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Pachyderms have a paradise in the Arkansas hinterlands.

By Matt Hanks

JUNE 28, 1999:  Even for a June day in Arkansas, it is entirely too hot. I've spent the last three-and-a-half hours in my AC-challenged car passing through Little Rock, then Conway, then the tiny hamlet of Guy (pop. 2,896, according to the city limits sign). I've wound through a tangle of clay-and-gravel roads, flanked by thick foliage on either side. I am drenched with sweat, caked in dust, and only half-glad that I swerved to avoid that gopher a few hundred yards back.

"Didja have any trouble finding the place?" asks Heidi Riddle, a friendly, quiet woman whom I had spoken with on the telephone earlier in the week.

"Not at all," I answer, "but my car and I are a little worse for wear." (I think I kept that last part to myself. At least I hope I did.)

Riddle and her husband Scott are the co-proprietors of Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary, a 330-acre tract of land nestled deep in the Arkansas hinterlands, and the subject of my visit today. As I researched for my trip to Riddle's -- which, as it turns out, is the only facility of its kind in the world -- one question kept running through my head: Why Arkansas? But as the sun beams down relentlessly, and the flies and dust circle all around me, it suddenly becomes clear: Friends, welcome to America's dark continent.

Riddle's Elephant Sanctuary is nearing its 10th year, but it's only the latest chapter in what is, for its proprietors, a lifelong pursuit. "It was his idea," says Mrs. Riddle with a laugh, as her husband, a man of few words, sits by idly, swatting the occasional insect. "We had been working with elephants for quite some time, in a number of different situations -- zoos, circuses, things like that -- so we knew there was a need for elephants to be placed." But the Riddles couldn't anticipate just how strong that need was. "In our first year there were five elephants donated to us. We expected to get maybe one. So that reinforced the fact that, yeah, we were doing the right thing."

It's the criteria -- or rather, lack thereof -- at the sanctuary that make it unique. The Riddles will take in any elephant regardless of age, sex, species, health, or temperament, but their goal for all of them is the same: make the elephants as happy as possible.

"We've taken in these elephants for a number of different reasons," explains Mrs. Riddle. "Some have come more for behavioral reasons; say, they've been aggressive and the owners didn't want them in a situation where they might hurt somebody. Some have come from situations where the facilities didn't have the proper resources to take care of them. Some have come because of injuries. Whatever the situation, though, we do our best to accommodate them."

The Riddles now host 10 elephants -- six Africans, four Asians. The age of these animals ranges from 11 to 41 (the average lifespan for elephants is 50 to 60 years, though Mrs. Riddle notes there's evidence of some living into their 70s). They weigh anywhere from 8,300 pounds to "just a hair over 5,000." And each elephant consumes in excess of 200 pounds of food -- mostly hay, grain, mineral salts, and freshly clipped branches -- a day.

As Mrs. Riddle leads me to the steel-girded enclosures where the elephants spend most of their time, she elaborates on the goals of the sanctuary. "Elephants are such social animals, we feel it's important to put them in social situations so that they can learn some of the skills that they didn't learn when they were taken out of the wild and put into captivity at such a young age. No one has really maintained elephants in the groupings like we do, keeping males and females together, but we feel it's important." With a hint of longing reminiscent of a young newlywed, Mrs. Riddle laments that "we haven't had a pregnancy yet, but breeding is certainly one of our goals."

Though private owners have, on occasion, donated elephants to the sanctuary, most of them come from zoos or circuses. Mrs. Riddle has some surprising views on the previous occupations of these animals. "In some ways, the circus is a more natural habitat for the elephants, and because of that, retired circus elephants are a lot easier to deal with. They're very used to seeing a lot of things, a lot of different stimuli -- like they would in the wild. So they're calmer, they're more used to change, more adaptable. Zoo elephants, for the most part, have not seen a lot of change. They're kept in the same pen and don't see a lot of new elephants coming and going. They're sometimes harder to deal with, and it's more difficult to get them used to new things." Mrs. Riddle then adds a tag line that will become the constant refrain of our conversations this afternoon: "It's the same as it is with humans."

Speaking of which, the Riddles work very closely with some of the humans at nearby Hendrix College in Conway. Since the sanctuary's inception, Hendrix students have assisted with construction and renovation of facilities. In more recent years, the Riddles have collaborated with the college's chemistry department on a number of projects, from research in blood and bone structure to chemical communication among elephants -- a hot topic of study in the field. With the help of Hendrix, the Riddles have hosted lectures by some of the most prominent elephant researchers in the world.

Hendrix has also assisted in establishing the myriad programs available at the sanctuary, from an elephant-sponsorship campaign to fortnight-long elephant handling courses (both professional and amateur), offered each May, to Ozark treks on elephantback held all summer long.

Dr. Seuss' Horton, I think, would be most proud of this enterprising couple and their elephant crowd.

For more information on Riddle's Elephant Sanctuary or to make an appointment for an Ozark Elephant Trek this summer, call (501) 589-3291 or e-mail elephant@mercury.hendrix.edu, or consult the Web site at http://www.hendrix.edu/elephant.

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