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Zoo story

ORPHANS: Midnight landing. Hierarchy. The one who appears from nowhere. Sexual vanity. Outcasts. Abandonment. Passion. Subsonic communications. All happening at the zoo.

By Thomas French, Times staff writer
Published December 3, 2007


They land just before midnight, in secret, in the rain. When their 747 touches down at Tampa International, an armada of police cruisers - not to mention a helicopter and assorted FBI agents - are waiting to escort them to the zoo.

The notion of trying to hide a jumbo jet as it ferries 11 wild elephants from across the ocean seems absurd. But the police have reported threats of sabotage, credible intelligence that someone might try to interfere with the delivery of the elephants. After the protests and arrests of recent days, and after the highly publicized comments about how the elephants would be better off dead than living in captivity, Lowry Park Zoo prefers to take no chances.

That night in August 2003, when the 747 taxis toward a remote corner of the airport, a delegation from the zoo is waiting. So many officials have shown up, they almost form a receiving line.

Lex Salisbury, Lowry Park's charismatic, hard-charging CEO, is there, along with David Murphy, the zoo's veterinarian, and Brian French, the former circus star and longtime elephant trainer recently hired as the head keeper for the zoo's new Africa section.

Also on hand is Lee Ann Rottman, Lowry Park's acting curator. As the person in charge of the zoo's entire animal collection and all of their human keepers, Lee Ann's identity has meshed so thoroughly with the institution's that it is difficult to imagine the place without her.

She loves her job, loves her staff and is passionate about the level of care that they offer. Yet as she watches the 747 approach, Lee Ann is anxious. She's worried about the condition of the elephants - not just the four bound for Lowry Park, but the seven headed for the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

She knows that Mick Reilly and a vet have been watching over them. Still, animals have been known to die from stress during a transport, even when they aren't traveling far. How will the elephants have handled a voyage of almost 8,000 miles?

Once the 747 finally stops, Lee Ann goes on board. The moment she sees the elephants, the heaviness inside her lifts. They seem calm and relaxed, even laid-back.The four crates are lowered from the 747's hold, then a crane loads them onto two flatbed trucks. A long line of ground vehicles - the trucks, some unmarked police cars, plus dozens of cruisers with their flashing lights - leaves the airport. Lee Ann, riding in one of the trucks carrying the elephants, is amazed at the size of the convoy."It's like a presidential escort," she says.

The police helicopter hovers above, casting a searchlight in the darkness. On the street, the cruisers move in an ever-shifting tactical formation, some weaving forward out of the line to take the lead, others suddenly dropping back. The lanes have been cleared. Cross streets have been blocked off. Sharpshooters, the zoo has been told, are poised in undisclosed locations, watching for any sign of trouble.

The convoy turns east on Hillsborough Avenue, then heads north on Dale Mabry toward Lowry Park.

It's past 1 a.m. when the trucks rumble through a back gate at the zoo and make their way to a big moss green building at the northern end of the grounds. The crates are unloaded from the trucks, and the elephants walk out into chutes that lead inside the building, toward stalls supplied with water and hay and apples and carrots and bananas.

The safe delivery of the four new acquisitions is a defining moment in Lowry Park's history - a turning point when the zoo steps onto a bigger stage and embraces a new set of possibilities and challenges. For better or worse, there is no going back, either for the zoo or the elephants.

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Brian French will not be going home tonight, or any night soon. He'll be staying in the elephant house around the clock, watching over the new arrivals.

"Learning to read the animals," he calls it.

Brian has had plenty of practice. Although he's only 29, he has been around elephants and tigers and horses since before he could walk. Born into a family of circus performers known as the Cristianis - his great-grandfather started his own circus in Italy - he is the seventh generation to work with animals, the fourth to work with elephants. By age 3, he was being hoisted onto their backs; at 6, he was riding them in the ring. His performing name was Brian Cristiani. He trained elephants at Ringling Bros., among other places. He rode a motorcycle inside the Globe of Death and walked the high wire in a seven-man pyramid. Ask him about it, and he shrugs.

"It was normal life to me."

All his life, he has felt a special connection to elephants. Working with them requires empathy, the patience to form a rapport. Elephants always have the power to say no.

"Everybody thinks they have to respect you," Brian says. "Well, you have to respect them, and they know it."

To help the Swazi elephants adjust, Lowry Park has already acquired a fifth elephant, an 18-year-old female who was born in Africa, but who has spent almost all her life in American zoos. Because she is older than the four young adults from Swaziland - all are 10 to 12 years old - the zoo hopes this female will assume the role of matriarch and teach the others how to live inside the confines and structure of a zoo.

Lowry Park has done what it can to tilt the odds in favor of the older female's dominance. Her transport from the Knoxville Zoo was arranged several months ago, so that when the newcomers arrived, she would have already established the elephant building and the adjoining yards as her territory. This should give her an edge, along with her familiarity with zoo routine and the natural advantages of her age and size and strength. Still, there's no way to guarantee what will happen inside the hierarchy that will inevitably develop in the months ahead.

