Elephant woman:
Tammy Segrue, zookeeper

By Jana Eisenberg

tammy segrue
“Elephants are incredibly intelligent,” says Buffalo Zoo elephant keeper Tammy Sugrue. “They never stop amazing me. Another reason that I like them is that they are so big. I’m kind of small, so I like big and tall things.”

Ever since she was even smaller, Sugrue would say that she wanted to be a zookeeper. She considered “typical girl things” like teacher or secretary, but then realized at a high school job fair that she didn’t want to be in an office all day long.

Sugrue, twenty-eight, has worked at the zoo for six years. This follows her receipt of a zoology degree from SUNY Oswego. Her minor in psychology, plus three years spent training dogs at Petsmart, support her ability to get up close and personal with some of the biggest animals on the planet.

“Most of what I needed to know I learned on the job here at the zoo,” Sugrue says. “The dog training helped; I did that at the same time that I began working with elephants.” Now, in addition to caring for and training elephants, she tends to and participates in the training of rhinos, sea lions, and otters.

A typical day finds her saying good morning to the rhinos first off. Then she and her co-keepers move on to the elephant stalls and yard.

“Depending on what time it is, the elephants get baths,” she says. Bath-time is part of a show, and at the end, the elephant is led right along a low rope barrier that separates the audience from the animal, so people can reach out and touch.

“I am happy that we can allow people this experience,” she says. “There was a lady in a wheelchair whose caretaker brought her often to see the show. Even though she couldn’t do much, you could see her joy when the elephant took the cracker out of her lap.”

The day is far from over once the elephants have been washed. “We feed the sea lions, and we must start readying the elephant stalls for the night. Then there is training with otters.”

Whew. Not even lunchtime, and she’s already dealt with horned, armored mammals, trunks full of water, and slippery fun-loving little river beasts—with more to come.

“Right now we are working with Asha, our two-year-old rhino. She is going to Toronto, so we are training her to be separated from her mom,” Sugrue reports. How can you tell if a baby rhino has separation anxiety? “She’ll make a calling noise for her mom. But we give her branches or other goodies to make it a positive experience, and gradually increase the amount of time she is separated. Eventually we hope that conditioning will overcome the negative experience.”

How did her parents take Sugrue’s career choice? “They are very supportive,” she says. “Now, whenever my mom comes to visit from southern Illinois, she comes to work with me. She loves it, too.”

Sugrue says that she realizes and acknowledges the controversy involved in keeping animals in captivity.

“I don’t want people to think that keeping elephants in the zoo is a bad thing,” she said. “The training has evolved enormously. We care for them, and learn a lot from them. We hope that our work will help to better the whole population.”

Jana Eisenberg is a freelance writer living in Buffalo.


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