The digs for the elephants at the Oregon Zoo will get a lot nicer soon. This week, the zoo broke ground on Elephant Lands, a $53 million expansion of the existing elephant exhibit. It’s expected to open in 2015.
It’s the result of years of planning by the Zoo’s Director of Elephant Habitats, who won’t have the job much longer. Mike Keele will retire at the end of this month, after 42 years at the Zoo.
Keele started at the Zoo right out of high school (he doesn’t have a college degree). He hadn’t planned on working with elephants when he started.
“It was kind of by accident,” Keele says. He worked with lab animals and as a night security officer, until an elephant job opened in 1975. Keele says, “That’s really where I wanted to be.”
Keele says elephants were one of the few zoo animals he could work with directly and build relationships with. Packy, who turned 51 this year, is his current favorite.
“He used to be kind of aggressive, but over time he’s really mellowed out,” Keele says. “He’s got a real kind eye.”
Keele is convinced the adage is true: Elephants don’t forget. When asked if he thinks the elephants will miss him, he says they won’t get the chance. Keele says, “I’m going to come back and visit.”
He says, “How could you stay away from this place? I really do love the Zoo.”