The Elephant Man: A Conversation with Mike Keele, Retired Deputy Director and Curator of Elephant Ha

Since the birth of Packy in 1962, the Oregon Zoo and Asian elephants have been synonymous. The zoo's herd has long held celebrity status in the community, several elephants have been successfully born and the zoo has significantly contributed to the zoo world's understanding of the magnificent creatures. Over the years, the zoo has become a leader in elephant conservation in Asia. Much of the program's success is due to Mike Keele, who worked at the zoo for 42 years. He served as world studbook keeper and SSP coordinator of Asian elephants for decades. Additionally, Keele served as the zoo's Deputy Director during the tenure of Tony Vecchio and helped the broader zoo grow and evolve to what it is today. Here is his story.

@ Oregon Zoo

Mike Keele’s career at the Oregon Zoo began when he was in his late teens. “It’s a weird story,” he recounted. “I had graduated from high school and was looking for work. I had a friend who worked at the zoo and told me about a vacant part-time job. It was a six-hour job on weekends, taking care of lab animals. I got the job and within ten days, a security job opened up at the zoo, where I worked three graveyard shifts and two swing shifts. Then, the zoo got rid of in-house security so I became an animal keeper. I was a roving animal keeper for three years [and found] I really liked elephants.” This sparked Keele’s passion for Asian elephants, the species that made the Oregon Zoo famous when Packy (the first elephant born in North American for 44 years) was born in 1962.

@ Oregon Zoo

In 1975, Keele became a full-time elephant keeper. The Oregon Zoo had a reputation for being the zoo world’s leading elephant breeding program. “I loved working with the elephants,” Keele said. “We had six cows, two bulls and several babies. Most of the babies did well and we didn’t try to take them from their moms as they didn’t do well [when we did.]” At the time, elephant husbandry was quite primitive, particularly evident in the zoo’s management of Packy. “Packy was nine years old and he had been labeled dangerous after he knocked somebody down,” Keele noted. “They didn’t do much training at all with him [then,] which was sad as he was a really smart animal and could have benefited from training. [Back then] the thought was, if you couldn’t go in with them, you couldn’t train them at all, which we know is not true.”

@ Oregon Zoo

“It wasn’t until the 1990s that we became a lot more enlightened about training, which benefited Packy through better training and exercise,” Keele continued. “I worked with a guy who taught me how to work with elephants but he was one of those intuitive trainers who didn’t understand animal behavior training philosophy. He just [managed them] as if they were horses, and he wasn’t very methodical. Everyone was allowed to do what they wanted with the animals rather than being consistent. I would look at papers and books about elephants and find all these [contradicting] pieces of information. Keepers and trainers were keeping secrets and not sharing so [information on proper elephant management was] very difficult to navigate.”

@ Oregon Zoo

Keele believed the Oregon Zoo’s breeding success at the time was in part accidental. “The zoo had made a deal in the early 1960s with Morgan Berry, a private elephant holder and trainer, that in the winter they would have his elephants when they weren’t on the road,” he explained. “He partnered with Jack Marks, the zoo director at the time, to design and build an elephant house where keepers could work with elephants without going in with them. That allowed keepers to safely care for Berry’s mature bull, Thonglaw. It also allowed the zoo to care for elephants without chaining them at night, which was the accepted practice at the time. Unchained elephants provided more social opportunities, which included breeding.”

@ Oregon Zoo

“Later, in the early 1970s, Dr. Phil Ogilvie changed the path of the zoo away from being a carnival {atmosphere] where the lion and bear exhibits were brightly colored,” Keele remembered. “He hired Dr. Hal Markowitz (often considered the grandfather of animal enrichment in zoos) for animal behavior issues and changed the way the staff thought about animal care. There had been the old-style keepers who were transferred to the zoo from other city departments when they got in trouble [in another city department.] They weren’t necessarily stars and understood cleaning but not animals or training. Ogilvie began to recruit people with more experience.”

@ Oregon Zoo

Markowitz’s innovations paved the way for the development of animal care for decades to come. “Hal Markowitz was trying to develop mechanical activities for animals that would result in them exhibiting natural behaviors,” Keele remembered. “He called it behavioral engineering and today we call it animal enrichment. He developed contraptions like a lever for gibbons where a light went on near a perch and they had to brachiate over to pull another lever near another perch to get a food reward. That stimulated natural brachiation behavior. You ended up learning a lot about animals as one gibbon would pull the first lever and the other gibbon would be ready to pull the second lever before the first gibbon could get there. Markowitz taught keepers how to observe animals and was pretty visionary about what we could do with animals. Overtime, behavioral engineering evolved into something more complex and all animals have benefited from it.”

