Concerning the training of wild animals, I often speak on the importance of being smarter than the animal you’re training. When asked to elaborate on this concept, I immediately think of Congo, an elephant I worked many years ago.
While all elephants are smart, Congo was a genius. He was a big African male that stood almost twice as tall as my six feet. At the time I met him, he lived at an animal safari park in California. I first met him when I was asked to work him for a photo shoot promoting the book, Animal People by Gail Cooper. I was featured in one of the chapters and Gail Cooper wanted a dramatic photograph.
After that meeting, Congo and I developed a friendship that lasted for many years. I often came to visit and work with him. Our relationship grew into one of mutual trust, respect, and love.
It is very important to understand that you don’t use fear and intimidation with an animal the size of Congo, or for that matter any wild animal. Congo stood almost twelve tall and weighed several tons. Besides building a relationship, it also helps to be a little smarter. By that, I mean to be able to predict what an animal is going to do before he does it. The importance of this is what keeps you alive. I humbly admit this wasn’t always easy, especially with Congo!
Infrequently, I would come out to the park where Congo lived. Sometimes, months would go by between our visits, especially if I was working on a movie location. But, it never failed, that when I came driving up the driveway, he immediately recognized my convertible sports car and would go to his water tank, full his trunk and run to the fence and drench me. He would trumpet in delight and almost dance to meet me at the gate. Congo had a sense of humor, and he enjoyed it so much, I just couldn’t deny him the pleasure, at least in the summer.
But, there came a day when I realized just how smart he really was. I was called to help gather him up as he had escaped from his compound area and was loose. I arrived just in time to find him in the parking lot wandering down the aisles of cars. It was obvious he was looking for something. I ran to catch up, but before I reached him, he did a headstand on a truck crushing it beyond recognition.
It was only later that I discovered that out of the hundreds of vehicles parked in that lot, Congo had destroyed the pickup of a groomer who had been removed from working with him.
I’m not sure what the details for the removal of groomer were but, obviously, Congo did.