Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Communications
What do 44-year-old elephant Bamboo, 42-year-old elephant Watoto, 32-year-old elephant Chai, and 5-year-old human Karina have in common? A special bond with Woodland Park Zoo elephant keeper Russ Roach.
Karina and her elephant-loving, big sister Jadyn first came to an elephant keeper talk with their parents more than two years ago and there they met Russ. The elephant keeper talk is one of the most popular at the zoo, filled with the elephants displaying fascinating adaptations as they munch on apples and carrots while Russ or one of the other elephant keepers talks to visitors about the conservation issues impacting elephants in the wild.
Karina was immediately drawn to the large yet graceful elephants and their knowledgeable keeper, and her parents, Julie and Mark, found themselves taking her back week after week to learn more about elephants from Russ.
As her mother puts it, “Karina is absolutely captivated by the elephants and would stay there all day if we let her.” And there’s good reason for that in her daughter’s eyes, because according to Karina, “I just love to see my friends and they miss me when I'm not there.”
One week during a visit last fall, Karina learned that Russ was preparing for a journey to Borneo to visit with Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife, the Hutan Asian Elephant Conservation program. Karina couldn’t bear the thought of Russ being apart from the elephants in Seattle with which he shares such a deep bond. So she made him little elephant puppets to take with him to Borneo so that Boo, Tot and Chai were still with him in a way.
Tracking elephants in Borneo proved a difficult task, and during all the dry spells in between finding the real thing, Russ took comfort in the elephant puppets he kept in his pocket to remind him of what waited for him back at home.
Now back in Seattle, Russ and the other elephant keepers celebrated the three elephants’ birthdays recently with cornmeal cakes and gift wrapped boxes of fruit for Boo, Tot and Chai.
Karina, her sisters Jadyn and Makenzie, and their parents stopped by with some special birthday cards the sisters drew for the elephants, which Russ happily tacked up in the elephant keepers’ office. You can’t look at Boo’s smile as drawn by Karina and not smile yourself…
Kids come to the zoo with a curiosity about the natural world, and here they’ll find amazing animals and helpful keepers who nourish that sense of wonder. When we encounter a child like Karina who is so clearly inspired by wildlife and the people who devote themselves to caring for and protecting animals, we know we’re helping to build a future generation of conservation stewards.
Maybe one day, Karina will grow up to stand in Russ’ place, caring for the elephants and helping the next generation to learn and care about protecting wildlife.
Photo credits (from top): Foree Family, Emily Schumacher/Woodland Park Zoo, Brian Tyl, Foree Family, Russ Roach/Woodland Park Zoo, Foree Family, Foree Family, Foree Family.