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News / Life / Clark County Life

Everybody Has a Story: Working on Woodland elephant farm was unusual job

By Cliff Bozarth, Woodland
Published: April 2, 2023, 5:55am
2 Photos
Animal importer and breeder Morgan Berry and his elephants, in the hills north of Woodland, in an undated photo.
Animal importer and breeder Morgan Berry and his elephants, in the hills north of Woodland, in an undated photo. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

As a young man I worked at many conventional farms, harvesting berries, beans, carrots, flowers and hay.

From 1970 to 1976, I also worked at a more unconventional farm. Old-timers in Woodland called it the elephant farm.

Located in the hills between Woodland and Kalama, it was an animal farm owned and operated by Morgan Berry and Eloise Berchtold. Morgan was known for his work with elephants and he helped with exhibits at the Portland and Seattle zoos. Eloise was known in circus circles for her unusual mixed-animal acts. Her main non-elephant act combined lions, tigers, bears, jaguars, a cougar and a leopard in the arena all at the same time. Eloise also trained the wilder African elephants.

I will never forget my first day on the farm. I met with Eloise in the morning, discussing duties, pay ($1.50 an hour, big money for the time) and, above all, safety. After a short conversation, she announced it was time to get to work. Eloise was a hard worker and expected the same of those around her.

She led me down a dark, steeply sloped hallway toward the growing sounds of roaring, trumpeting, growling and banging. She opened the door at the bottom of the hallway. Then the warm, smelly air hit me and I almost gagged. The animals got really excited, making all kinds of noise and jumping around in their cages.

First, I was shown how to clean the cat and bear cages. I was warned not to get too close to the bear cages’ clean-out slots. Up close, those claws were pretty large. For years, I kept a pair of pants with claw marks that served as a stark reminder of Eloise’s warning. I had nightmares about animals getting loose.

After wrestling with the bears over the cage scraper, and a lot of shoveling and wheelbarrow pushing, we finished cleaning and feeding the caged animals. When Eloise slid open a door at the back of the barn, a trunk appeared and started to probe her face. She greeted the trunk with a cheery, “Good morning Me-Tie,” and a carrot.

There were two rows of three elephants, facing away from each other and restrained with one chain on a front leg and one chain on the opposite back leg. In between them was Me-Tie. They were all huge and imposing, even the smaller elephants, and walking in between them was like walls of flesh squeezing in on you. Eloise had a tool called a bull hook to help control the elephants and keep them from squashing me.

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I could see the enormity of my next shoveling task: large mounds of dung. As I pushed the wheelbarrow into position, Me-Tie began to gently probe my face and squeak.

Through my six years working at the farm, Me-Tie and I got pretty close despite her one annoying habit. She found it quite amusing to wait until I got the wheelbarrow almost full before she tipped it over with her trunk. She was so amused, she would shake her head with her trunk curled up and make her squeaking noise — and then she would pat me on the shoulder.

One day I was using a truck to haul hay out to feed elephants that were chained up out in the field. I pulled up just out of reach of an elephant named Buddha. She was straining at her chain, trying to reach out with her trunk and touch the truck. I opened the door and jumped out.

Suddenly I was flying through the air and then rolling on the ground. I got to my feet and started to run. I turned and saw Buddha lifting up the side of the truck and dropping it to the ground. She was not at the end of her chain. She had tricked me. Wow, that was a close one.

A few months later, we were using Buddha to pull logs out of the woods to build a stockade for the elephants. (It was the only elephant logging operation in the Western Hemisphere.) Morgan Berry was controlling Buddha and I was setting choker behind the elephant. (Chokers are cables used to haul logs out of the woods.)

On one trip up to the stock pile, Morgan was distracted by a big ship on the Columbia River. I had not yet removed the choker from a log when suddenly I found myself flying through the air again. After landing I got to my feet and started to run, only this time Buddha gave chase.

Lucky for me, I had not gotten the choker released. It got tangled in other logs and slowed Buddha enough for me to get away and for Morgan to regain control.

I was very shaken and made the decision this would be my last day at the farm. The third time would be the charm — for Buddha, not me.

Morgan took Buddha back to the barn, chained all four of her legs, wet her down with a hose and used a long stick with a bare wire to shock her as punishment.

In 1978, Eloise was trampled by an elephant she had trained in front of a couple thousand people at a show in Quebec, Canada. In 1979, Morgan’s trampled body was found in his elephant pen (and a missing elephant was tracked down on Lane Road in Woodland). Morgan was known to have a weak heart and it is believed he died of a heart attack, but it’s not certain whether that happened before or after he was trampled.

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