Waco Chat

Having a Drink with Katrinna Lee

By Kevin Tankersley

Mammal Keeper at Cameron Park Zoo

Our elephants do fun things. They can give high fives and wave.

The African elephants have always been my passion. And the big cats, I’ve always had a connection that I’ve wanted to be around them a lot and work with them. They’re such intelligent animals. Just being around them and watching how they go about their day is really amazing.

We have two female elephants. Tanya is 39, and Tembo is 41. Tanya is our larger one. She’s about 9,000 pounds. Tembo is about 7,600 pounds.

They get a bale of hay in the morning, and we split that so they can find it. Sometimes we scatter it around so they have to work to find it. To train with them, they get 2.5 pounds of produce each, and we give that to them as we’re working with them. They also get two different kinds of greens in the morning. Lettuce, romaine, celery. They’re not really picky.

When they’re on exhibit, we’re doing different behaviors, like asking them for their feet or to turn. They do what’s called salute and stretch, where they stretch on all fours. That keeps them healthy, and it’s part of our veterinary care.

Katrinna Lee, who moved to Waco from Wisconsin four years ago, ordered sweet tea from the Plaza Café at the zoo. “I love sweet tea. It’s one of my favorite things to drink,” she said. “Up north, you can’t just order sweet tea at a restaurant.”

They need to be able to do those behaviors so our vet can look at them, take care of them, and that we can take care of them. It’s really cool that the public can see what they’re doing. Our elephants do fun things. They can give high fives and wave. Those are some fun things to do, but almost everything we do with our animals have a medical purpose to them.

I respect them. I know they’re large animals. I know where to stand to be safe and how to work with them to be safe. We’re taught that right away. We do what’s called protective contact, so we don’t go in with our elephants whatsoever. There’s always a barrier between us and them. We never go in with them. We are also trained to stay certain distances [away] to make sure we’re safe. We also have two keepers at all times work with our elephants.

We probably scoop anywhere from 250 to 300 pounds of [elephant] feces a day. We dispose of it into a fecal dumpster. Sometimes a gentleman will come and ask if he can have it for fertilization, so we’ve done that before. But most of it gets discarded into our fecal dumpster where it all goes.

I love being around the animals, obviously, which is why we become zookeepers. Not only working with them, but educating about them. That’s a really big part of our job. I believe we have to educate about our animals, so we talk to the public a lot about why zoos are important and why they should come and see these animals in zoos.