As a child, Rachel Emory loved animals more than anything, claiming that she wanted to be a female Steve Irwin. In college, she had two zoo internships working with elephants. “I caught the elephant bug and there was no going back. Nothing compares to them. Their intelligence level still astonishes me.”
Rachel feels extremely fortunate that the Oklahoma City Zoo hired the Michigan-native straight out of college because working with elephants and rhinos usually comes after years of zoo experience. She moved to Edmond, and in just a few years, Rachel worked her way up to the top, becoming the curator in 2018.
It’s a physically demanding job, but she enjoys hard work in the great outdoors. It’s also emotional work, as she is greatly invested in all seven Asian elephants in her charge. “Each one is unique, and we have to adjust to each one’s unique personality and communication style,” Rachel said.
In a world focused on Covid, Rachel and her team of ten faced their own recent medical crisis. In late August, the dreaded moment arrived when the two-year-old baby elephant, Kairavi, tested positive for a herpes virus (EEHV). The virus is present in all elephants worldwide, with a 60% fatality rate in young elephants.
“We knew this was eventually coming, so we swung into immediate action, giving ‘round-the-clock treatments. Kai was pretty sick for about 19 days. Our team came in at 2:00 AM to give fluids and medications,” Rachel said. Kai also did her part, by participating in voluntary blood collections, and her herd mates donated blood and plasma–which was a result of prior training and practice.
“It was draining, but we pushed through,” Rachel said. “We’d go home, sleep for three hours, and come back. But nobody complained or fell apart because we knew exactly what we had to do. It’s probably the proudest moment of my career. Kai’s completely recovered now, but if she had passed away, we know we couldn’t have done more for her than we did.”
In the six years since the tragic and unexpected death of Malee, the zoo’s first baby elephant, the Oklahoma City Zoo has been a leader in EEHV research, working with the National Herpesvirus Laboratory in Washington D.C to develop a same-day testing lab on site. “We take weekly trunk washes or “snot samples,” and within a few hours, we know which of the elephants are actively shedding the virus and could cause exposure—so then we are on high alert. We knew very quickly when Kai was in danger.”
In Rachel’s spare time, she raises funds for elephants and has traveled to help elephant keepers in India. This year, when her trip to Nepal was cancelled because of Covid, Rachel switched gears. She sold t-shirts and helped the zoo partner with Eileen’s Colossal Cookies to raise funds for conservation instead.
“It’s a career and a calling,” Rachel said. “I love working with elephants. Yes, it’s very difficult to face the illness, deaths, or transfers of these animals we care for—but it’s so rewarding. I’m constantly blown away by what they can learn and figure out. And I’m excited that we have another baby elephant due in February!” Rachel grinned. “I can’t wait to have three young ones running around. It will be the best kind of chaos.”
To learn more visit OKCZoo.org