@ Oregon Zoo

In 1975, the Oregon Zoo got a new, visionary director, Warren Iliff. “Ogilvie didn’t have the charismatic gift of being able to work with everybody in the community,” Keele stated. “Warren Iliff did. He knew the people coming in [to visit] would support the zoo, not just the big donors. He created a good image of the zoo and, with his enthusiasm, got the community behind the zoo. That sent us in a fast, positive direction.” Iliff also brought the zoo to being in much better financial shape. “When Ogilvie was there, the zoo went bankrupt twice,” Keele mentioned.

@ Oregon Zoo

In 1980, Keele was promoted from elephant keeper to animal keeper foreman. “That is similar to what an assistant curator is today,” he elaborated. “I worked for Steve McCusker (later director of the San Antonio Zoo) and learned a lot from him. I was in charge of animal care and all the animal keepers. Somewhere along the line, I got my title changed to Assistant Curator.”

@ Oregon Zoo

In the 1985, Keele became Asian elephant studbook keeper for North America, a position he held for decades. He became responsible for keeping track of all elephants that ever lived in human care in North America. “Steve and Warren wanted me to become the Asian elephant studbook keeper, which I did from 1985 to 2014,” Keele stated. “It was a lot of work. I had to try to document all the elephants that had been in zoos and circuses as far back as I could but I had trouble getting cooperation from circuses as they didn’t trust zoos. Sometimes, the holders would change the names [of the elephants] so it was hard to track them. Sometimes, I couldn’t tell if it was the same elephant or a different one. That really slowed me down so I finally decided if they didn’t contribute genetically it wasn’t critical they be included in the first publication.”

@ Oregon Zoo

Keele’s role as studbook keeper let him have a large presence in the international elephant management community. “I met a lot of people and ended up being on the elephant SSP (Species Survival Plan),” he elaborated. “That’s where I formed professional friendships and learned about managing populations.” However, Keele noticed great tensions in the elephant management community. “It was hard to get cooperation, communication and trust between the communities,” he explained. “I observed a lot of zoo and circus professionals making judgments on [each other] without prior experience. The whole idea of pointing fingers wasn’t helping us. Rarely did elephant managers all get together and share until the Elephant Managers Association came along. Some of the early meetings were like dog fights and people would shout.”

@ Oregon Zoo

Keele worked hard to not let the disputes get in the way of doing what was best for elephants. “In time, because we were all in the same room, we developed some level of respect,” he recalled. “We all had to realize we could do better for elephants. it was like a State of the Union address- we’d talk about how will we look like in 20 years and how can we get where we want to go. There were so many folks so resistant to change but ultimately zoo professionals and elephant mangers who cared a lot about their elephants wanted to do better.” Keele would also become chairman of the Asian elephant Species Survival Plan, later to become the Elephant Taxon Advisory Group and Species Survival Plan.

@ Oregon Zoo

Changing attitudes and science played a role in the evolution of elephant management. “I think public perception helped change some of that as it’s become harder to justify just two elephants is good enough,” Keele remarked. “We now have welfare science which shows elephants do better in large groups.”

@ Oregon Zoo

Improved science and planning has helped elephant management and breeding advance. “At Portland, we had some elephant pregnancies we didn’t expect while now we have ways of testing if they are pregnant or not,” Keele explained. “In the 1960s and 1970s, we didn’t have a lot of science to help with breeding- that all came later. We used to wait to see movement in their sides [to tell if they were pregnant.] We now have more tools in our toolbox to deal with elephant reproduction, management and welfare. I remember back in the day animal rights people would say our animals were unhappy and we would say there’s no science behind what you claim. Finally, we came to a point where we realized that it was our job to provide the science and lately there’s been a remarkable movement in that direction. The elephant community is now in a much better place where they can say science either agrees or disagrees with allegations or be honest with themselves and make some changes.”

@ Oregon Zoo

For a long time, not many zoos even tried to breed elephants. “Back before the 1980s, a lot of zoos didn’t want to deal with bulls,” Keele articulated. “Cows were much easier to deal with and there wasn’t necessary an interest in breeding them.” Up until the 1970s, zoos could get Asian elephants from the wild and at that time many of the last imports were still quite young. It was not until the elephant population began to age that zoos became more anxious to breed them.

