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Zoo story: Code one

Solo delivery. A wobbly 205-pound baby. Exodus. The undertow. Ferocity. Tadpoles against the tide. Loss of faith. Coup. Invincible queen. It's all happening at the zoo.

By Thomas French, Times Staff Writer
Published December 14, 2007


CHAPTER 8

The newborn calf is blue and wet and wobbly on his feet. His head is still a little cone-shaped from being squeezed through his mother's birth canal. His eyes are wide, the black pupils lined with red. His ears appear pink from the blood vessels under the skin. The umbilical cord has already been severed, but what remains - a short tube - dangles from his belly.

How did his mother - Ellie, a 20-year-old elephant who has never mated with a bull, never even witnessed a birth - deliver the calf on her own? Did she remember the Lamaze exercises the humans taught her?

Brian French and Steve Lefave and the other keepers have no idea, because Ellie went into labor in the night and because the cameras in the elephant barn did not work. The only witnesses were the other elephants, who watched the calf take his first steps before dawn. Later, CEO Lex Salisbury will call it "the virgin birth."

Once the calf arrived, he was small enough to wander between the bars of the stalls. Those first minutes could have been disastrous. Ellie could have stepped on her baby. The calf could have roamed into a stall with one of the two bulls or one of the other females and been stomped or kicked and possibly killed. Instead he has found his way into the arms of his human keepers.

The staff moves quickly. David Murphy, the zoo's vet, is summoned to assess both the newborn and his mother. Ellie, in her stall, appears to have recovered from the delivery. Still, she is obviously unnerved. When Brian and Steve bring the calf back into the barn, Ellie keeps her distance. Her ears are pushed out, a clear sign of tension. She does not look at the newborn. She has no idea what to make of him. She wants nothing to do with him.

Overcoming her rejection - and quickly - is crucial. Already the calf is trumpeting with hunger. If the keepers can't get Ellie to let her baby close enough to nurse, the chances are they'll never bond.

Brian and Steve move Ellie to a clean stall and tether her with a nylon strap to one of the bars. They wrap a harness around the calf's torso and attach it to another strap, so they can pull him back to safety if Ellie becomes aggressive. Then they slowly lead the newborn closer to his mother.

"It's okay," Brian tells Ellie. "It's all right."

She is not convinced. Her eyes are wide open. When the calf draws near, she tries to shoo him away with her trunk.

"Okay, Ellie, hold still," says Brian. "Steady. It's not going to hurt you."

With the humans' encouragement, the elephant begins to calm down. She's not trying to push the calf away anymore. Now she reaches out with her trunk, touches him briefly, then pulls the trunk away.

Brian stands next to her, reassuring her, letting her feel his hand on her skin again.

"Brace," he tells Ellie, and she obeys, moving a front leg forward so the calf will be able to nurse. Before the keepers let him get that close, Brian reaches under Ellie and massages one of her nipples to get the first few drops of milk.

Soon the calf is underneath her, nursing. He is too short to reach his mother, so the keepers give him a little platform, only a few inches high, to stand on. After several tries, he latches on, and Ellie visibly relaxes. Her milk is flowing. So are her maternal instincts.

"Good girl," Brian tells her.

Already, Ellie has shown more fortitude than anyone could have asked. Now she gives a hint of what kind of mother she will be. As her newborn finishes his first meal and falls asleep, Ellie reaches with her trunk toward the hay scattered around the floor and covers the calf with a makeshift blanket. Then she stands over him, watching and waiting until he needs her again.

For the moment, the controversy surrounding Lowry Park's herd has become moot. All the arguments about keeping elephants in captivity temporarily fall away. The baby is here, and will not survive without his mother and human caretakers.

New life insists. It does not debate. It simply appears, trembling and hungry, and will not be denied.

- - -

After the calf's birth, Lowry Park restrains its joy.

"We are cautiously optimistic about his survival," says Murphy.

As the calf grows stronger, Lowry Park celebrates in earnest. The zoo has another triumph in the making, potentially its biggest yet, and knows how to maximize the exposure. When the zoo announces that Ellie and her baby are ready for their debut, crowds press forward to see the calf walking beside his mother. Every time he tries to run on his stubby legs or raises his tiny trunk toward Ellie or weaves under her legs to nurse, the gallery erupts with oohs and aahs.

The baby still needs an official name - another marketing opportunity - and so the zoo hosts an online contest to decide what he should be called. After more than 10,000 votes are cast, Lowry Park announces that the winning entry, suggested by a second-grade class at Frontier Elementary in Clearwater, is Tamani.

The second-graders' entry form reads like a press release from the zoo itself.

