott and Heidi Riddle met while working at the Los Angeles Zoo. They married
in 1986 and opened the sanctuary four years later. Elephants were easy to get
then, and zoos didn't always look at them as a long-term responsibility.
The Riddles wanted to open a sanctuary for all elephants, no matter the sex or
species, and especially for those problem elephants that zoos, circuses or
individuals were looking to unload. But they also understood that to ensure the
survival of the endangered species, they must study the animals and educate
others about them.
The sanctuary has long taken monthly blood samples from each of its elephants.
The data are used in research, including a study on herpes, which is the No. 1
killer of African and Asian elephants. The Riddles also have been active in a
study trying to develop a repellent that will keep elephants away from crops in
India and other areas of the world where the human-elephant conflict is killing
off the elephants.
"We've always felt it was important to, when you have these elephants that are
captive, to not only learn as much as you can about them, but then to educate
about them," Heidi said.
The Riddles started with three elephants, and at one point had more than a
dozen elephants. Miss Bets is the third African elephant born at the sanctuary,
all to first-time mothers. Asian elephant Hank is the nation's No. 1 semen
Scott still tears up when he talks about the death of Mary, a pachyderm with a
penchant for painting.
Mary died while giving birth. She is one of three elephants buried on a
picturesque portion of the sanctuary. During the weekend, guests take a hay
ride around the sprawling property, stopping by a stream to gather rocks to
place on the memorials.
Gabrielle Durrell of San Diego said her weekend at the sanctuary was "the
actualization of a dream."
"People really should educate themselves on the plight of the elephant and come
out here and spend a few days doing something that they never would have
thought about doing," she said.
Besides the weekends, the sanctuary opens to the public for a few hours the
first Saturday of every month. There's enough interest that it could be open
all the time, but Heidi said they are more concerned with caring for the
"It's an opportunity for people to kind of understand better what it takes to
manage elephants," Heidi said. "It's not as black and white as it's often
portrayed to be. Elephants are many shades of gray."