by Mallory Moad
“Hey, Amy! Miss Betts! Come here!” At the sound of their names and a familiar voice, Amy and her daughter, Betts, slowly step forward. These two aren’t contestants on a game show. And although they are beautiful, they’re not in the running to be a top model, either.
Amy and Betts are African elephants. They’re being called by Shane Spears, who has come bearing a bucket of fresh produce, a special treat to reward these majestic creatures for allowing visitors a closer look. Shane is one of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s ten elephant keepers. Although he has been on staff at the zoo for 11 years (the last three exclusively with elephants), his love for animals has deeper roots.
As a child, he had the usual pets, including a turtle who made a daring escape during a trip to the neighborhood playground. Two compassionate aunts were especially influential, rescuing injured animals or those whose owners no longer wanted them. Shane’s mother, Sherry Spears, believes it’s all about his DNA: “I do believe that Shane inherited an inherent sense of animal compassion and ability to bond with animals.” But the credit for his introduction to the Zoo goes to Grandma. Shane says, “When I was eight years old, my grandmother enrolled me in the Zoo’s junior keeper program” where his interest in animals and their care flourished. “Her encouragement of my fascination with the elephants is why I’m here, doing what I do today.”
Although Shane’s early employment history didn’t include a lot of working with animals, they were always in the back of his mind. Motivated by a need to escape from a series of unfulfilling jobs and a desire to make a difference in the bigger scheme of things, he applied for an opening with the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. His enthusiasm and experience (he had worked on a goat ranch and handled horses in a stage production) won him an entry-level position.
So what, exactly, does an elephant keeper do? Shane describes his job as personal trainer, chef, playmate, and nurse. His day begins early in the morning, when all three elephants are given a head-to-toe checkup (in addition to Amy and Betts, the African Adventure features a bull elephant by the name of Vus’ Musi). For safety, keepers work in pairs in a designated area and are always separated from the animals with a physical barrier that allows contact but prevents injury. This is followed by the first of two daily training sessions. Then, after a healthy breakfast of grass, oat hay, and grain, everyone gets to go outside for play and enrichment activities until it’s time for mid-day training.
All this training may sound like fun and games but it’s essential to the care of all the animals at the Zoo. Although the word may conjure up images of showy tricks, in this instance that’s not accurate. While it’s true the elephants are taught to do things that might appear to be a performance, like lift a foot or raise a trunk, it’s done to assist keepers in monitoring their health. There is absolutely no punishment involved, only positive reinforcement. Remember that bucket of produce? Fruits and vegetables aren’t a regular part of an elephant’s diet, but they’re tasty, making them the perfect reward for an accomplishment. Keepers have close, daily interaction with the elephants and need to build and maintain a level of trust. Elephants are intelligent, sensitive, and uniquely individual, with each one responding in a different way. Love, respect, and patience (and a pail of produce) are necessary components in what Shane calls “bridging the gap of cross-species communication.”
It’s no secret elephants are really big creatures who eat about a hundred pounds of food a day and, as a result, leave a lot of stuff behind. I’m talking about poop, plain and simple. What happens to all that waste material? The Fresno Chaffee Zoo is an environmentally aware organization, and all that elephant poop is composted and used as fertilizer in the landscaping throughout the facility. According to Shane, when the African Adventure first opened, the ground was bare. Now it’s lush and green, naturally, thanks to the contributions from its inhabitants. Home gardeners have access to this fabulous fertilizer, too. Considered the gold standard for organic vegetable gardening, it can be purchased at Gazebo Gardens Nursery in Fresno.
To say the zoos of today are nothing like the zoos of the past is an understatement. “No other field, other than computers, has changed so much in such a short period of time as zoos,” says Shane. “They have gone from an exhibition model to an education model.” The emphasis is on the well-being of the animals rather than simply showing off something exotic. Smaller collections allow for more quality care and enrichment for the animals, and zoos around the world have become active in conservation and protection, often collaborating with each other to achieve a common goal.
Talking with Shane, it’s obvious the elephants under his care are close to his heart. He reverently speaks of the time one of them trumpeted loudly while standing nearby, the sheer power of which he describes as “awe inspiring.” The sensation of touching the skin surrounding an elephant’s eye for the first time has stayed with him, too, and that eight-year-old junior keeper appears as he marvels at how something so big, covered in such rough hide, could also be baby-soft.
And Shane loves his job, poop and all. “I get to do something that contributes to the greater good. Hanging out with elephants all day doesn’t hurt.” I wonder what Grandma would have to say about that?
You can learn more about the Chaffee Zoo in Fresno on their website.
* * *
My name is Mallory Moad, and I love animals, too (even the big ones who poop a lot).