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COAL VALLEY — Even more than they will miss them, the elephant handlers at Niabi Zoo want Babe and Sophie to go.

They have wanted it for some time.

"I will miss them, but my personal feeling isn't what's important," elephant handler Jessica Lench Porter said Wednesday, the day after the decision was made to move Babe and Sophie to a zoo or sanctuary in a warmer climate. "In my opinion, we did as much as we could for as long as we could."

When elephant expert and consultant Alan Roocroft wrote a report earlier this year about the condition of the elephants and their Niabi enclosure, many county officials were surprised to learn of serious health issues and dangerously inadequate conditions. But the report did not surprise Porter.

Wearing an air blower on her back and shoveling dust and dung from the elephant barn, Porter paused to point out a concern that was not contained in Roocroft's report: "In the winter, we can't lock Babe and Sophie out of the barn while we clean it like we do now. As we clean, and the dust blows, they're exposed to everything. It can't be good for them. We can wear masks; they can't."

Porter and the four other Niabi handlers who work with the elephants know them intimately. They know Sophie loves watermelon and Babe is eager to please. They know both elephants would do "pretty much anything for a slice of bread" and neither of them appreciates a duck in their swimming pool.

After eight years of daily feedings, barn and yard cleaning, taking care of medical needs, and interacting with Babe and Sophie, Porter knows just how smart they are, and she understands their suffering. Despite the bond, she is ready to let go.

"When the (Forest Preserve) Commission was voting to send them away, I was texting the keepers to notify them of the vote," Niabi Director Marc Heinzman said. "The response was all thumbs up. They're all very attached to the elephants. It'll be tough on them. It'll be tough on me.

"But we're all on board. We all want what is best for Sophie and Babe. It's the reason we're here."

'Free contact'

The interaction between elephant and handler at Niabi Zoo is as hands-on as it gets.

On a steamy afternoon in the elephant yard last week, animal keepers Jessica Lench Porter and Lisa Murphy plant themselves, nearly nose-to-trunk, in front of Babe and Sophie and continue the afternoon routine they started with a barn cleaning.

"Come here, Babe," Porter instructs the 37-year-old Asian elephant. "Good girl."

Tugging on the line of fire hose at her feet, Porter takes a step back, turns up the water pressure on the nozzle and tells Babe, "Head down." As she sprays dust from the elephant's enormous head and wrinkled hide, Sophie waits her turn.

"Open your mouth," Porter orders, and Babe's lower jaw drops to reveal the large, pink hollow under her trunk.

Bath time, which really is more of a shower, is a time of cooperation and bonding. Foot by enormous foot, Babe follows her keeper's commands, lifting each limb to give the hose a clear shot at her surprisingly shiny soles. The foot-washing routine is a little trickier for Sophie, who is 43 years old and suffers from arthritis in her wrists.

"We have them lie down as part of the bath routine, and we used to have them lie down at the beginning," Porter says. "It can be difficult for Sophie to get up, so we moved the lying down part of the bath until the end of the routine. Because she's already been stretching, lifting each of her legs, she's in less pain at the end of the bath."

Despite a pronounced stiffness in her gait, Sophie shows a healthy interest in her surroundings.

For example: As Porter and Murphy clean the inside of the barn with hoses, blowers and shovels, routinely swiping wet straw from floor drains with their feet, one of the overhead barn doors rattles with a thunderous bang. Outside, Sophie is using her trunk to knock loudly on the barn door.

"They know we're getting their food ready," Porter explains. "They know their routines very well."

Babe and Sophie also know what they like and don't like, including keepers.

"The elephants have to accept you," Porter says. "It can take a year of training to work with them. I was kind of an exception. It only took three months of training for me. It can be kind of sad, really, because you can spend months training, and they won't accept you."

The daily routines work both ways, and handlers have to be on the ball. As they bathe and feed the elephants, the keepers also must keep constant watch on Babe and Sophie. Though the elephants are regarded as "especially well-behaved," they are wild animals and, especially with one in pain, could become aggressive. No single handler ever is left alone with them.

