Nashville Zoo trainer finds niche caring for elephants


Hadari is slightly spoiled. Sukari is described as “uncertain,” while Juno acts as the playground bully and Rosie is, well, Rosie.

The trainers of the four African elephants at the Nashville Zoo don’t necessarily reflect their 10,000-pound friends’ personalities, but they do build close bonds with the animals and one another.

“As trainers, we have sort of a teacher-pupil relationship with the elephants,” said Steve Johnson. He gave a nod to Juno, who was wandering the upper tier of the zoo’s 3-acre habitat. She raised her trunk in reply.

Johnson is the head elephant trainer at the Nashville Zoo. He grew up in California and began his career in the early ’80s directly out of high school by working at a Florida amusement park with camels and elephants.

“I didn’t know exactly what I ever wanted to do, but I think I found my niche,” Johnson said.

Other than working with elephants all day, what do you enjoy most about your job?

Well, this isn’t a job to me. I never looked at this as a job. It’s too much fun. I get paid to play really. It’s not much, but I have friends who drive Porsches and everything, but they are stressed and look older than they really are. I really enjoy what I do, and I like coming to work every day.

Was this a job you always had envisioned for yourself? How did you get here?

As a kid, I was just like a typical kid. I collected snakes. Well, I might not have been that typical. I had a spider collection and snake collection, but that was the start.

I was brought on when Rosie and Juno were brought here from Jackson, Miss. I never went to college but I became a collector of books. I remember there was a woman who took a ride with me and asked what kind of elephant she was on. I said it was Asian, but she said it was African. She was right. I started reading up.

Take me through a daily routine. What’s an elephant trainer at the Nashville Zoo do?

Exercisewise, we have to work a variety of muscles that the elephants don’t utilize here. For example, elephants stand on their hind legs to reach up high in trees, but here they don’t really ever have to do that. We do elevate their food to work their neck muscles, but they never really have to use those big abdominal muscles, so they get these beer bellies, so to speak. We have them do sit-ups to work on their abs where they lay down and sit up.

We also stimulate the elephants with different activities. For example, Hadari and Sukari do paintings. Many things turn into games because we try to make everything fun.

What are some challenges you face in caring for elephants?

Elephants, if you can believe, have a tendency to get overweight. They are kind of like couch potatoes. So we actually have a variety of fruit and hay spread out throughout the grounds for them to go and find. They spend about 16-18 hours a day eating. It’s about 150-200 pounds per day of food.

I know you said you have to bathe them as well. What’s it like to give an elephant a bath?

Their skin looks really nice and flat from a distance, but it’s actually very porous. Giving them a bath is just part of the daily routine and lets us really scrub them down and look them over. They really get spa-like treatment because we make sure to take care of their feet. Washing an elephant is like cleaning a motor home that can lie down.

Don’t the elephants just roll in the dirt or find some mud as soon as they are clean?

Well, yes. The first thing they do is take a dust bath or mud bath, but the mud is like sunblock for them. If you ever see them up close, they are covered with hair, which is similar to the hair on your arm. Now, they can feel a mosquito on their back like us, so they throw that mud on them to insulate in a way and to help stay cool.

What are some of the highlights you’ve had as an elephant trainer?

Every day is fun. I remember a little girl who was about 3 years old who got to ride one of the elephants at this theme park I worked at. Years later, she became a veterinarian. I also had a gentleman who would come on his birthdays just to see the elephants. He was 92 the last time I saw him. I was probably one of the shyest people on Earth when I got started, but now — as you can see — I can talk for hours. It’s changed me. I enjoy what I do.

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