Swapping Gigs with Sterling Riggs: Elephant Trainer - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Swapping Gigs with Sterling Riggs: Elephant Trainer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The African Elephant is the largest mammal walking the face of the earth. I swapped gigs with an elephant trainer at the Louisville Zoo to see what it's like working with the King of the Jungle. 

Mickey and Punch live at the Elephant Exhibit at the Louisville Zoo -- a place where wide-eyed

The Elephant exhibit is a place wide-eyed kids flock to every day. On one warm spring afternoon in May, I found myself working alongside elephant trainer Steve Burton.

"You know you can't go to college and learn to do what we do," Burton said. "It's all on-the-job learning how to do it."

Burton introduced me to Mickey, an African elephant who stands nine feet tall and weighs 8,500 pounds.

I quickly learned that Mickey doesn't maintain her weight by munching on meat when Burton asked me feed Mickey a treat.

"You want me to stick my arm all the way in there?" I asked.

Burton assured me Mickey wouldn't bite. "She does not eat meat."

I got my arm back in one piece, plus a little elephant slobber -- but Burton jokingly said that was a bonus.

"It's good for you," Burton said. "It's good for the skin."

If you decide you're adventurous enough to want to join Burton and his staff, he'll see to it that you start where he did 13 years ago -- as a volunteer.

"This is what we call job security," Burton said as he supervised me shoveling elephant dung into a wheelbarrow. "As long as they keep doing this, we still have a job."

Besides cleaning up after the elephants, Burton told me it's important "to keep our elephants really clean. So you want to get all of this sand off of her back like this," he said as he demonstrated his technique for brushing dust Mickey off. 

"Then, later today, we will give her another bath and get her nice and clean," Burton said. "We just want to get as much sand off of her as we can. So just try to brush her as much as you can. She really likes it. It's like have a big back scratcher."

Mickey did indeed seem to enjoy the scrubbing -- and she's also fond of covering herself with mud.

Burton said that, for Mickey, "it's just like spending the day at the spa. People pay thousands of dollars to go get mud packs and she does it to herself every day in the yard.

Burton says he has spent years developing a special bond with these animals. He says working with Mickey is not a job -- it's a privilege.

"I will never be a rich person working at the zoo," Burton said. "But I have absolutely no problem getting up and coming to work because I get to work with the largest thing that walks the earth and it does what I tell it to do and we have a good time doing it."

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