Story by Deb

I was a brand new Docent for a zoo in Seattle. The program for Docents in those days was quite extensive and required a 6 week commitment. This class was fantastic as it truly was a mini-zoology course complete with Keepers giving talks weekly about their particular animals’ anatomy and physiology. From Giant Cockroaches to the Elephants, we learned their habits and what we believed were their needs to be healthy and happy. We also went ‘behind-the-scenes’ for tours and saw many animals closely. We fanned out on the grounds with carts and information and it was actually fun and interesting, for awhile.

The zoo had three Asian elephants. Bamboo, a very troubled elephant: angry and unable to integrate with other Asian females when she was sent to Pt Defiance in a trial. I believe that she is mad from neglect and sadness. Chai and Sri, two very young females sent as gifts from the Thai government. Their stories are also complicated and depressing and they have not thrived physically or emotionally.

The other elephant in the exhibit was the lone African elephant, Watoto.  She was an orphan who arrived at the zoo in 1971. I was entranced with this magnificent creature. In those days she was spirited and quite a handful. The way she moved was my introduction to the beautiful up and down distinctive gait of the African elephant stride. Majestic and proud but she was bullied by Bamboo and lived alone, revolving from the small barn to the one and one-half acre yard. And she was a very smart elephant, able to steal objects and keep them from the keepers until she was good and ready to return them! On one occasion when I was there she had stolen a tool and gleefully pranced around her small indoor area triumphantly, flipping it around and angering her keepers. I noticed her trunk flipping around holding the tool and was amazed. The decision was made to retrieve the tool and so she was forced into an even smaller area so that the keepers could get to her. One keeper approached her, screaming and bellowing as he beat her hind quarters with the bull hook. He threw his entire weight into the punishment. It was after three strikes that I saw blood. She froze. Dropped the tool.  Her head went down, she seemed to shrink a little and her ears sagged. She stood utterly still and her eyes sank. The tool was retrieved and she was hit once more to remind her ‘who the boss was’ because you cannot have an elephant that is not submissive. This is how it was in those days.

I had been clutching a carrot, and after the keepers moved away I tried to be invisible and then walked around to face her. I stood behind a safety area clearly marked. To see an elephant is wonderful, to be feet away from one is invigorating and filled me with awe. I felt as though I understood the fight/fright/flight response because my body was just zinging! I could smell her, see the hair on her trunk, feel the air as she exhaled. She was chained with all four legs tightly restrained. I began to speak to her, softly telling her how beautiful she was and how happy I was to see her. She responded by bringing her ears forward and rumbling. For a few moments we were eye to eye. She rumbled and the sound went through my feet and up my body. It was a physical sensation. So softly she began to bring her trunk up and toward me. I held the carrot as far as I could toward her and she delicately placed her trunk into my hand and onto the carrot. I felt the tip of her trunk touch my palm and grasp the carrot; she retrieved the treat and I grinned crazily as she crunched with eyes closed.  Probably four to five minutes had passed. The visit was cut short when I was told to get back and keep away from her. I did not feel fear being with her but it was probably not the smartest thing to do as I was giving her the room to strike me if that was her intention. But that precious moment lingered, still does. I would leave the Docent program and my beloved Keeper’s Aid position not long after these visits with Watoto. I shared proximity with her a dozen times or more and each time I finagled a carrot or apple to sneak to her. She remained calm with me each time. Visiting her during the long winter months was awful. No where to go but around and around in a very small area.

Watoto died August 22, 2014. She was found down in her yard, alone for who-knows-how-long and unable to rise. Her necropsy showed extensive arthritis and lameness and obesity, and it is thought that she simply either fell or lay down and could not get back to a standing position. Her massive weight begins to damage lungs and other organs quickly. It cannot have been painless. She was forty five years old and in the wild would have been in her prime.

There have certainly been other elephants who have made strong impressions on me such as Ned and Shirley at The Elephant Sanctuary. But before I knew of them there was Watoto.

I am so proud to support Scott and Kat Blais and partners of Global Sanctuary for Elephants. It is always good to have something wonderful to look forward to and this journey is a gift to me.


  1. REPLY
    Janet in Cambridge MA says

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m very certain that Watoto understood your intentions. Animals know. I’m sorry your friend died in her prime. RIP, Watoto.

    • REPLY
      Valarie says

      Thank you for sharing. It is good to know Watoto had an encounter, albeit brief, with a kind soul. It breaks my heart how inhumanely they are treated. Elephants need space and freedom. Poaching must stop. So sad to see this magnificent animal disappear.

  2. REPLY
    Vicki says

    Thank you for sharing your story. It made me cry to think of her handler drawing blood. Obvisously it was just a job to him and he didn’t truly care about the animals. I hope in some way he is repaid for his lack of compassion and caring.

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