In the land of the Gentle Giants

Greeting an elephant, like log rolling or riding a unicycle, is one of those skills that most of us will never have a chance to learn. But for Chuck Doyle, it TMs second nature.

Chuck, the Director of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, has been greeting elephants just about every day for the past 34 years. So when Targa, a giant Asian Elephant from Syracuse who is on loan to the African Lion Safari in Hamilton, Canada, comes strolling up to us, Chuck knows just what to do.

Oh it TMs great to see her, he says as he puts his mouth close to her massive ear and begins making a buzzing noise.

Targa, who is close to 8,000 pounds, appears to be in Elephant heaven. She switches her trunk back and forth and wraps it around Chuck several times. Though she has not seen Chuck in some time, Targa seems to instantly recognize him. Turns out, the old saying about elephants is true: they really do never forget.

Oh they recognize people and voices they absolutely do, Chuck says as he rubs Targa TMs trunk with the same familiarity of a husband massaging his wife TMs shoulders after a long day of work.

Right next to Targa is her daughter Mali and her newborn son Little Chuck (guess who he TMs named after) who was born here shortly after the elephants came to Canada more than two years ago. As he looks at the three elephants, grandmother, mother and baby son, Chuck TMs face lights up. They look great, he says. They TMre healthy, they TMre happy we couldn TMt be more ecstatic with how they TMve been treated here the past couple of years.

The African Lion Safari is the Ritz Carlton of animal preserves. The elephants are fed up to 250 pounds of food a day and have plenty of room to roam on the 900 acre park. Each day the elephants line up and march with trunks and tails entwined to a nearby lake for a swim. As the elephants splash about in the water, I notice that Targa and Mali stay very close to Little Chuck at all times. Charlie Gray, the Asian Elephant expert at the African Lion Safari Park, says like most good grandmothers and mothers, the two elephants always keep a close watch over their little baby.

Mali and Targa are always together and they really look after Little Chuck. He TMs a little independent, but they always no where he is and they are very interested in what he is doing, Gray says.

A lot of people are interested in what Little Chuck is doing. The elephant, who is almost two years old, was the sixteenth Asian Elephant born at the African Lion Safari which is a leading breeders of the elephants in the world. Little Chuck, who is as adorable as any two year old, gets a lot of attention from visitors to the park. Charlie Gray says the interest in Little Chuck and the other Asian Elephants is a good thing since the animals are an endangered species. What we try and do is educate people and show them what interesting and wonderful elephants these animals really are, Gray says.

All you have to do is spend five minutes with Chuck Doyle and you can clearly see how interesting and wonderful he thinks elephants are. Doyle believes bringing the elephants into contact with people is the best hope for preserving the animals for future generations. We want your children TMs children to be able to see elephants. With only 35,000 of these elephants left in the wild. It TMs important that we use them as ambassadors, Doyle says.

While some groups like PETA have criticized zoos for holding elephants captive, Charlie Gray says the elephants at the preserve play an important role in the future survival of the species. We really feel that giving people an opportunity to experience what an elephant looks like and feels like, helps people to care more about wild elephants and their habitats. The hope is that there experience here will make them want to do what they can to try and conserve elephants for future generations, Gray says.

To help people experience Asian Elephants, visitors to the African Lion Safari are allowed to get very close to them. The first thing I notice as Mali and Targa ramble right up to me is how remarkably peaceful and gentle these massive animals are. Asian Elephants form very close social bonds with one another. Mothers and daughters will often stay together their entire lives. Like humans, Doyle says the elephants have unique personalities and are very curious. They like to walk up to people. They want to get to know you as much as you want to get to know them, he says.

Mali certainly seems to be taking a liking to me as she gently wraps her long trunk around me and gives me slobbering yet surprisingly gentle kisses with her giant trunk. When you are this close to these massive animals you can TMt help but fall in love with them. They are so peaceful, so loving.

As I make the long drive back to Syracuse from Canada my mind keeps drifting back to the elephants. Such amazing creatures these ancient gentle giants, living in harmony, so far away from home.