That first night, as the four new arrivals step out of their crates, Brian French notes which ones extend their trunks in greeting and which ones are more reserved. Brian has already set up a cot in the office of the elephant building. Night-vision cameras have been installed so he can see how they're doing even when the building's lights are turned off.

He needs to know their habits and quirks, the things that unnerve and calm them. He's watching their foreheads, because he knows elephants often communicate at subsonic frequencies. Even though human ears can't detect these sounds, it's still possible to tell when the elephants are communicating this way because it makes the muscles in their foreheads move.

Now, Brian studies those muscles. He wants to know who's talking and who's not, who's connecting and who's keeping to themselves.

Any clue. Anything that might offer the smallest glimpse into what's happening inside them.

When the sun finally rises on their first day in America, the Swazi elephants are devouring their hay, slurping gallons of water and showing no worrisome aftereffects of the long flight. They appear to be doing fine. Better even than could have been expected.

Still.

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Imagine this scene from the elephants' point of view. Just for a second, forget the perspectives of the zoo officials or the animal rights activists or all the lawyers and judges who have been caught up in the maelstrom leading to this moment. Imagine, instead, what the past few hours must have been like for the four creatures at the center of the battle.

Begin with the sensation of descending through the clouds, and having no idea what it means. The bump of the landing. Something opening, then a burst of fresh air. Strange faces and strange scents approaching. The sensation of being lifted and lowered. More fresh air, the patter of rain. Night, unfurling outside this tiny space in which you have now been confined for almost two full days. A mechanical growling as you are carried forward. Flashing lights. The chop of helicopter blades, somewhere above.

These four elephants would almost certainly recognize that last sound. The last time they heard it, they were in the game parks in Swaziland, about to be shot with a tranquilizer dart. Helicopters were also employed in the mass culls of their early years, when they were calves growing up in South Africa's Kruger National Park. The helicopters would appear overhead, and the families of the calves - their mothers and aunts and siblings - would suddenly drop and not get back up.

Given everything else they have gone through since birth, perhaps it is not surprising that they have shown such resilience during their marathon journey from the Swazi bush to the concrete veldt of Tampa.

Msholo.

Matjeka.

Sdudla.

Mbali.

They were named by rangers inside the Swazi game parks. Msholo pronounced um-show-lo roughly translates, in siSwati, as "the one who appears from nowhere." Matjeka (muh-chay-guh) means "skewed tusks." Sdudla (stood-luh) means "stout or sturdy." Mbali (um-bahl-ee) translates to "pretty flower."

For now they will remain out of sight, away from the public's gaze. They will need several months to learn how to live inside a zoo. But soon, if all goes according to plan, they will venture out into their exhibit, into the yards that are still being completed, and walk and throw dirt on their backs and trumpet in front of Lowry Park's visitors.

Mothers and fathers with toddlers riding on their shoulders will draw near and point. Groups of schoolchildren will be told their names and, even though many will instantly forget those names, they will call out to the four of them, not knowing the wild place they have come from, not fathoming the losses they carry, the memories swimming within them, everything they went through to be standing here.

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At Lowry Park, time is not human. More precisely, time moves outside human expectation, unfolding in different rhythms, at variable speeds, according to the heartbeat and breathing patterns and habits of each species.

Walk over to the zoo's Asia section and step inside the mini-aviary, filled with lorikeets from Indonesia and Australia. Before you can blink, the lorikeets are murmuring and chattering in every direction, and their wings are whirring like soft bursts from a machine gun as they fly back and forth in a blur of blue and yellow and red, and then they're landing on your arms and shoulders, and then they're flying away, and then they're coming back - they can't hold still, these birds - and although you know they mean you no harm, now your breathing and your pulse are accelerating, because you're trying to keep up and you're wondering where the next machine-gun burst will come from and how do their wings make that sound anyway and, oh my God, how did nature turn up the dials enough to create that radioactive shade of red in their chest feathers - a supercharged red that goes off like small fireworks in the air around you.

"Whoa," you hear someone saying, and then you realize that someone is you.

Inside that cloud of movement and color and sound, everything speeds up and slows down simultaneously. You have no time for time. You're too caught up in the choreography of the lorikeets.

Wherever you go at Lowry Park, whatever animal you're watching, it's the same, only different.

Stand in front of the python exhibit and study the 17-foot reticulated python, and the two carpet pythons, and the three Burmese pythons all curled like shiny still lifes on the other side of the glass, their heads turned toward you but not moving, their eyes open but unblinking, their coils betraying nothing.

If it happens to be a feeding day and the keepers place dead rabbits inside the exhibit, don't leave. Because when you've finally given up on the pythons ever moving, they will uncoil toward their prey in a flash, almost too fast for your brain to process. Suddenly time is an explosion, blossoming instantaneously from inertia to lethal movement. All around you, children are gasping.

"Oh my God!"

"Oh no!"

