I have been doing some reminiscing (and some writing) about the early days at the Lowry Park Zoo. I love this photo of my son Jason and the story it tells, as he sits atop Buke – a massive male Asian elephant.
The Lowry Park Zoo, at that time, had one 24 year old Asian elephant named Sheena, who had been donated to the zoo in 1961 by the Park’s namesake, General Sumter L. Lowry, Jr. The new master plan had been designed around her and the building she inhabited, but in order to build her new facilities, she would need to be moved to another zoo for a few years. After searching far and wide, we found a good facility at African Lion Safari near Toronto Canada that would take her. They had proper facilities, other elephants, and a highly competent staff. All we had to do was figure out how to get her there. I described the process in my article for the Zoo’s newsletter in the fall of 1985.
Though highly trained, Sheena had not been handled in over ten years. She had become quite unmanageable and even dangerous to those who worked around her. But after a few days with the experienced elephant handler, Charles Gray, she was performing all of her old tricks and even seemed to enjoy the change in routine and the companionship of her handler. The next problem was how to get her out of the enclosure. So complete was Sheena’s incarceration, that there was not even a gate into her enclosure. Our friendly workmen moved in with their cutting torches and bulldozers, and after nearly an hour of cutting the heavy iron rails, an opening was made in the pen.
The next problem we faced was the uncertainty of Sheena’s reactions to her new found freedom. Would she respond to her handler’s commands, or would she run away at the first opportunity? The moment of truth arrived. As Sheena walked out of her pen for the first time in nearly 15 years, it became obvious that she was happy to be outside and yet very responsive to her handler. She quickly gained his confidence, and was soon allowed to wander happily around and explore the zoo she had lived in for most of her life. The rest of her loading and transporting was so uneventful as to appear routine. But that was not the end of the story.
In order to make transportation less traumatic, another elephant was brought from Canada to keep her company. A large male Asian elephant named “Buke” became the first elephant ever to share Sheena’s enclosure. Though she was coy to his advances at first and turned her back whenever he came close, she soon warmed up and remained close by his side as they explored the zoo grounds.
Buke seemed gentle enough, responding to his handlers like an anxious child, as the two elephants wandered the property untethered. It never occurred to me, as I placed my son on his back and snapped a picture, that Buke might have a dark side. But the next time I saw him was at his home in Canada later that summer. He was in musth (a period when bull elephants are sexually active and very aggressive) and chained to a tree – ready to kill anyone who came too near.