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January 21, 2010

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American sanctuary for elephants

AS you walk through the field beside them, it is 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 are certain that what you are witnessing is nothing short of magical.

You are not on an African safari. You are in the US State of Arkansas, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, at a sanctuary for unwanted elephants. Also, this may be the closest you ever will get to these mammoth creatures.

Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary will celebrate its 20th year in 2010. For years, owners Scott and Heidi Riddle have opened its gates for the Elephant Experience Weekend, where visitors get up close and personal with the sanctuary's eight African and Asian elephants over three days.

The weekends, held about six times per year, help the small nonprofit cover the cost of caring for and feeding the elephants. The Riddles say it is more about the education and conservation of the animals they have spent their 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," says Scott Riddle, who has trained and managed elephants for 44 years.

On the first evening as guests sit around in assorted lawn chairs under a big white tent swapping stories about who they are and where they are from, a loud gasp brings a sudden halt to the conversation. It is Miss Bets, the sanctuary's rambunctious two-year-old African elephant, and her mother Amy, and they are 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.

Pet pachyderms

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.

During 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, Virginia, 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," says Chris Martucci of Chicago, who was there in May with his wife, Deanna.

The sanctuary sits on 133 hectares about an hour north of Little Rock, the Arkansas capital, down the sort of winding country road where it is 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 alarm clock.

"It was like a camp, a farm and a sanctuary all in one," says Deanna Martucci.

Most of the buildings were built with grants or donated money, often with donated metal or wood. They are not pretty, the Riddles say, but they are functional.

Scott and Heidi Riddle met while working at the Los Angeles Zoo. They were married in 1986, and opened the sanctuary four years later. Elephants were easy to get then, and zoos did not 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 is used in research, such as one study on herpes, which remains the No. 1 killer of both African and Asian elephants. They 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, 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 says.

The Riddles started with three of their own, 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 donor.

Scott still tears up when he talks about the death of Mary, a pachyderm with a penchant for painting that he refers to as a member of the family.

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, California, 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 says.

Besides the weekends, the sanctuary opens to the public for a few hours the first Saturday of every month. There is enough interest that they could open it all the time, but Heidi said they are more concerned with caring for the elephants.

"It's an opportunity for people to understand better what it takes to manage elephants," Heidi says.

"It's not as black and white as it's often portrayed to be. Elephants are many shades of gray."


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