Tamani means hope in Swahili. We chose hope because elephants are an endangered species and successfully breeding elephants in captivity gives the species hope for survival.

In the zoo's front office, ecstasy reigns. Ellie has gained the confidence to become the unquestioned matriarch of the herd and is turning out to be a devoted mother. The four elephants from Swaziland have adjusted to their new lives and are already growing old enough to begin breeding.

As the zoo heads into 2006, attendance surges toward more than a million visitors a year - an achievement for which Lex Salisbury and so many others have worked for so long.

And yet, beneath the waves of exultation, there are signs of an undertow. A sense of something approaching its limits.

It's there in the exhaustion in the eyes of the keepers, in the way their faces go blank when they hear Lex giving another pep talk about the next round of new exhibits and how they all need to try a little harder. It's there, too, in the zoo's dismissal of Brian French, not long after Ellie safely delivers Tamani.

The morning it happens, Brian has just arrived when he gets a call from his supervisor, who tells him they have to let him go.

"When?" Brian remembers asking.

"Now."

Brian calls Steve, who's out checking on the rhinos, and tells him he needs to come take care of the elephants. Then he gathers his things and drives away.

Afterward, Lowry Park's spokeswoman declines to comment on the dismissal.

"It's a personnel matter that has nothing to do with the animals," she says.

The unofficial word around the zoo is that the firing grew out of a conflict between Brian and Lex. This turns out to be true.

Later, in interviews, Brian and Lex confirm that they had a difference of opinion about the handling of the elephants. Brian, who has been enjoying working in the same enclosure with baby Tamani, is eager to continue with free contact and wants to move slowly before introducing the calf to the two males in the herd. Lex, who remembers the day 13 years before when an elephant killed Char-Lee Torre, insists that the keepers stick with protected contact and wants to see Tamani roaming the yards with the cows and the bulls.

"He wanted me to put the baby in with the male elephants," says Brian. "He wanted to put all the elephants together to create a herd environment. . . . He wants to run things a lot more like a game park than a zoo."

Asked for his version of the split, Lex essentially agrees. He prefers the zoo's herd to be together, as they would be in the wild. Brian, he says, wanted to return to working free contact, as he did with the circus elephants.

"I didn't want to go back to that," says Lex.

- - -

Brian's departure, it turns out, is one of many.

In the months following Tamani's birth, a surprising number of staffers leave in a mass exodus, including three of the six assistant curators who run the zoo's animal departments. Some - like Dustin Smith, the herps expert who went to Panama to study the golden frogs - exit on good terms, in search of a new challenge. Others disappear in a cloud of whispers.

Are these just the growing pains of an institution redefining itself? Or is this evidence of a deeper problem?

- - - 

Guests, visiting Lowry Park with their children, would no doubt be surprised to learn of the discontent. To them, the zoo is getting better and better.

A partial catalog of all that's happening:

The zoo is adding more African species, including pygmy hippos, dwarf forest buffalo andscimitar-horned oryxes. Rango and Josie, two of the zoo's orangutans, have had another baby. The Panamanian golden frogs, breeding in a back room of the herps department, have produced more than 200 tadpoles.

In the Asia department, Carie Peterson and the rest of the staff are starting to wonder about Enshalla and Eric. The two Sumatran tigers are together now whenever Enshalla cycles into estrus. But still she shows no sign of pregnancy.

Carie and the others worry it might be too late for Enshalla to have cubs. The tiger is nearly 15.

After all these years in captivity, Enshalla remains as indomitable as ever. Even though she was born at Lowry Park and has never lived in the wild, she has not been tamed in the slightest. She barely tolerates her keepers.

Sometimes, when they're working in the night house, Enshalla waits for them to turn their backs, then leaps toward the mesh between them, teeth bared and claws extended.

Enshalla's ferocity is pure and unrelenting. She is exactly what a tiger is supposed to be.

"She's beautiful, absolutely beautiful," says Carie. "And she knows it."

- - - 

For the keepers, the work never stops. On top of all their other duties, they keep practicing the code one drills that earned Lowry Park such praise from Child magazine.

The staff rehearses for escaped animals. They have different protocols for different species - what to do if a black bear escapes, or a wolf, or one of the orangs. They have a weapons team, trained by law enforcement, should they not be able to return the animal to its enclosure.

Since the wild elephants arrived from Swaziland, the zoo has taken special care to plan for the possibility of an elephant code one. An escaped elephant - especially one still fairlynew to captivity - would be particularly dangerous. Just reading through some recommendations posted on one of the staff bulletin boards is chilling:

Do not approach animal, hide behind something i.e. tree, vehicle, building, etc.

Do not fall down when getting away. This is what they look for when attacking.