Life is less violent over in the manatee exhibit. Walk down the tunnel that leads to the underground viewing area and gaze as long as you like, and you won't see the manatees eating anyone. The most aggressive behavior inside the pools comes from the male turtles who swim beside the manatees, male and female, trying to mount them through some insane overestimation of their sexual prowess.

Follow the manatees as they glide around the pools and nibble romaine lettuce, and soon you relax, especially on a weekday afternoon when the zoo is quiet. If you happen to be on the other side of the pools, where the keepers work from boardwalks along the water's edge, the sense of calm is hypnotic. You watch the great gray shapes moving beneath you, tracing parabolas in the depths, and the only sound they make is the occasional splash of their tails and the tiny eruptions of air that burst forth every few minutes as they raise their whiskered nostrils above the surface, take a deep breath, then drop back below. Soon you are waiting for their next exhalation, and your own breathing slows down, more in synch with theirs.

Moments like these are one of the reasons Lowry Park and other zoos endure. Despite all their flaws, zoos wake us up, inviting us to step outside our most basic assumptions about life - about power and sex and love and death. On a good day, zoos remind us of the possibilities of existence, what it's like to walk across the earth, or swim in its oceans, or fly above its forests.

Even though the animals in front of you, the ones on display, will never have the chance to do any of those things again.

The paradox again. The keepers confront it every day. Only for them, it cuts deeper, because they know and love the animals.

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The only part of the zoo where the paradox gets turned inside out - where animals are routinely released back into nature - is the manatee section. Lowry Park is a rehab center that treats injured or sick manatees. If the animals regain their strength, they are eventually set free again.

"We take 'em in, patch 'em up, and send 'em out," says David Murphy, the vet.

It's a beautiful promise, one that reminds the keepers why they work at Lowry Park. Delivering on that promise is not always easy. Sometimes the manatees arrive in such forlorn condition, torn up by boat propellers or suffering from cold stress, that they don't survive.

The odds are particularly daunting with newborn calves whose mothers have abandoned them or been killed. Many of these orphans die shortly after they're found, before a rescue team can even rush them to Lowry Park. The calves that do reach the zoo still face an uphill struggle. They've lost their mothers. They can't nurse. They have trouble adapting.

"They don't know the ways of the world," says Virginia Edmonds, the assistant curator who oversees the manatee section along with Dr. Murphy.

One day in May, not long before the elephants arrived from Swaziland, a newborn manatee named Buttonwood was brought in. The calf hung on for a while, accepting formula through a feeding tube. The entire staff of the zoo was following his progress. Then, in July, one of the keepers found his small gray body floating in the water.

When people from other departments heard the news, they didn't want to believe it. Wasn't Buttonwood growing stronger, gaining weight? The manatee keepers were too devastated to answer.

In September, a second abandoned manatee calf arrives at the zoo. Another male, only several days old. This one has been named Loo, because he was found in the Caloosahatchee River.

Now Virginia and the other manatee keepers are working night and day to save Loo. They've placed him in a shallow tank behind the manatee pools - one of the zoo's medical tanks - and every two or three hours they climb in to feed him with a bottle.

At night, when the zoo is closed, one of the keepers stays late. She puts on her wet suit and reaches through the black water until she finds the calf. Loo's not that heavy, barely 60 pounds. So the keeper pulls him toward her lap, wraps him in her arms, then tries to get some formula into his stomach. Even a few ounces would help.

Most of Lowry Park is asleep. But inside the elephant building, Brian French is awake and watching over his own orphans.

The lights are off. Still, as he sits before the monitors showing the grayish-green feeds from the night-vision cameras, Brian can see what's happening in the stalls.

He wants to know which of the elephants are lying down and which ones are standing. If they lie down, that will be a good sign. It means they're relaxed.

He wants to see how the elephants are reacting to one another. When one of them moves, what do the others do? Which of the elephants is showing dominance, and which is acting submissive?

In front of him, in the dark, a new herd is forming.

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About the Series

Over the past four years, St. Petersburg Times staff writer Thomas French and staff photographer Stefanie Boyar chronicled life inside Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. With the zoo's permission, they followed the keepers and the animals, interviewing everyone from the volunteers to the zoo's CEO.

French and Boyar witnessed most of the events described in this series. By necessity, though, some scenes were reconstructed. Today's sections describing how the elephants arrived at Tampa International and were escorted to Lowry Park are based on interviews with Mick Reilly in Swaziland, and with Lex Salisbury, Lee Ann Rottman, Larry Killmar and others at Lowry Park. The scenes describing the elephants' first days at the zoo are based on interviews with Brian French and Steve Lefave who were entrusted with the elephants' care. Brian French is not related to Thomas French, the Times reporter. The scenes describing the zoo's efforts to save ailing manatees are based on interviews with David Murphy, Lowry Park's veterinarian, and Virginia Edmonds and other staff members. In addition, the Times witnessed the vet and the keepers working with manatees at the zoo and accompanied the staff on several manatee releases.

Thomas French can be reached at french@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8486.