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Jamba finds new life at our zoo

Ranger Rich



It's in the flick of the trunk, perhaps, or a surprisingly fast step with a massive, flat foot. It's in the way she turns, whirling around in a flash, hips low, hulking shoulders moving in a graceful and mighty sweep.

You clearly sense the unfathomable force under all that wrinkled, gray skin. The brute strength. The danger.

Her name now is Jamba, and she tips the scales at about 7,700 pounds. Born in Zimbabwe and orphaned when her herd was culled, she was taken to America. She became a performing circus elephant.

On a Friday in April 2010, between acts of a show in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., she munched hay and milled about in a secluded area at the back of the Pennsylvania National Guard's 109th Field Artillery Armory with her longtime companion and groomer, Andy Anderton.

Then she noticed wires dangling overhead in the old building. Live electrical wires with power surging through them. They were within reach of her long trunk. She reached up to them. The wires fell onto her back, investigators think, and as the electricity tore into her flesh, she bellowed and whirled around.

In a second or two, Anderton, 48, a man who dearly loved elephants, lay dead in the corner of the building, his body pummeled and perhaps trampled by the spinning, shocked giant.

Some 20 months later, the elephant has emerged from her daily shower, complete with a brisk lathering in a pachyderm shampoo called Zafari. She reaches down for a trunkful of fresh sand and sprays it overhead and onto her slick, wet body. Some of the sand sticks to the spot on her back where the crackling wires scorched her flesh in Pennsylvania.

Outside, the cold of a new winter has settled over the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Jamba is warm, though, nestled inside a huge and spectacular new elephant barn with three other female African elephants. Jamba is a Colorado elephant now. She is our elephant.

She came in June, inside an 18-wheel truck. So confident in her gentleness was her trainer that he invited zoo guests and donors to sidle up next to her for photos. Jamba lifted her trunk for each photo. And she purred.

"What happened at that circus was tragic," says Jason Bredahl, the veteran Cheyenne Mountain Zoo elephant manager. He bathes the 27-year-old Jamba and feeds her — English muffins are a daily treat — spending hours each day with her and her three hulking barnmates.

"She was in pain from those electrical wires and must have been trying to get away from them," he said. "The groomer was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just a terrible accident."

No one goes into the enclosure with the elephants at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. It is one of many zoos in the nation that practice protected contact — using bars or other forms of locking security devices to keep man from beast.

The security hasn't gone unnoticed.

"Every day," said Bredahl, "Jamba goes around quietly and, with her trunk, checks the locks. She certainly seems to know what they are. We double-check the locks. A lot."

Anderton the groomer was alone with Jamba — her circus name back then was Dumbo — when the accident happened. Another man, the elephant trainer for the circus, found his colleague lying still on the floor, the elephant standing nearby, passive, looking down at the mortally wounded man.

The trainer calmly urged the elephant to back away, and she did, moving 50 feet to the side. They say she never took her eyes off the motionless man who had taken care of her for 15 years.

"There's no doubt that these are sensitive animals with emotions," Bredahl says. "So you've got to believe she feels the loss of that groomer, that she's aware of what happened."

The zoo's stunning $13.5 million Encounter Africa exhibit will open next year. (Disclosure: My wife is on the zoo's board of directors and has been a donor to the project.) It will feature the zoo's pride of lions, a critically endangered black rhinoceros and a mob of crazed meerkats. And, of course, Jamba and her new elephant pals.

Bredahl serves up a muffin to his new friend. She eats it slowly. Carefully.

"What I like best about her," he says, "is her gentle side."

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