Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Baltimore’s elephant whisperer on Dolly, Samson and what makes a good zoo | COMMENTARY

In 2011, Samson, an African elephant born at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, celebrated his third birthday with Mike McClure, general curator and elephant manager, and Samson's mother, Felix.

Until recently, when he set out on his own as an international consultant, Mike McClure had worked for many years as the general curator at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. Many will remember him for two big reasons — Dolly and Samson.

McClure was the zoo’s elephant manager. Whenever African elephants Dolly and, later, Samson, needed care and feeding, McClure was there.


Given his 27-year tenure at the zoo, I thought McClure deserved an exit interview. He was in Nepal, leading an elephant care workshop, by the time I caught wind of his departure from the zoo staff, so he answered questions by email.

I asked about Dolly because she had been a star of the zoo for years, starting in the early 1980s. Baltimore school children raised pennies to help pay for her care. McClure was her main trainer and, toward the end, her caregiver. In failing health, Dolly had to be euthanized in 2014. She was believed to have been between 38 and 40 years old.


“When I first had the opportunity to spend time with Dolly, my world changed,” McClure wrote. “It was a privilege to be near her, but her trust was hard earned. Her ability to see through you was truly remarkable. She taught me how to be a better person, to be patient and to try and see the world through the eyes of others so I could get closer to her and understand her. When we lost her, it was one of the most crushing days of my life. But I’m grateful for every moment she gave me.”

Samson made a splash in 2008 as the first elephant ever born in the Baltimore zoo. He weighed in at 290 pounds and became a media sensation, his every move captured by cameras because he was so damn cute!

How is the lad doing?

“Samson is doing amazingly well,” McClure wrote. “Having been with him from the day he was born and through the challenges of growing up, seeing him now always makes me proud.”

A 10,000-pound teenager, Samson is considered genetically important to the North American population of African elephants.

“He’s the last surviving calf of his parents so he will hopefully have offspring of his own to keep their genes alive,” McClure explained “Samson will be bred with females either through semen donation or natural breeding. He is a part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plan. The genetics and demographics of every animal in the population in North America is analyzed regularly to make sure that recommended breedings will maintain appropriate genetic diversity.”

McClure believes he left the Maryland Zoo in good hands.

“You can have all the resources in the world but if the people that care for the animals are not functioning at high levels and not supported by the leadership, the animals don’t thrive,” he said. “So I set out to build a team-based system that encourages personal growth and embraces mistakes as opportunities to learn. It took years of trial and error, but it resulted in teams of animal care professionals who can overcome any challenge. That’s what allowed me to step away. I had the peace of mind to know I was leaving everything in the hands of some incredible people.”


I asked what McClure says to people who are suspicious of zoos and how animals are treated.

“I tell them that I’m also constantly concerned about what we do,” he wrote. “Just calling it a good zoo does not make it a good zoo. For zoos to be truly effective, it takes dedication and a culture of always looking for the truth in everything we do. A truly good zoo can achieve the most meaningful accomplishments for their animals and for the animals in the wild they represent. It’s those wild animals who do not have dedicated teams of passionate people to care for them around the clock like the ones in good zoos do. Good zoos help them by advancing the science of animal care and conservation while connecting their guests to the animals to educate and inspire them to get involved and help make real changes for animals and their habitats.”

Are the elephants of the world doomed?

“They are certainly in serious jeopardy,” McClure said. “Human-elephant conflict in the wild still ends poorly for both species. People struggle to coexist with elephants and don’t see value in animals that destroy their entire crop in a single night, and both species can be hurt or killed in the encounters that occur. As long as the animals are seen as a nuisance and their tusks are valued by people in other countries, poaching will always be a threat as well. Zoos play a unique role in developing awareness, resources and information to address the problems that elephants face in a way that gives me hope for the future. We connect people to elephants by providing direct experiences and insights into the animals that are right in front of them when they come to zoos.

“Those connections happen on a personal level. When people care about something, they are compelled to protect it and take actions, like recycling their cellphones to save forests or just donating money to organizations doing conservation work to save animals, and that gives me hope for the future.”