Tricia arrived at the Zoo in January 1963. Times were a lot different back then and seem very unsatisfactory by today's standards. Tricia spent her first 23 years at the Zoo in a small concrete enclosure – basically a display animal. Although now it is easy to wish we could go back in time and change the way Tricia was housed back then, for a lot of people in Western Australia, Tricia was the first elephant and for many the only elephant that they ever saw in real life. Indeed, seeing Tricia was one of the highlights of coming to the Zoo.
Just as the attitude towards housing and caring has evolved over the years with animals, so too have the methods of handling. There was a period of time in Tricia’s life at the Zoo, where she did lash out and injure the odd person – out of understandable frustration, and had a bit of a reputation as an aggressive elephant.
I was very fortunate to get a job at the Zoo caring for Tricia in 2001. At that time Tricia was quite suspicious of new people and was quite intimidating. It took a good 12 months before she accepted and trusted me. A true testament as to how very special and forgiving an elephant that Tricia was, is that in the later years she was the most gentle and trustworthy elephant, not only to her keepers, but to every person she met.
As elephant keepers we love all the elephants in our care, and indeed, they all have their own special qualities. But I think if pushed for an answer we would all admit that Tricia always held a very special place in our hearts. Tricia was a very playful and vocal elephant to her keepers. She knew we loved it and she pretty much had us all wrapped around her little trunk. Tricia communicated with humans more than any animal that I have ever known. She had a sound that we recognised as her whinge. If she considered that we were taking too long with an activity that she was not particularly fond of, such as a bath or footwork, she would let us know with a whinge. If we were talking to someone and not giving her the attention that she felt she deserved she would let us know with a whinge. If we did not heed her whinge, she was not above throwing sand, water or even sticks in our direction to remind us that she was talking to us.
She also had a sound that we referred to as her laugh. She would bring this one out when she would sneak up and startle us, when she would whip us with her tail as we walked past her, if we fell over or had some sort of minor mishap, or even when we were having a joke and laughing amongst ourselves. Tricia would laugh along.
I think sometimes people believe that you can measure an animal’s intelligence by how quickly they learn something that you are trying to teach them. The younger elephants at the Zoo are very keen to learn and are very quick to pick up what you are trying to teach them. Tricia had what you might call “street smarts” and would only do what she wanted to do. As I mentioned earlier, she knew that we loved it when she was vocal and playful. She would often use that as a stalling technique to avoid husbandry procedures that she was not too keen on. She was also not adverse to using reverse psychology on us. When we would take her on walks around the Zoo, it was very important that she wouldn’t speed up suddenly or push to go in certain directions, particularly when visitors were in the Zoo. She went through a phase, where when we came to an intersection, particularly if one of the roads was going up a hill, that she would speed up and push in the direction of the road she wanted to take. To stop her from doing this, we would always get her to go up the road that she was pushing against. Well, it didn’t take Tricia long to figure out what we were doing, so then she started speeding up and pushing towards the road she didn’t want to go up, so then (in theory) we would have to get her to go along the other road – which of course is the one she wanted all along.
As Tricia got older, we were always concerned that we were not asking her to do things that she was no longer physically able to do or that may cause her some discomfort. She learnt to play us on that as well. She went through a phase of being reluctant to go into the pool and we were concerned that it might be causing her discomfort going down the steps. Years earlier we had installed cameras throughout the enclosures and barns so that we could better care for the elephants and closely monitor Tricia as she aged. Whilst watching the overnight footage, we observed Tricia going in and out of the pool no problems in the early morning before we got to work.
Tricia always seemed quite innocent – like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, whereas Permai could be quite destructive when given the chance. One night we didn’t quite shut a gate in the barn. In the morning, the gate had been pushed off the runners and was blocking Permai in the barn. Innocent Tricia was out in the yard. Of course, we knew what had happened – Tricia was out in the yard minding her own business while Permai was pushing the gate off the runners. That is of course until we saw the footage. Tricia had gone in first and pushed the gate, with Permai following, the gate had come off, blocking Permai in and allowing Tricia to walk out into the yard. Makes us wonder how many times, before we had the cameras installed, that Permai got the blame for Tricia’s deeds.
Tricia never had a chance to have her own offspring but did a great job of being a foster mum to the three young elephants when they came to the Zoo. Unfortunately, one of the young ones (Teduh) had health issues from the start. Tricia seemed to know this and really took special care of her. In 2007 when Teduh was 17 years old her health had deteriorated to the point where we had to make the heartbreaking decision to euthanise her. Permai was very distressed for a couple of weeks but then gradually bounced back to her normal self. Tricia really went into a depression for about a year. As mentioned, she was always such a vocal, playful elephant. After Teduh passed Tricia was silent for a year. It was such a relief when she started to play again. I have talked to people in the funeral industry and they have said that it is very similar to human behaviour. A sibling will be very distressed but usually get over it quicker whereas a parent or grandparent will find it very difficult to come to terms with, feeling it very unfair that they have outlived their offspring. I can only hope that Tricia is up there in elephant heaven in a beautiful forest with her little buddy.
Tricia had all the good qualities of humans without the bad. She was one of my best friends. She had beautiful golden eyes that were so expressive. They would sparkle when she was happy to see you and wanted to play. She would sense when someone, be it elephant or human, had a problem and would know to be extra gentle and caring around them. When you are happy and playful, she would be happy and playful with you. If you were feeling unwell or down, she would gently wrap her trunk around your leg, waist or arm and hold you making a low, soothing rumble to make you feel better.
Perth Zoo will not be the same for many people throughout Western Australia without Tricia. There are at least four generations of people who have lived and grown up with Tricia in their lives. Recently one of the ferries has been named after Tricia. Hopefully Tricia’s spirit will live on, and when future generations, that weren’t lucky enough to have known her, ask their parents why the ferry is named Tricia, their parents will be able to tell them about the amazing elephant that they once knew.
Goodbye my beautiful Tricia. I love you.