My Day with the Elephants: A “Ranger Rick” Editor Tells All

Ranger RickWhen I meet new people and tell them that I write for Ranger Rick magazine, they often get a nostalgic, far-away look in their eyes. Many exclaim, “Oh, I used to love that magazine when I was a kid.” Or, “My kids used to read it cover-to-cover.”

Of course, like any job, mine is not—are you ready for this?—always blissful. There are days of writers’ blocks, of difficulties getting a story wrapped up, of dealing with blunt criticism. Still, working on this wonderful magazine often does seem like a dream-come-true.

My favorite day on the job?

I’d have to say it was the time I got to hang out with elephants.

Asian elephant

(photo by aprilandrandy)

I was writing a story about Marie Galloway, the elephant keeper at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Since I live maybe 20 miles from the zoo, it made sense for me to go there and interview Marie in person and get a feel for what the life of an elephant keeper was like. I had known Marie via our email correspondence for nearly 10 years, but had never met her in person before. She had always responded cordially to various elephant questions I had sent her. So I was looking forward to finally meeting her.

Marie couldn’t have been more cordial or forthcoming. She greeted me upon my arrival and took me immediately to meet the zoo’s three Asian elephants—two “girls,” Shanthi and Ambika, and Shanthi’s son, Kandula. My first impression of the animals? They were large–very, very LARGE. (An Asian elephant can weigh up to 11,000 pounds!)

Marie then got busy giving the elephants their morning baths. She demonstrated how well trained each was, knowing how to follow her commands to roll over, lift up their feet, one by one, and generally comply with the whole bathing-grooming gig.

As the morning went on, I learned some fascinating tidbits about Marie’s charges. For instance, Ambika is a 60-year-old female, one of the oldest Asian elephants in the country. Her trunk and ears are dappled pink, something that happens to elephants as they age (like our hair turning gray).

And Marie related a story that demonstrated how the herd has adopted her as one of their own and watches out for her. One time, a while back, a helicopter flew distressingly low over the zoo. “The next thing you know,” commented Marie, “I found myself inside a protective circle of elephants, a place usually reserved for calves.” Obviously, the elephants weren’t going to let any harm come to their favorite human!

Later in the day, while I was in the exercise yard with Marie and the two “girls,” she turned to me and asked, “Would you like to pat Ambika and Shanthi?

I said, “Sure.”

She beckoned me to come over and urged me to pat the elephants by their ears. Boy, was their skin ever wrinkled and leathery to the touch! (Hmm, baby oil, anyone?) Soon afterward, Shanthi uncurled her trunk and waved it in front of my face. Marie explained, “Shanti is sniffing your breath. It’s her way of trying to figure out, ‘Do I know you? Have we met?’”

That made me smile. Being sniffed by an elephant had to be one of the coolest experiences of my life. And working at Ranger Rick, on days like this one, that ranks pretty high in my book, too.

Libby Schleichert is a Senior Editor at Ranger Rick magazine. Follow her as @EPSchleichert on Twitter.

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Published: April 7, 2009