The Elephant in the Room

Natural horsemanship isn’t just for horses anymore; a Pennsylvania conservation center is applying its principles to zoo animals, too.

By L.A. Sokolowski

She still calls them the “Botswana Girls” and, if African elephants Thandi, Seeni and Sukiri could talk, they would probably call Barbara Baker, D.V.M., a real-life savior.

Rescued when a Botswana wildlife law mandated their demise after the accidental death of a handler, it took three months to train each 6,000-pound elephant to load into a special crate before embarking on an 8,000-mile journey on a 747 cargo jet across two continents and the Atlantic Ocean, to a new home in Pennsylvania where they would relearn cues in a language other than their native Sinhalese.

“We had to transition into their world instead of them transitioning into ours,” Barbara said. But for this world champion barrel racer, working with the largest land mammals on Earth just comes naturally, and she looked to her equine background for inspiration in how to create a lasting partnership with the magnificent creatures.

Elephant Halters

“You can’t put a halter on an elephant. Well, you can… but it won’t stay on for very long,” Barbara said.

As president emeritus and former CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, Barbara spent 31 years leading the zoo, garnering support for more than 245 conservation projects in 61 countries. That included development of the Pittsburgh Zoo International Conservation Center in 2006, a research, education, breeding and training facility for African elephants. Located off-site on 1,000 acres in Somerset, Pennsylvania, the ICC is North America’s premier conservation facility for the species, thanks in part to its all-star ambassador of animal management: an 11,000-pound bull elephant named Jackson, and one of only three active breeding African bull elephants in the United States.

So the next time your stud colt gets a little fresh, imagine Jackson on the end of your lead rope.


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2022 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.