“What does it take to become an animal trainer?” This was without a doubt the single most popular question I was asked in my career. Before giving these aspiring zookeepers the long winded answer of what degrees and education backgrounds were preferred, what certifications were necessary, and what kind of experience was required, I’d give them the number one tip to all trainers worldwide. I’d tell them “There are three things you must have in order to work effectively with animals. The first is patience. Animals can’t speak to us, so it takes patience to understand what they might be trying to convey. The second most important thing you need to work with animals is patience. Animals have minds of their own, and no matter how hard we may try, we can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do. So what do you think the last requirement is?” The inquirer would laugh and respond “PATIENCE!”.
Patience, patience, and patience. The three most important virtues of anyone working with animals in any capacity. If you are able to practice patience in your everyday life as well as your career, the rewards will be life-changing!
One of the most incredible experiences of my career was working with elephants. Building a unique and special relationship with such an enormous creature who could have crushed me as much as look at me, was, in a word, amazing.
What most impressed me when I first started at the elephant barn was the amazing bond the keepers had with each of the herd members. All the elephants had their distinct way of expressing themselves to each individual keeper. Every morning, Chai, the youngest of our herd, chirped at Russ, a veteran keeper who had worked with her for over twenty years. She would then open her mouth, soliciting a tongue rub, of which Russ was the only person she was comfortable letting touch her tongue in that manner.
The eldest of the herd, Bamboo, definitely had an amazing bond with Chuck, an older, retired keeper. When Chuck would visit on occasion, Bamboo reverted back to a playful youngster, squealing and circling excitedly. When she couldn’t contain her excitement anymore, Bamboo would express her undying love and affection for her best friend by (are you ready for this?) peeing.
When I began working the elephants through their daily husbandry routines, I was specifically warned about Watoto, our only African elephant, and dominant boss-lady of the herd. She had a notorious history of “not liking women”. Being the only female keeper at that time, heard all the stories the guys relayed to me. Being a brash and impulsive elephant, Watoto was known for charging all the women who had ever worked with her. The only evidence I had for Watoto’s disdain for women was when Dr. Kelly, our main veterinarian, who happened to be a woman came to the barn. Watoto would tusk the bars and press her forehead against the mesh menacingly. By comparison, Dr. Darrin, the male veterinarian who filled in on occasion, did not warrant such a greeting.
I’m not ashamed to admit, the idea of an eight thousand pound wild animal barreling toward me with malice on her brain was just about the most intimidating thing I could imagine. I was wary of Watoto’s moods, but at the same time, it was difficult not to fall in love with all her mannerisms.
When Watoto was annoyed at something, she would flap her giant Africa-shaped ears against her neck, and shake her body, making a “harumph” noise as she went about her day. When she was happy, or content, Watoto made a rumble noise, a soft purr that you could feel all the way down to your bones. When she was fond of someone, Watoto would produce that low rumble for them, lowering her head to have them scratch her ear.
As much as I would have loved for Watoto to accept me, I knew it was very unlikely that I’d ever receive the special gift of a Watoto rumble. But even if she didn’t like me, as part of the team caring for all three elephants, I needed Watoto to at least work with me. To compensate for me being a girl, I made sure to keep our sessions short and sweet, and lots of fun. I saved her favorite treats for when we worked together. Most importantly, I stayed positive and encouraging throughout each and every session.
When we would trim Watoto’s feet, I ensured that she received multiple breaks throughout the session where she would be allowed to roam around, and come back only if she felt like it. In the beginning, she didn’t come back that often. I was completely okay with that, even if it frustrated my co-workers. Eventually, when she learned it was her choice to participate, she began to come back for a second trimming, or a third, and sometimes even a fourth session.
Over time, my consistent, positive attitude with Watoto brought about a distinct reputation among my colleagues. In the three years I had been working with her, Watoto had never charged me. Another way my team complimented me was when Watoto acted particularly stubborn, I would be asked to pair up with Russ to work with her. Watoto responded to the two of us very well and we had the most success of getting her to cooperate.
One day, though, the highest compliment I came my way via no other than Watoto herself.
It was a crisp, cool morning. I was opening the barn to start my shift, and I walked into the animal area to check on all the girls. Chai sauntered over to me, begging for her usual morning treat. What happened next made my heart skip two beats.
Watoto gently nudged Chai out of the way. She then lowered her head down to my level where I could have easily reached her ear, and then, she rumbled. I looked around the barn expecting someone else behind me, but there was no one else there. Nobody had Watoto’s attention except for me. She was rumbling for ME!
From that day on, even when Watoto was obstinate with me, or ignored my requests, I knew my patience and consistency had paid off in the biggest way possible. Watoto was my girl, always and forever, and with one little rumble, I knew I was hers.
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When I started my fitness journey, I knew this wasn’t going to be a quick fix. I knew that based on past experiences trying to lose weight, and I knew based on my experience as a zookeeper.
I could not expect to make overnight changes to my fitness anymore than I could have expected a Watoto rumble on my first day as an elephant keeper. If I had walked in on even my 100th day and expected Watoto to rumble for me, I have no doubt that she would have charged me in a heartbeat. I worked with Watoto for over three years before she graced me with that wonderful gift. Three years! It took a very long time to earn Watoto’s respect, trust, and ultimately, her friendship.
As you take your first steps toward a fit and healthy lifestyle, I will repeat these sage words of advice. Be very patient with yourself. If you take away nothing else from this book except this suggestion, I will be the happiest zookeeper/fitness trainer on earth. Changing your life for the better will take time. We are developing better habits and creating a brand new lifestyle. We did not get where we currently are overnight. We are not going to get where we want to be overnight. While it is possible for you to make huge strides in a short amount of time, there is also a chance it may take you longer than you anticipated. Remain consistent and patient with your program, and with yourself. The outcome will blow you away! You, too, will be blessed with a Watoto Rumble! It will be your own special moment that makes all your efforts worthwhile and your success that much sweeter.