“Seeing exotic animals made the world seem so much bigger than myself.”
Photography by Sarah Oden | Hair by Roya Lee with Face Your Day Xpress | Makeup by Cassie Oaks with Face Your Day Xpress
Hosted by the American Association of Zoo Keepers-Little Rock Chapter, the Little Rock Zoo welcomes friends and patrons to the annual Great Escapes Art Auction for an evening of holiday festivities. This exclusive, one-of-a-kind art auction is comprised of artwork created by animals at the zoo. Proceeds support the chapter’s continued keeper education and various local and international conservation projects. The highly anticipated event is recognized for its unique appeal as well as the vital resources it provides to the Little Rock Zoo. As excitement mounts, Elephant Keeper Ellie Wheeler reflects on not only her role at the zoo, but also the impact the animals have made in her life.
Ellie’s love for animals was sparked at a young age. “Going to the zoo as a child really served as the catalyst for my love of wildlife,” she remembers. “Seeing exotic animals made the world seem so much bigger than myself.” As these visits continued, so did her interest and adoration of the animals. Ellie was able to get involved through volunteering, which allowed her to work alongside elephants for the first time.
She reflects on this relationship harbored by volunteering as well as her current role managing the elephants. Although Ellie humbly raves about the programs of the Little Rock Zoo, it is the commitment of keepers, like Ellie, and their devotion to the animals that make the zoo a sanctuary of preservation and conservation. ”Every day the elephants are walked around their yards and they perform different strength training and cardio exercises,” she explains. “Since all the elephants at the zoo are considered to be geriatric, maintaining their strength and flexibility is very important as they get older. It takes a lot of time, dedication, and attention to detail to take care of older elephants the way Little Rock Zoo does.”
In addition to the elephants, Ellie cares for the rhinos, camels, and alpacas. She admits that although some duties are less appealing – and sometimes literally stink – she cherishes every moment with the animals. “The best part of being a zookeeper are the relationships we build with each of our animals through training,” she notes. “It’s fun to watch their confidence grow as they have a ‘light bulb’ moment during a training session.”
Most days at the zoo are not all work and no play. The keepers, along with many of the animals, look forward to painting together. “Great Escapes features art made by all sorts of different zoo animals -everyone from a bear to a penguin, a gorilla to an anteater, and of course, the elephants too,” Ellie adds. We can see examples of community in all shapes and sizes and this event allows us to celebrate the party animal in each of us!