By Thomas Gounley
In October, a zookeeper at Springfield's Dickerson Park Zoo was killed when a female Asian elephant in her 40s became aggressive and crushed him to death.
Nine months later, for the next week, you can pay to ride a female Asian elephant in her 40s on the property immediately adjacent.
It's the first time that elephant rides are being offered at the Ozark Empire Fair. On Friday afternoon, Betty stood under a tent, saddled up near a platform where riders board; Janice tossed dirt with her trunk in a nearby open patch.
Watching over the two animals were Larry Carden and two associates.
Carden's father was the namesake of the George Carden Circus. Elephants housed on the family's farm on West State Highway O near Springfield make their way into circuses like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, as well as events like the fair.
Carden knew John Bradford, the zookeeper killed at Dickerson Park. He spoke highly of the man and the zoo.
"You can never avoid accidents," he said. "That's why they're called accidents."
"You can get hurt by anything if you're not careful," he continued.
While elephant rides are new to the fair, you could get them at Dickerson Park in the 1990s. A 1996 News-Leader story notes that the zoo arranged with George Carden for one of his elephants to give the rides, since the zoo's own weren't seen as "gentle enough," as Zoo Director Mike Crocker said at the time.
That was an era in which most people who worked with animals followed what is known as a free contact management style — working in close proximity with elephants, often without barriers.
Modern-day critics of the practice say it revolves around keeping the animals in line through negative reinforcement, often without barriers. An animal rights group is currently trying to get Indiana State Fair organizers to cancel its elephant rides.
Some of the rides at Dickerson Park in the 1990s were given by Larry Carden himself.
"It was a great gig," he recalled Friday afternoon.
The zoo has long since stopped offering rides. In an email Friday, Crocker — who is still director — said he believes they ended in 1998 or 1999.
"The main reason we stopped doing it was liability," Crocker wrote. "There is a certain amount of risk with that, both for staff and for the guests, and we were no longer willing to take that risk."
"A lot of zoos were ending the elephant ride practice about that time," he continued. "Not all zoos had elephant rides, but several did."
In recent years, Dickerson Park has been required to move to a protected contact management style — in which there is nearly always a barrier between elephants and any people — in order to remain accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Even then, there can be tragedy; Crocker said last year that protected contact practices were being followed when Bradford was killed by an elephant named Patience.
Asked about keeping riders safe in a free contact environment, Carden repeatedly referred to establishing a relationship with the animals.
"You've got to spend time with the elephants," he said. "There's always someone 24 hours a day with these animals."
Libby Garcia, who works with Carden's elephants and said she's worked at zoos in the past, worried that the zoo industry's move to protected contact will hinder bonds between elephants and their keepers — a bond she said is critical to safety.
"They know that you're their source of livelihood," she said. "And they're our source of livelihood."
Recent inspections of Carden's animals found zero non-compliances, according to a search on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website. The department regulates the use of animals in zoos and circuses under the Animal Protection Act.
In the USDA's 2013 Animal Welfare Inspection Guide, inspectors are told the following: "Remember that you always put yourself at risk when you go near an elephant, no matter how good the trainer/handler and elephant appear to be."
For the next week, those in Springfield who want to see an elephant have two options. At the zoo, they can peer over a wall at them. At the fairgrounds, meanwhile, they can climb on top of one.
"Even in a zoo, you can't get this close to an elephant, you can't touch their skin. Kids are like, 'Oh my god, they have hair,' " Garcia said.