@ Oregon Zoo

In 1980, the Oregon Zoo expanded its Asian elephant facilities. “Originally, the elephants had just one outside yard that was all asphalt,” Keele said. “Then, we tripled their outdoor space by adding a second yard and gave them natural substrate. We gave them a much larger pool, a scratching wall and posts. We also put in the first elephant restraint chute so we could deal with adult bulls during husbandry medical procedures.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

During this time, Steve McCusker was the Oregon Zoo’s General Curator. “Steve McCusker brought professionalism to the zoo,” Keele reflected. “He helped guide me to really good resources and helped me get valuable training. We got a lot done working together. Planning was a big deal and we got keepers and vets in on it. We did a lot of good and necessary keeper training. I thought Steve was a very positive person and brought professional animal experience to the zoo we didn’t have. He had great ideas for exhibit design that worked.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

After Warren Iliff left the Oregon Zoo to direct the Dallas Zoo, Gene Leo became director for a short period of time followed by Sherry Sheng. The first project under Sheng were the African Savanna and African Rainforest exhibits, which replaced outdated paddocks. “The East and West paddocks were kind of like cattle yards, weren’t very attractive and had a lot of different hoofstock,” Keele noted. “That represented many zoos of the 1960s with box after box, looking pretty much the same. We started doing more with mixed species exhibits and replaced the paddocks with the African Savanna. I remember when we were putting the foundation of the giraffe barn together I thought it was smaller than I expected, but when we put it up the walls it was bigger than I expected. We got the animals acclimated and moved the giraffes down a chute they thought was a solid tunnel. You used to make animals do stuff but now we just helped them make decisions so it’s less stressful for them.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

While Markowitz led the pioneering of behavioral enrichment in the 1970s at the Oregon Zoo, Dr. David Shepherdson and Dr. Jill Mellen were establishing behavioral enrichment at the zoo in the 1990s. “David Shepherdson and Jill Mellen really pushed animal behavior,” Keele stated. “Jill benefited greatly by having worked with Hal [when he was at the zoo.] Jill was very likable and got on well with the keepers, which is very important as you need and want to partner with them. Jill helped us identify behavior problems so we could do research on them and develop solutions. Shepherdson was a wonderful addition and really got us into environmental enrichment. I was always proud the zoo could keep him as he is quite an experienced and intelligent person and could make sense out of something that seemed complicated.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Jill Mellen

This focus on animal behavior was implemented with the help of Dennis Pate, General Curator of the Oregon Zoo from 1986 to 1996 (and future Director of Jacksonville and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoos.) “Dennis had an emphasis on animal behavior training,” Keele commented. “Dennis would bring in consultants to help us with training and Bruce Stevens was one of them. We let Bruce meet the elephant keepers and showed them within 12 minutes he could get Rama (one of the zoo’s bull elephants) to go up to the bars. They were amazed by that. When we were going to tear down the feline building to build Steller Cove and we had to move out all the felines, one keeper wanted to knock all of them down but we told him we could train them to enter shipping crates. We got every one of them out through crate training- without immobilizing one of them.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

During the 1990s, zoos began to realize standards for elephant management and exhibitry needed to be raised. “It became rather accepted we needed standards for identifying the resource needs of a good management program so that zoos could make the commitment to properly maintain elephants,” Keele elaborated. “There wasn’t a lot of pushback then as no one wanted to talk about the polarizing [details.]” The discussion became more serious when the Elephant Planning Initiative, written by Mike Hutchins and Brandie Smith, was published. The text talked about the future of elephants in zoos and what changes needed to be made in order to house them properly. “The Elephant Planning Initiative was a great effort as it gave that information to directors and CEOs and pushed the importance of planning for elephants and dealing with the idea if we don’t [raise our facilities to these standards,] we might not have elephants in the future,” Keele claimed. “Before that point, a lot of the movement was at the curator-keeper level. The initiative pushed it up a notch and brought more attention to the issues central to elephant management.”

@ Oregon Zoo

The initiative predicted that fewer zoos would house elephants in the future, a trend which did happen. “I said the more standards we have, the fewer zoos will have elephants,” Keele remarked. “That’s exactly what happened. A lot of zoos decided they didn’t have the resources to invest [in housing elephants] right. In Portland, years ago we decided not to house gorillas as we don’t have the resources to do them right. A good animal plan looks at the resources available to do something well.”