Do not try to scare animal to direct it, it will take this as a challenge and likely charge. (Females will be more likely to complete the charge and males will likely stop about 10 feet short, but do not hold your ground, get out of sight, they can run 32 mph for about 10 minutes.)

If elephant is out of sight of its building, it will likely have to be shot, so all gun-trained staff (ACs, curators, vet) should be equipped with appropriate weapons. (We do have tranquilizers strong enough for elephants but can only be used in certain situations.)

The language is calm and professional. But clearly the possibilities are awful, should a lethal animal ever wander loose through the zoo or the neighborhood on the other side of the exterior fence.

If anyone at the zoo needs another lesson on the potential dangers, there's a small plaque near the moat that rings the rhino exhibit. In the early '90s, that space was reserved for two Asian elephants. The plaque is a memorial to Char-Lee Torre, the 24-year-old handler killed, on the worst day in Lowry Park history, by one of those elephants.

These days, almost none of the guests know the history behind the plaque. But Lee Ann Rottman and other veteran staffers remember. To them, it's a reminder to never assume anything when it comes to animals.

- - - 

As the summer of 2006 approaches, Carie Peterson has lost almost all her faith in the zoo. Only a small part of her even considers the possibility that things will get better. The zoo has plotted a certain course. She does not see a change of direction.

She worries about what the animals' lives will be like if things don't improve. She cannot bear the thought of leaving Enshalla behind.

At night, Carie dreams of the tiger looking for her, wondering where she has gone and why she has left.

- - -

At his throne beside the waterfall, Herman sees the old man with the white hair smiling. Herman raises his arm in greeting. The old man waves back.

"That's my son," Ed Schultz tells anyone who'll listen.

Ed, 81, volunteers at the zoo. He gives tours, helps out however he can. But his favorite pastime is talking about Herman. Give him your ear, and he'll tell how he bought Herman as an infant in December 1966 in West Africa. He found the chimp for sale in an orange crate at the mining company where Ed worked. The chimp saw him and reached up with both arms.

"You're my Herman," Ed said, taking the infant home to his wife and two kids.

When Herman was a baby, Ed and his wife would mark his growing height against the wall, next to the marks of their children. Caring for the chimp was easy when he was tiny. But after the Schultzes moved back to the United States and found a home in Tampa, Herman grew too big and potentially dangerous. So the family donated him to the old Lowry Park Zoo.

Ed often visited Herman in his cage. The staff even left him a key, hanging nearby, so he could go in whenever he wanted. Ed would sit and talk with Herman as the chimp searched his pockets for apples and bananas. Once, Ed fell asleep in the cage. He remembers waking up with Herman and another chimp napping beside him.

"Whoa. What time is it?" he said, checking his watch. "Fellas, I gotta go."

Ed, long retired, likes to stay close to Herman. His two children are grown, with families of their own. His wife, Elizabeth, died years ago. In many ways, Herman is all Ed has.

He looks over at his old friend and instantly he is back in Africa, holding Herman for the first time. When he scooped the baby chimp into his arms, Ed couldn't have foreseen all the implications. How their lives would braid together across four decades.

The way their friendship would finally end.

- - - 

If anyone loves Herman as much as Ed does, it is Lee Ann Rottman.

The zoo's curator has her own favorite stories about Herman. How he has always befriended Bamboo, the older male at the bottom of the hierarchy. How Herman once refused to come into the night house because Alex, the young male, had gotten his head stuck in the exhibit's netting.

To Lee Ann, Herman's defining moment is the miracle of the stolen lettuce. Rukiya, the matriarch, likes to take Herman's food. She waits until he's not looking and then grabs what she wants.

One day, Herman had some lettuce, Rukiya's favorite. When she snatched it, Herman caught her and wrested it away. Then, to Lee Ann's astonishment, he handed it back.

Chimps are not known for their social graces. Sharing is not always their strength. Yet here was Herman, the alpha, letting Rukiya have the lettuce and forgiving her for stealing it.

"To me, that's huge," says Lee Ann.

Sometimes, she empathizes so closely with Herman she forgets he's not human. She loves all the chimps, each in their own way. She respects Rukiya's unfailing devotion to her surrogate son, Alex, even though lately the adolescent male has been trying the patience of the adult chimps. As far as Lee Ann can tell, the group is fairly stable, except for Alex's obvious ambition to become the next alpha.

That summer, to Lee Ann's delight, Lowry Park brings in a baby female from the Montgomery Zoo. Her name is Sasha; her birth mother rejected her. Knowing Rukiya's strengths as a surrogate mother, Lee Ann and the primate keepers are slowly introducing Sasha to the others, hoping the matriarch will adopt the baby.

