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Heavyweight Trainer

Toledo Zoo elephant trainer Don RedFox keeps a wary eye on his powerful pupils.


Don RedFox has to pass the "death board" to get into the elephant cage. A trainer of elephants for 15 years, he assembled this collage of clippings about elephants killing and maiming their trainers to prevent himself and the other five elephant keepers at the Toledo Zoo from becoming too comfortable with these three-ton giants.

"Every time you walk in with those elephants, you're taking your life in your hands," he says.

Inside the cage, RedFox issues calm commands to Renee and Rafiki, 17-year-old female African elephants weighing 7,000 pounds each — and still growing. Both will eventually weigh between 10,000 and 14,000 pounds, and live to be 65 or 70.

He touches Renee's foot with a metal-pronged stick called an elephant hook. "Renee, foot," he says. She lifts her foot.

"Good girl," RedFox praises her.

"It's just like raising kids," he explains. "Compassion, consistency."

When he is done putting both elephants through their paces, he walks between them and reassuringly pats a leg as thick around as he is. The elephants gently touch his legs and hands with the tips of their trunks.

LIFELONG DREAM. RedFox, a member of AFSCME Local 3640 (Council 8), fulfilled his childhood dream of working with animals in 1977 when he became a reptile keeper at the Toledo Zoo.

When the city relinquished control of the zoo to the Toledo Zoological Society in 1982, RedFox was asked to fill in as elephant keeper until the zoo could get a permanent replacement.

"Sure," he remembers agreeing. "Just don't leave me there."

But then he was called upon to help select and train two young African elephants — and he hasn't looked back since.

"It was the neatest thing to see 30 little elephants running together," he says of his visit to an Ohio holding facility for young elephants recently culled from Africa.

ARMY TRAINING. The training of the elephants — and of RedFox — began in earnest with the arrival of Richard "Army" McGuire.

Recognized as one of the best in his field, Army had learned his trade by apprenticing himself to trainers in the circus — where his regimented ways earned him his nickname.

"In 18 days," RedFox says, "he taught me more than I needed to know."

Army taught the elephants to stop, lift their feet, lift their trunks, lie down, stand up and walk on command. In the process, he taught RedFox how to continue their training on his own.

Now senior elephant keeper, RedFox, 40, was also the zoo's animal training coordinator for six years, before he stepped down when management refused to pay him any more for his increased responsibilities.

CIRCUS TRADITIONS. As a circus trainer, Army connected RedFox to circus traditions. RedFox says the language he uses to talk about elephants is from the circus, as are the commands and routines he uses.

"Get over," RedFox tells Rafiki and she steps away from him.

"Set," he tells Renee, who sits back as if she were in a chair, the bottoms of all four feet showing.

In one routine, performed during zoo fundraisers, RedFox orders Rafiki to lie down, and she refuses. He turns to the crowd, explains that he'll have to stop the show to take care of this. Then he brings out a blanket, a pillow and a boom box playing a lullaby. When the blanket and pillow are on the ground, Rafiki lies down, her head on the pillow.

RedFox says routines like this are old circus routines, not performed in modern circuses. But he enjoys this connection to an older tradition, something he has cultivated in other areas of his life as well.

As a descendant of Native Americans — he has Cherokee, Sioux, Blackfoot and possibly Shawnee ancestors — RedFox makes his own bows and arrows and sometimes hunts in traditional deerskin garb. He does presentations in local schools on Native American hunting traditions.

"My life revolves around my family, my archery, my job," he says. Usually reserved, RedFox talks enthusiastically about the elephants, his archery and his family.

His wife has gotten to know the elephant world through him and his friends, he says. And his two boys — ages 5 and 7 — can make the elephants perform.

ELEPHANT RESPECT. RedFox's conversation comes back to the similarities of his relationship with his children and his relationship with the elephants. "It's the same relationship," he says. "There's that love and respect. The elephants respect me."

He continues: "There's an emotional bond from me to them, and I'll say from them to me. I won't say I'm a member of the herd, but they look at me different than they do the other keepers or the average person. When [I've been away for a while and] I go back to work, it's like I rose from the dead. There will be a lot of screaming and rumbling. You'll feel this subsonic communication. You can feel the vibration."

Behind him, Renee rumbles her agreement.

By Alison S. Lebwohl

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