@ Oregon Zoo

In 1997, Keele was promoted to the position of General Curator working with zoo director Sherry Sheng. “During that time, I was coordinating all the activities of animal management,” he said. “I was in charge of research, environmental enrichment and animal care. Sherry was very honest and direct. She had no hidden agenda. Sherry had a lot of ideas about strategic planning and developing a master plan for the future. I remember one time one of our elephants had foot disease and needed to have surgery. I told Sherry we had all these different options but, if it was my decision, I would go with surgery. She said it was my decision as it’s my job to make it."

@ Oregon Zoo

In 1998, Keele was promoted to Deputy Director when Tony Vecchio became the zoo’s director. “I ended up coordinating the functions of not only animal management but also the veterinarians, researchers and horticulturalists, education and volunteers,” he noted. Vecchio came to the Oregon Zoo after transforming the Roger Williams Park Zoo from a subpar institution to a high quality one during his directorship. When he came to Oregon Zoo, he immediately helped push the zoo to the next level. “Tony really started intensifying the whole welfare discussions and making better exhibits,” elaborated Keele. “He had a willing audience as the keeper staff was into it.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

Vecchio set a vision for the path the zoo proceeded on for the upcoming decade. “I liked that Tony could make an exhibit change without it being a huge project,” Keele remarked. “There was this feline exhibit with a moat that I wanted to get rid of and Tony and the team did a wonderful Amur leopard habitat design that not only got rid of the moat but looked quite natural, had cultural aspects and gave them climbing opportunities.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

“Tony, being a visionary, is a very positive and ambitious person when he thinks something can be done,” Keele described. “He’s also a caring person and listens to his staff. It was really nice to see how well he operated. He knew our hospital facilities were outdated and he rightfully wondered how we’d get the funding for then. We talked about it and we thought maybe this was also a good opportunity to do an elephant facility so Tony put together this $125 million bond before the voters. It was a success [when put on the ballot in 2008] and went through. I thought that was amazing. I didn’t have the ability to think that way but he did.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

While being Deputy Director allowed Keele to have a larger impact on the zoo, it also meant he could be less hands on with the elephant program. However, he still stayed very involved and left it in good hands. “The elephant program was doing really great and had great leadership,” he elaborated. “Chris Pfefferkorn was there and he helped a lot. I really liked being part of the decision making of the zoo and working with Tony on that as he had wonderful ideas for the zoo’s leadership. I liked feeling I had a say that would be listened to. I always felt I was being heard. I also enjoyed showing off our staff and how wonderful they were doing with the animals.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

Vecchio and Keele long dreamed about expanding the zoo’s elephant program to a much larger scope. “Tony pitched the idea to the community of doing an offsite elephant breeding center,” he remembered. “My idea was the offsite facility was to improve the program at the zoo. If the capacity was filled at the zoo, we could continue breeding [out there.] I thought the offsite facility would help us identify subsets at the zoo or prepare animals for a herd at another zoo. I saw it as a great way to help our breeding program at the zoo. We found a place that would work.”

@ Oregon Zoo

However, some in the community misheard the idea. “Some heard it wrong as the elephants from the zoo would retire to a sanctuary,” Keele explained. “[That wasn’t the plan as] my feeling has been wild animals don’t retire. They’re not working here at the zoo- they have a rich life.” However, the offsite breeding facility never came to fruition. “What happened is what I expected,” Keele recalled. “Elephants take a big commitment to build one generation. Locally, there wasn’t the resources for this thing to work. It would take decades, not just a few years.”

@ Oregon Zoo

One crucial thing Keele and other elephant experts learned about elephant husbandry was the need for soft substrate. “[Some of the elephants had issues with foot care] as they were on hard surfaces,” he remarked. “At one point before 1980, our facility had 13 elephants in one space on hard surface in close corners 24/7. It was worse as it wasn’t easy to deal with feat issues. Some elephants responded to treatment than others and some never had issues while others had huge needs. Trying to be proactive, we hired consultants to review our husbandry and veterinary care. Following that, we decided to host a foot care conference to discuss about foot care treatment and ways of caring for it.” Soft substrates were a major emphasis when Elephant Lands was built.

