When Tammy Sugrue ’00
graduated from Oswego State with a zoology degree she
knew it was her calling in life. An animal lover at
heart, it didn’t take her long to realize that
a job behind a desk cooped up in an office all day just
wasn’t for her. However, working at a zoo with
exotic animals was.
Elephant Keeper Tammy
Sugrue ’00 and one
of her charges.
For the last six years Sugrue has been an elephant keeper
at the Buffalo Zoo in upstate New York. Her time there
began as a student intern learning to clean up after,
feed and bathe the elephants. Today, she not only makes
sure that her three female “friends” - Buki,
49, Surapa, 22, and Jyothi, 23 - are fed and cared for
properly, she also trains them for public viewings.
Buki, a wild elephant from Sri Lanka, was a circus act
for 25 years before arriving at the zoo in 1984. Surapa
and Jyothi (Jodi for short) were taken from a logging
camp in Madras, India, before they became a part of
the zoo family in 1987.
Part of Sugrue’s job is to hold training sessions
with the elephants each day, going over commands and
perfecting tricks for their public appearances.
According to Sugrue, the elephants each respond to between
30 and 40 different commands such as crossing their
legs, saluting, lying down, lifting all four legs, bowing,
shaking their heads and pointing to their eyes.
One of Sugrue’s favorite aspects of the job is,
she says, “giving the public really up close and
Not only does the public enjoy the company of the large
animals, but Sugrue has also grown quite fond of the
three females and their personalities.
“Buki seems to enjoy interacting with people,”
Sugrue said in a phone interview. “She likes to
be scratched. Jodi would rather play with toys and she
likes to be scratched behind her ears.”
Even bath time brings about some comedic behavior. The
elephants lie down and are cleaned with a scrub brush
or a power sprayer, depending on how dirty they are.
“Sometimes they get all goofy and splash around
in it,” Sugrue said.
They even like it when Sugrue and the crew of five other
zookeepers blast water from the power hose into their
“They really like to drink the warm water afterwards,”
she said. “I think they enjoy it also because
they are getting individual attention.”
It takes Sugrue and the crew three hours each day to
bathe all three elephants.
Feeding the elephants and keeping them occupied isn’t
such an easy task. According to Sugrue, they eat 150
pounds of timothy hay a day and are also given sweet
feed, bran and produce.
“Elephants will eat anything as long as it isn’t
meat,” Sugrue said. “They eat peanuts but
it’s not their favorite. Buki doesn’t like
bran muffins. Surapa doesn’t like citrus or pears.”
The trio enjoys the taste of vegetables and they eat
branches as well.
“Once a branch gets past 3 or 4 inches in diameter
they only eat the bark,” Sugrue said. “Anything
smaller than that and they eat the whole thing.”
Although Sugrue has formed a bond and trusts these elephants,
there was a time when these 8,000-pound animals were
“Because they’re so big and so smart, they’re
really amazing animals,” she said.
Since day one Sugrue has been amazed by how smart they
really are. From learning tricks to breaking sticks
they try several ways to accomplish something without
ever giving up.
“They will try a few different things to break
a stick,” Sugrue said. “If they can’t
do it with their trunk or their foot they’ll prop
it up against something. It’s not just, ‘Oh
I can’t do it.’”
Allowing the animals time to spend outside every day
is another way that Sugrue keeps them happy and healthy.
The elephants enjoy the outdoors regardless of the weather
or snow. They are even allowed outside during the winter
because of their large body mass, which takes a long
time to cool down.
“Jodi, especially in the winter, trumpets every
time she is outside,” Sugrue said. “Trumpets
are pretty loud, mumbles are very quiet and roars are
The animals have other noises that we as humans can’t
even hear. The meaning of each noise depends solely
on the situation — they could be excited or angry,
“If Surapa finds something that makes a noise,
she is very likely to repeat it,” Sugrue said
laughing. “She has been trained to play the cymbals
and the tambourine. Buki plays the harmonica.”
Working with the elephants has been a rewarding experience
for Sugrue, from learning the specifics about each one’s
personality to having the opportunity to spend each
day with such an amazing creature.
Sugrue is one of six zookeepers at the Buffalo Zoo caring
for several species of animals including elephants,
Indian rhinos, sea lions and river otters and she is
one of three elephant trainers. Although her job entails
what many would consider fun activities, there is much
more to it than playing. They are elephants and there
is a lot of learning to do.
Sugrue stresses that having elephants in captivity is
not a bad thing. “We learn from each other and
it’s a way to keep elephants around.”
“It’s definitely not just a job,”
Sugrue said. “A lot of times we say they’re
like giant dogs— and they are. They are like pets.
Their personalities are each very different.”
— Emily King ’05
To January 2007 E-Newsletter