Imagine receiving a 100-kilo valentine! Well, this year on Valentine's Day, that's exactly what the Budapest Zoo got. On February 14, a baby elephant was born in the zoo's historic Elephant House. Her name is Asha, which means hope.
Only a couple of months old, Asha is already a celebrity in Budapest. Her cute mug is plastered on billboards around the city, and the line to see her is as long as those at Disneyland. Recently, I sat down with Gergely Szőregi, Asha's keeper, for an interview in an office right beside Asha's pen. The room smelled like elephants. Several times during our chat, Gergely pulled out his smart phone and proudly showed me photos of his favorite valentine.
Why was Asha's birth such a newsworthy event?
"An elephant hasn't been born in the zoo for 60 years. For three generations they tried to have a baby elephant at the zoo."
Why did the zoo want a baby elephant?
"It's great PR."
I heard there was a competition for her name.
"Yes, the zoo prepared a list of about 15 names, and a couple hundred thousand people sent in their votes. Asha had over half of them. I'm happy about that. That's the name I wanted."
Were you there when she was born?
"Yes. I was the first one to see her. No one knew exactly when her mother was going to give birth. One morning, I walked in at 6 o'clock, and there was Asha. She was born about three hours earlier. Asha was standing up and walking around. It was an incredible experience."
Were there any complications?
"Yes. Asha wouldn't eat at first, so we had to take her away from her mother. It took 6 men to handle her. She wasn't used to people, of course. When we returned her, she wouldn't take her mother's milk. So, each time we fed her, we'd put her closer and closer to her mother. Eventually, when she was right beside her, we just lifted Asha's head, and she began sucking."
How long have you been an Elephant Keeper at the zoo?
"For five years. Before that, I worked with the gorillas, but I wanted a bigger challenge. There are four places at the zoo that are considered prestige positions: dolphins and seals, lions and tigers, apes and gorillas – and the elephants."
Are you planning to move to another part of the zoo?
"No. This is my dream."
How do you spend your day?
"Everyday the other Elephant Keepers and I care for the elephants. We feed them, cut their nails, and wash them. Most of my day is spent training. We train the elephants three times a day. They know how to come forward and back up and lay down – things like that. Hella, the oldest elephant, understands about 40 to 50 commands. We haven't started training Asha yet. She's too young."
How does Asha spend her day?
"Well, right now she only eats and sleeps and plays. She eats three times a day, not counting treats. Because she's a baby, we limit the viewing time to about four hours a day. Asha likes to play in the water. She also likes to play football with a cabbage or a cauliflower."
I hear that elephants are smart. Is this true?
"Yes. Very. Elephants don’t usually use their trunks in the first year, but Asha is already grabbing things with it."
So you're saying she's advanced?
"Yes. Elephants are also very relational. Certain elephants prefer certain keepers." He smiled. "I'm Asha's favorite."
How many elephants are there at the zoo?
"Including Asha, we now have four. Hella is 46. Angel, Asha's mom, is 12 years old, and Asam, the dad, is 14. He's from England, and Angel is from France. So, Asha is half English and half French."
Asha's not Hungarian?
He laughed. "Correct. Actually, when we train the elephants we don't speak Hungarian to them. If we're asking an elephant to lie down in Hungarian, for example, and people in the audience are shouting in Hungarian at the elephants, it can be problematic. So, we purposefully use other languages when giving them commands. You'll hear us speaking to the elephants in English mainly. Hella is from Holland, so her commands are in German and Dutch."
So, your elephants are multi-lingual?
Over your years here, I'm sure you have a lot of special memories. What's one of your favorites?
Gergely pulled out his phone and showed me the first moment he laid eyes on his beloved baby elephant.