Monthly Archives: December 2011

Baby Elephant “Firsts”

ZooSounds, Fall 2011

The Oklahoma City Zoo experienced a birth in April 2011–a baby elephant named Malee.  I can’t help but smile every time I see her and neither can zoo visitors.  Here is an article I wrote about her first few months, reprinted by permission.  ~Amy 

Baby Elephant “Firsts”

Not only is Malee the zoo’s first baby elephant–everyone agrees that she is the cutest baby ever! 

The entire community claims her.  Zoo attendance was nearly 150,000 over the former record for the past fiscal year.  Thousands of people will whip out their cell phone to show you her pictures.  Oklahoma is ga-ga about Malee. 

Oh, and she’s a smart baby, too.  Just see what all she’s learned in just a few months…

First Day

The healthy baby girl was born on April 15, 2011, with the lungs to prove it.  Human babies cry at birth, but keepers were stunned at how vocal Malee was—and how loud!  She roared louder than her mom, Asha.

Malee doesn’t have her trumpeting down yet, but she’s trying.  Right now, it’s more of a squeak.  But when she’s frustrated, she still bellows and roars. 

Malee definitely likes things done her way.  The keepers say it’s hard to define her personality yet, but she might be a little headstrong.  As a newborn, she didn’t want the keepers help—she wanted to get to Mom on her own, clumsy or not. 

First Time Outside

Malee went outside when she was 2-weeks-old.  Up until then, she’d stayed right next to Asha, but then she got caught up in the moment when Chandra, anxious to get outside, rushed on ahead.  Malee went charging out with her Aunt before she realized that Mom had lagged behind. 

Now, Malee is exploring more.  She ventures off, but Mom and Aunt are always watching.  They correct her and keep her in line by gently pushing her with their trunk or feet.  Some people think that Chandra is rough with the baby, but the keepers see that Chandra is a very protective playmate.  She often rushes over to check on Malee if she senses trouble.        

First Trunk Use

At first, baby Malee wasn’t sure what to do with that trunk hanging on her face.  She did use it to feel of her feet and a log on the first day, but it mostly flopped around. 

Now she’s trying to mimic the adults, who use their trunks to eat or give themselves dust baths.  Keepers remember the day Malee managed to hold a piece of lettuce with her trunk.  She started running around, waving it like a flag.  Success!

At 3-months, Malee could grip grass and put a grape in her mouth—even though it fell back out.  She is now eating some solid foods, but will continue to nurse almost 2 years. 

First Bath

Malee loves water.  From day one, she enjoyed getting hosed off or having water squirted into her mouth.  She stood on a rubber bath mat alone, but seemed reluctant to get into the blue and white inflatable pool, a gift from the Kirkpatrick Foundation.  The keepers admit to crawling into the pool and splashing around, showing Malee what to do–to no avail. 

Finally, on a day when Malee was acting particularly brave, staff scooted the deflated pool closer and closer to the rubber mat, until Malee was standing on it without realizing it.  The next day, she went right into the pool—and that’s the well-received YouTube video of Malee’s first tub bath (available at

First Swim

The water level in the outside pool has been slowly raised so that Malee can safely learn to swim.  In mid-July, when the pool was at 4 ½ feet, Malee went completely underwater, kicked her feet, and popped back above water—her first swim.   

First Training 

Malee will soon begin her formal training.  She needs to learn her name and respond to cues. Malee already goes into her own stall for her bath—a nice step toward separating the elephants for individualized training.  She is also comfortable with the keepers rubbing her skin and touching her, which is useful in doing health exams.   

A First for the Keepers, Too

Watching young Malee has been a treat for the keepers, who did much training and preparation to raise their first baby elephant.  They view Malee as a member of their family and enjoy watching her grow and learn.  The compare it to watching their own children grow up–except everything happens much more quickly with baby elephants than with humans!

If you haven’t come to visit baby Malee yet, it’s not too late.  Many “firsts” are still to come as she continues to learn.  Maybe you will witness her first dust bath, or trumpet, or deep-water swim. 