@ Oregon Zoo

“There hasn’t been a lot of new blood [coming into the Asian elephant population in North America],” Keele elaborated. “Also, if a cow has a calf, it will likely be at least four years before she has another one. With limited numbers and no infusion of new blood [through imports,] it becomes difficult [to build sustainable populations.] I see fewer zoos in the future holding elephants and I see the ones who hold elephants being able to hold many elephants. They will better reflect to the public how elephants are naturally. They’ll be more opportunities for natural breeding. It’s going to be the zoos that have the resources to commit to elephants on a large level [that will have them.]”

@ Oregon Zoo

In 2010, Keele moved from Deputy Director to Director of Elephant Habitats. For the last few years of his time at the zoo, his primary responsibility was designing Elephant Lands, a state-of-the-art facility opened in 2015. It was designed to address the needs of Asian elephants and their population in North America for decades to come. “Tony had the idea that I could just focus on elephant stuff,” Keele recalled. “I thought that was a great idea as I was planning on retiring and this job focused on the thing I liked the most.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

Until this point, nothing had been done to change the indoor quarters for the elephants. “When we developed Elephant Lands [years later,] real attention was put on holding areas,” Keele noted. “I said we can’t show them in embarrassing holding facilities. We made it much better and a place the elephants wanted to be.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

The creation of Elephant Lands was a collaborative process. “I was part of a team that included elephant keepers, maintenance folks, management and CLR Design,” Keele explained. “We were talking about an elephant management process with the ability to let the elephants be together all day long and choose where they wanted to go. We were building a facility for elephants to use rather than for us to manage elephants. the elephants would use feeders to forage all day long and roam a big habitat footprint. It took a lot of time to review the plans and look for [potential] problems.”

@ Oregon Zoo

“The thing I like about Elephant Lands is it used to be you’d go up see the elephants and there they were,” Keele elaborated. “Now, in Elephant Lands visitors have to find elephants as the space is so complex. They have lots of sand, things to scratch and interact with and a big pool. There are lots of interactive pieces in their environment they can use in different ways. Feeders make food available at unpredictable times so the elephants have to be active and check the feeders.”

@ Oregon Zoo

Keele spoke about the elephants from his time at the Oregon Zoo as if they were people. He noted how each had an individual personality. “One of my favorite elephants was Tuv Hoa, who was a big female that came from Vietnam,” he stated. “She was the matriarch of the group and, whenever she’d get excited, she’d flap her ears which would rally the other females around her. She had such gentle eyes and I really enjoyed her. I also worked with Rosie, the zoo’s first elephant. The interesting thing about her was she was number two in the pecking order but she wouldn’t let anyone challenge Tuv Hoa. My favorite elephant was Pet and she was known as the tough elephant. She would run from you and sometimes push you but her and I hit it off. One when I was working on her feet, she took off and I ran right along with her. When she stopped, I was there and she kind of acted like, this didn’t work. When I went into management I would still go down to visit the elephants. Pet always remembered me and grabbed my fingers as a game we used to play.”

@ Oregon Zoo

In 2013, Mike Keele retired from the Oregon Zoo after serving for over 40 years. “I had worked for close to 42 years and you can’t be there forever,” he remarked. “Certainly, the design of Elephant Lands was completed and construction was well underway. I really felt it was going to turn out very nice.”

@ Oregon Zoo

“I really like where zoos are going, which is focusing on conservation both hands on and through education and international support,” Keele reflected. “I like that zoos are developing experts at their facilities who will share that knowledge both locally worldwide. Papers on animal welfare have been great tools for elephant managers and the same can be done with other species. The public really want to see animals they can only see on television and zoos are their only opportunity to see them up close. I think zoos should do more to show their value to the public and what it takes to provide proper wellbeing for the animals. I like that many zoos are being more active in local conservation as there are huge opportunities for them to influence conservation in their communities.”

@ Oregon Zoo

@ Oregon Zoo

“A great elephant manager is someone who has a sound grounding in animal behavior training,” Keele concluded. “Also, somebody who is really committed to welfare. If there’s a way to make welfare better for the elephants, they may be able to apply behavior training to foster that. They need to be well rounded with elephant biology, be able to see all their subtleties and be the very best advocates for their care. Elephant managers need to be vocal advocates in their community as they are the best people to talk about individual animals and elephants in general and the public and visitors are eager to hear their stories. They have to talk about these animals in ways that help people care more about them every day.”

@ Oregon Zoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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