So far, Sasha's arrival appears to have caused no ill effects. Herman and Bamboo recently got into a fight that was more intense than usual. But afterward they seemed to work it out.

One day, Lee Ann notices something odd. Walking by the chimps, she sees Rukiya grooming the hair on Bamboo's back - a favor Lee Ann has never seen Rukiya perform for the lowly male. Still, it's refreshing to see him and Rukiya getting along.

- - - 

The emergency call goes over the radio just after noon on Thursday, June8. The chimps are fighting. The primate staff needs help.

When the keepers hear the screaming, they rush out to find Bamboo and Rukiya attacking Herman. Alex, flailing nearby, tries to defend the alpha.

The keepers call the females into the night house. They spray Bamboo and Herman with hoses. But the two males will not stop. Herman is clearly losing. Even as he continues to fight, the keepers can see he is fading. Soon Herman is sitting cross-legged on the ground, slumped over, obviously unconscious. He does not move, even as Bamboo pounds away.

Dr. Murphy runs to the wall of mesh at the back of the exhibit. The vet can see that Bamboo is confused and frightened. Repeatedly he runs up to Murphy and makes the fear grin. Then Bamboo returns to Herman's fallen body to beat him again.

Murphy tries to tranquilize Bamboo with a dart gun, but can't get a clear shot. So he and one of the primate keepers wait until Bamboo moves away, then drag Herman out.

At the clinic, the vet examines his patient. Herman's external injuries do not appear life-threatening. But his pupils and breathing suggest he may have suffered neurological trauma. Lee Ann and Angela Belcher, the assistant curator in charge of primates, talk to Herman, hoping their voices will revive him. But he has fallen into a coma.

Shortly before 7 p.m., Herman stops breathing. They take turns performing CPR on the chimp's 90-pound body. Lee Ann doesn't want them to stop. But after 10 or 15 minutes, she and the others have no choice but to step away.

- - - 

The next day, Ed Schultz is allowed to say goodbye. Lee Ann and Angela usher him into the corner of the clinic where Herman waits.

The chimp has been positioned on his side, with one arm across his chest and a sheet draped over the lower half of his body. He looks at peace.

Already Ed feels lost. Tears in his eyes, he takes the chimp's hand and feels the leathery palm against his skin. He kisses his forehead. He speaks softly. He repeats the name he gave to his friend across the ocean, on another continent, in another century, all those lifetimes ago.

- - - 

The necropsy report, released several weeks later, finds that Herman died from acute head trauma. He also suffered from heart disease.

Around the zoo, theories circulate on what led to the fatal attack. Did Bamboo sense vulnerability? Did the arrival of Sasha alter the power dynamics, leading Bamboo to plot a coup?

Lee Ann, grief-struck, does not know what to think. She cries for weeks. She can barely bring herself to mention Herman's name.

Others have trouble accepting the death, too. Herman has reigned at the zoo for three decades. How could he be gone?

The frustration that has been building quietly inside the staff now bubbles over. Several are offended when zoo officials try to identify the source of a leak about Herman's death. The evening of the attack, an anonymous caller reported the incident to the St. Petersburg Times. Now management - stung that someone called the press even before the zoo had a chance to process what was happening - wants to know who it was.

For Carie Peterson, the leak investigation is the final indignity. She has no idea who called; it was not her. To Carie, the zoo's hunt for the anonymous source smacks of an obsession with control. Why, she asks, does the zoo care? Did they expect to keep the death of one of their most beloved animals a secret?

A few weeks later, she quits. She hates saying goodbye to Enshalla, but she has had enough.

- - - 

The rest of that summer, Lowry Park tries to regain its footing. But behind the scenes, the sense of shock and grief is unmistakable.

Lowry Park will soon be co-hosting the annual convention of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which oversees the accreditation of zoos around the country. Now the AZA - and hundreds of zoo officials - are coming to Tampa.

For Lowry Park, it's another chance at the national spotlight. For the staff, it's more pressure. Already they are scrambling to prepare for the distinguished guests.

Then, Tuesday, Aug. 22, as closing time draws near, the keepers hear three words crackling on their walkie-talkies.

"Code one tiger."

Enshalla is out.

- - - 

 

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.

Most of the events described in the series are based on firsthand reporting. The account of the elephant's birth is based on interviews with Brian French (no relation to the reporter), Steve Lefave and Lee Ann Rottman. The sections about the attack on Herman and its aftermath are based on interviews with Rottman, David Murphy, Ed Schultz and others.

The section on the firing of Brian French and on the exodus of staffers is based on interviews with him, Lex Salisbury and other current and former Lowry Park employees. Ed Schultz provided the snapshot of him and Herman.

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