It's All Trunks And Tusks At This Beauty School
Today's lesson: how to trim an elephant's toenails.
Using a rasp, nippers, and a hoof-cutting knife, 10 students from as far away as Australia are learning the finer points of pachyderm pedicure - part of a two-week elephant-handling school hosted by Scott and Heidi Riddle on their 33-acre elephant sanctuary in the Ozark foothills.
Unlike dog, cat, or horse owners, who can go to bookstores or libraries for information on caring for their animals, elephant handlers find that information they need is harder to come by. At the Riddles', the elephant handlers can talk shop, exchanging stories and ideas.
"Elephant handling is a dying art," Mr. Riddle says. "We have knowledge we'd like to share."
The farm has seven elephants. On this day the students are grooming Betty Boop - known as "Booper" - an 8,000-pound female Asian elephant. Booper stands on a pair of stands shaped like inverted washtubs.
Her two front feet are on one tub, her back ones on the other, allowing the handlers to go under and around the elephant's feet. Scott and Heidi take turns showing the shape of healthy nails and how to use tools and salves to create them.
Booper responds quickly to each command, getting off the tubs and back up as quietly as a cat getting on and off an easy chair. Excused from her duties for a few moments, she wanders into the high grass, trunk swinging, seeking a snack. She returns at a call from Ms. Riddle.
Mr. Riddle, originally from El Cajon, Calif., has 30 years experience handling elephants, including work at the Los Angeles Zoo and Ringling Bros.
The Riddles' sanctuary is nestled among cattle and horse operations. From a distance, the elephant paddock looks the same, but up close, the posts rise eight feet and are sunk seven feet to contain massive mammals. Fences, of welded railroad rails, enclose two acres, including a few trees and a pair of mudholes - one man-made, the other elephant-made.
Guinea fowl, geese, ducks, and chickens run freely at the farm. Happy, well-fed dogs and cats circulate, accepting pats and praise. The Riddles' three children - ages 4, 5, 7 - bound about.
The dorms are tarp-covered tents. The classroom is earth and sky.
This is the second year the school has been offered; students came from Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, and England.
Ian Freeman of Melbourne, Australia, has worked with elephants for 15 years. He heard about the school through the Elephant Managers Association.
"To come here and pick up some more techniques is a tremendous opportunity," Mr. Freeman said.
Lynn Polke joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1980 after auditioning for a dancer's job. She said she was attending "to prove that I'm serious about elephants."