In Babe's 13 years and Sophie's 10 at Niabi, however, free contact with keepers has been unmarred by outbursts. At least in the warmth of summer, their lives of baths, playtime, feedings and treat bags appear to suit them.

"The treat bags are a way we've learned to give Sophie her arthritis medication," Porter says, filling two paper lunch-style sacks with a stash of fruit and concealed meds. "They both get an apple, and Sophie's medicine is pressed into slices of bread at the bottom of the bag. They eat the whole bags, and that won't hurt them.

"Babe gets one, too, because, otherwise, they'll think something strange is going on. They're much smarter than people think, trust me."

They also have strong personalities.

To show how much Sophie enjoys the swimming pool, Porter blows the dust off a picture that is posted on a board in the elephant barn. It shows Sophie relaxing in the pool, sitting upright with her back against one end. With one of her giant elbows resting on the side of the pool, she looks like a large-nosed retiree who went a lifetime with no sunscreen.

"Babe is our big chicken," Porter continues. "Anything new happens, and her ears go straight out. Sophie, on the other hand, goes right toward it. She's the instigator. Babe (though much larger) is a follower.

"Sophie makes a chirping sound, and Babe gives off more of a low rumble. They both get excited. They don't like birds in their yard, and they really don't like ducks in their swimming pool. It is not unusual for us to get a radio call from the gift shop (near the elephant yard), telling us the elephants are all excited, and we'd better get the ducks out of their pool.

"Sophie is very musical. She likes to hear noises, and will bang things against the fence. Babe is our all-star painter. They're definitely bonded, and we make sure one can always see the other. It's probably being anthropomorphic (attribution of human characteristics to animals), but, yes, I think they love each other."

Elephant dowry?

Before the Rock Island County Forest Preserve Commission voted unanimously last week to send Babe and Sophie away, Niabi's director got phone calls from other zoos that want them.

The total annual cost of caring for each elephant is about $200,000, Heinzman said, but whoever adopts the pair will absorb all future costs.

"Elephants are in short supply, so several places would like to have them," he said. "There are a lot of options, including zoos with elephants that need more elephants."

However, nearby zoos, such as the ones in St. Louis and Milwaukee, need not apply.

"One of the main reasons we've said they should go is the climate," he said. "It will be somewhere south. As long as it's in the continental U.S., it's doable. We definitely have our homework to do. A lot of places I'm just not familiar with — yet."

Wherever they go, Porter is likely to go, too. Babe and Sophie will need at least one familiar handler along on their journey to help them transition into a new home.

For more than a decade, the pair has become accustomed to the daily clang of the bells on the zoo train and the wail of its whistle. They surely have heard "All aboard!" even more times than a low-lying airplane has thrown shadows on their yard, heading for the nearby airport.

"Going with them is both exciting and intimidating," Porter said. "It could be taxing on our staff. I'm also the primary cat and reptile keeper at Niabi, and that's another reason they need to go, in my opinion: In most zoos that are large enough for elephants, some keepers work only with elephants. We wouldn't just need a much larger exhibit here, but there's also the ongoing care and staffing.

"It's going to be hard, seeing them go, but, again, we're keepers because we care about these elephants. It will be a sad ending, but it's also an opportunity for new horizons for us and for them. I don't believe this community wants to see an elephant pass away."

Porter was just a senior in high school with a seasonal job at Niabi Zoo when the Quad-Cities' first elephant, Kathy Sh-Boom, died suddenly in the fall of 2002. Porter said she clearly recalls getting the phone call, telling her the 42-year-old elephant was dead. Kathy had arrived at Niabi in 1964, spending most of her life as the zoo's main attraction and its lone pachyderm.

Asked whether she worries that Babe and Sophie will miss the family of keepers that have cared for them for so long, Porter's emotions are briefly laid bare. But she swallows hard and turns her focus to Babe, just a few feet away and clearly listening.

"They'll have other elephants to fill the void, rather than us," she said. "I'm with these elephants more than I'm with my kids, and Babe and Sophie were born in logging camps, so they've always had human interaction. But they are both elephants, and they want to bond with other elephants.

"They deserve that. They have given enough."