When you see him leading nine of them on a constitutional along the top of the Downs, it’s hard to believe that assistant curator Lee Sambrook hasn’t always been an elephant enthusiast. But his career as a keeper began with some considerably fiercer creatures. After leaving school at 16, he landed a job at his local zoo, and within two weeks was working with a lion. His desire to build his knowledge of big cats led him to move from zoo to zoo, grabbing as much as possible in the way of hands-on experience, until he ended up at ZSL London Zoo.
He was unimpressed when, several months in, he was told he needed to leave cats behind. ‘I was being moved to work with the Asian elephants, whether I liked it or not,’ Lee recalls. ‘It wasn’t really for me.’
At that time, ZSL had one elephant, and the transition of working with a mellow Nellie rather than ferocious felines wasn’t one Lee found easy. But after the Zoo acquired three more elephants, and a twist of fate made him second in charge at just 24 years old, his feelings began to change.
‘I saw that you could nurture a relationship with the elephants, and that really struck me. The fact that you’re always sharing the same space with an animal, rather than just looking after one through a barrier, was the biggest difference to working with the big cats.’
It was also the biggest challenge. ‘Stepping in with something means you have to be aware of lots of different things going on around you,’ says Lee. ‘The bond is very important between you because of the potential risk.’
Since the herd moved to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo from ZSL London Zoo in 2001, it has grown considerably. There are now three 32-year-old cows; baby Max, born at Whipsnade last October; and teens, toddlers and lone bull Emmett in between – and the challenges facing the ZSL team have increased accordingly. It’s fortunate Lee has the support of seven other keepers. From vast amounts of cleaning (the elephants’ barn takes two hours a day to muck out) to baths and enrichment, there’s a lot to do.
Training isn’t just for the young calves – it forms an important part of each elephant’s routine. Lee and his team dedicate time each day to teaching them new behaviours, such as lifting their trunks or opening their mouths for dental check-ups. It’s not just a practical necessity, but a way of keeping the animals stimulated – and helps the keepers foster bonds with the elephants and get to know each as an individual. ‘You learn their personalities and what makes them tick,’ says Lee, ‘as well as their learning capacity and quickness of thinking. After working with quite a few, you know how long it should take to train each one. As with people, you have some that are very clever and some that are perhaps not quite as bright.’
Regular visitors to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will know that one of the ways the keepers boost enrichment is with a daily walk around the Zoo. Once they’ve had a bath and the barn has been cleaned, the keepers round up the elephants – usually in groups of up to five, although sometimes as many as nine go together – for a lap of the grounds. ‘Nine elephants is probably the most walked at one time in any zoo in Europe,’ says Lee, ‘which is quite something.’ Admitting he may be biased, he suggests the walks are one reason the elephants ‘are perhaps the most popular animals at Whipsnade. I don’t think there are many zoos that walk their elephants with the public.’
The walk culminates with a spectacular view, and the elephants stop to graze on the side of the Downs. ‘It’s one of the most positive things we can do for them,’ says Lee. ‘Getting them out and giving them access to different areas of the Zoo is really, really good for them. I think they’re one of the smartest animals in the world. They’re really very curious and quite challenging – they’re constantly testing boundaries and seeing what they can get up to.’
It’s the moments of one-on-one interaction that Lee enjoys most. ‘You can get into the habit, particularly with the restriction of time that we have, of everything being purely business, whereas I like quality time with the elephants. I might have a moment where I think, “Let’s have a kick around – or play with the babies”.’
But which of the herd is the apple of Lee’s eye? Does he have a favourite? Like a diplomatic dad, he says not. ‘I like them all equally – even though some are more of a pain than others!’
However, he adds: ‘I do like the bull, Emmett, a lot. I think he’s a great animal. I have a good relationship with him and just like the way he is.’ He also has a long association with Azizah, who came to ZSL London Zoo when she was about one. She’s now 30, but Lee can remember bottle-feeding her for the first few months.
With 30 (or is it 31? Ironically for an elephant keeper, he can’t remember) years of pachyderm proficiency under his belt, it’s no wonder Lee’s expertise is in demand. As well as helping out on research projects, he spends a significant amount of time passing his knowledge on to others. He’s lectured in Thailand on a collaborative course with the Royal Veterinary College and holds elephant schools at Whipsnade, teaching keepers from around the UK. He has also become the go-to guy for zoos around the world, whenever they face challenges with their elephants.
‘It’s nice, having worked with elephants for so long, to be able to say, “I’ve been through that, this is how you deal with it”,’ Lee says. ‘We really try and push the sharing of information because the elephants, wherever they are, will benefit.’
Call him an expert at your peril, though. ‘I’m not a lover of that term because there’s always something that comes up where I think, “Jeez, how do you deal with that?” Plus there are people out there who have worked with elephants for nearly 50 years. They’re the guys I turn to.’
The biggest ‘jeez’ moments Lee has faced have been during births. ‘It’s quite a challenge to get a live calf out of an elephant,’ he says. ‘It should be the most natural thing in the world – but it is quite difficult.’ There have now been eight calves born at Whipsnade, and Lee’s welcomed almost all of them into the world. ‘I think I missed two by just five minutes because I was catching up on some sleep after waiting up all of the previous night,’ he recalls. ‘But it’s nice to be part of the team that reared ZSL’s first calf.’
Lee’s move to the elephants may not have been something he volunteered for, but he’s now incredibly grateful to have had that push. ‘It’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s given me so many opportunities, and the skills I’ve gained are immeasurable.’
Is it an easy job? No – but it’s certainly rewarding. ‘Unless you’re really passionate about it and want to learn as much as you can,’ says Lee, ‘you will never be that good at it. You can’t do half a job with elephants, you have to throw everything into it.’
Fortunately, no one could accuse him of doing anything less.