If you do miss out—don’t worry.  Plenty of Oklahomans will share their stories, pictures and videos with you.  After all, Malee is the smartest, cutest, best-loved baby elephant Oklahomans have ever seen!        

Special thanks for information provided by the elephant staff: Nick Newby, Toni Rife, and Dorothy Forman.

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Four Days with Gayla Peevey

Gayla Peevey Henderson and myself at the unveiling of her exhibit. Photo by Lisa Lee.

 Looking back, I know that meeting Gayla Peevey Henderson was not an accident.  A series of events led to our introduction in the middle of a gift store.  That culminated into the “Gayla Gala” event that occurred last weekend at the Oklahoma City Zoo.  Now, I’m honored to say that Gayla and her husband, Cliff, are treasured friends. 

 Nearly ten years ago, I researched Gayla’s childhood recording of “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” for my book Oklahoma City Zoo; 1902-1959.  Every time I’m asked to speak to a group about zoo history, Gayla’s hippo story is the most popular topic.  On occasion, the audience bursts into spontaneous singing of the song; at other times, I must give my best imitation of Gayla’s performance. 

 In April 2007, I received an unexpected phone call at work.  The quick-thinking cashier working in the gift shop called to say that I should rush down to meet Gayla Peevey.  I scrambled to grab an autograph pen and pull the 1953 “I Want a Hippopotamus” record album cover out of its archival box. 

 On any other day, the cashier might have paid no attention to the conversation going on near the register.  This particular girl (I don’t remember her name), had actually read my book, so her ears perked up when she heard Gayla tell her friend, “Look, my story’s in this book.”

Gayla at the ZooZeum. Photo by Lisa Lee.

 Two years later, the opening of the zoo’s history museum, the ZooZeum, was approaching.  I knew that we simply had to feature an exhibit about Gayla and how her Christmas song brought the first hippo to the Oklahoma City Zoo.  I called Gayla to ask if she would be willing to fly from California to unveil the exhibit.  She said yes!

 We began the planning for various special events to celebrate Gayla and her music.  In addition, I oversaw the research and installation of the ZooZeum exhibit, “A Hippo for Christmas” (huge thanks to Sherri Vance, who made everything happen behind-the-scenes). 

 Gayla’s visit spanned November 17-20, 2011.  Her arrival was heralded with a rash of media interviews; sharing her story and advertising the public sing-a-long and autograph session.  She did a question-and-answer session with zoo staff, and was the guest of honor at a private exhibit-unveiling, called the Gayla Gala.  In all cases, she proved herself charming and friendly.  Her ability to field questions, chat easily with DJs and burst into song and dance on cue showed that the knack for show business is still in her blood.    

  The day of the sing-a-long was nearly freezing, but about 350 people came to sing the hippo song, led by Gayla.  Almost 250 of them then visited the ZooZeum to meet Gayla and get autographs on a variety of hippo items custom-produced for the zoo gift shop (including my favorite, a snow globe music box).

 Gayla was very touched by all of the visitors’ stories about why the song was special to them.  Many of the children sang it for her; some had traveled many miles to see her. Gayla couldn’t believe that the song still had such a following.  In fact, she expressed to me that one of her fears about coming to the zoo was that no one would attend.  Instead, Gayla found herself treated like a celebrity.  “And I’m just a regular person at home,” she said.  “I’m a grandma, and I do dishes.”    

 I thoroughly enjoyed chauffeuring Gayla and Cliff around for four days.  They were delightful every second!  We sang together at the radio stations, experimented with different autograph pens, visited Bricktown by trolley, and ate Sonic hot dogs.  The hippo keepers even allowed Gayla to put food out in the yard for the zoo’s pygmy hippo.            

Gayla featured on News Channel 4. Photo by Tara Henson.

 Since I’m writing this on Thanksgiving Day 2011, I must say that I’m thankful that the gift shop cashier was paying attention that spring day in 2007; otherwise I might never have met Gayla Peevey.  She and Cliff are some of my favorite people, and I’m glad Gayla’s song lives on.

A few links from Gayla’s zoo visit:

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