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Tanya O'Rourke meets the Cincinnati Zoo’s ‘elephant whisperer’

Fiona, her parents and elephants get HallZOOween treats at the Cincinnati Zoo
Posted at 3:45 PM, Jul 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-23 15:59:40-04

CINCINNATI — Some jobs stink, but others actually smell.

But picking up elephant droppings is a task that keeper Cecil Jackson, Jr. does cheerfully.

“You ever heard the phrase, 'horse whisperer?' Well, I'm an elephant whisperer,” Jackson said.

For 41 years, Jackson has cared for the gentle giants at the Cincinnati Zoo. His father worked as a zookeeper for 50 years, and he would tag along with him to "hang out" with the animals.

In all that time, Jackson has come to understand elephants unlike anyone else.

“They have the same personality as humans. They let you know if they like you. Animals are very honest,” Jackson said.

Besides cleaning the elephant enclosure, a typical day for Jackson includes finding creative new ways to feed the elephants, who are stimulated by a “complex” environment.

“They need problems to solve. They are very smart and very curious,” Jackson said. “We don’t just bring the food and put it in a pile and say, 'okay, l’ll see you tomorrow morning.'”

Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard explained that cleaning enclosures and feeding is just a small part of a zookeeper’s job. They also train extensively in animal care, maintain careful records and work closely with medical staff.

"The eyes and the hands on the animals are the keepers,” Maynard said. “So if they know something is off, if they aren't getting up or aren't eating, then they alert the veterinarians and vet techs."

For Jackson, being a zookeeper is more than just a job. It’s a calling.

“I'm here for these animals,” he said. “My job is to give them the best life possible.”