"I honestly never expected to work with elephants, and I never gave them a whole lot of thought. I have a bachelor's in biology, and when I was studying I put a lot of my focus on animal behavior and physiology. I worked in a small state park-run zoo in South Carolina the whole time I was in college. After school I came up to Baltimore and worked in the animal department. There was an opportunity in elephants and I found out that it was something that suited my personality and just stuck with it.
Samson's birth was a two-day process. A friend of mine is excellent with elephant behavior and had worked with births, and another friend of mine is one of the best elephant vets in the world, so I wanted them to be here. The day before he was born the hormone tests said [Samson's mother] Felix was ready to give birth. I did an ultrasound, and I had one hand inside of Felix and the other hand on the phone talking to my friend [the vet], and I said, 'What can I do to keep this from happening until you get here?' He said we should have time. The next morning we decided to do another ultrasound, and he looked inside her and said, 'There's feet here!'
We shut the barn down early and helped Felix to relax and get comfortable. Samson was born at about 9 p.m.; it happened very naturally. It was textbook. It was the first [African elephant] birth in Maryland; we'd been trying for it for so many years. People ask how long the gestation is, it's about 22 months but he took 11 years to make.
I've gotten away from looking at animals as cute, because it sets you up for heartache at some point. But, with Samson, I really haven't ever seen anything that's more cute.
Taking care of Samson carries a different sense of responsibility than the adults. A lot of stuff can happen to a baby elephant—they're fragile and their world is tough. We've basically brought him here and we're obligated to make sure that nothing happens to him and help him be brought up right.
Luckily, he's incredible. He's very friendly; he's not really afraid of anything. He'll come and hang out, he wants to be around you and he's very inquisitive. We could have gotten a jerk, but he's a nice little guy.
Samson has learned to tell the difference between his handlers. When you go up to him he knows you and is comfortable with you, and he actually vocalizes. It's too low of a sound for us to hear, but if you touch him you can feel it. He's basically communicating and saying hello. It's really cool to be picked out of the crowd.
Everybody's coming to see him. The kids are fascinated and asking all the great questions. The adults want to ask the questions too, but they pass them through the children so they don't feel silly about it.
When he was first born he was nursing about every 40 minutes. Now there's too much stuff to do to be bothered with eating, so he spends a lot of his day playing and investigating things, and nurses a lot at night. He poops about once a day, and it is nasty, it's nothing like the adults. I am looking forward to when he starts eating solid food.
Elephants will change your perspective. I used to be more of a jerk, and elephants taught me that that's not the way to be. I'd come to work and my mind wouldn't be in it or I'd be mad at the guy I was working with, and Dolly [another member of the elephant herd at the Zoo] would not work with me the way she did the day before. People want to blame outside sources for their problems, but it's you, it's what you're putting off.
The fact of the matter is, elephants are disappearing. People come to the exhibit and they say 'Oh, Dumbo!' And they leave saying, 'I didn't know that about elephants.' The kids go back to school and they talk about it. I get cards saying they loved talking to us, and that they didn't know that an elephant's sense of smell was several thousand times greater than a dog's. That's how you get them to help save things, because I can't do it, I'm just one person. But if I can get everybody else hooked on elephants, they'll help do something, too."