A Local Collaboration Gives An Inside Look at Zoo Elephants & Their Caretakers

Feb 1, 2016

Elephants are often among the biggest draws that to zoos around the world, including here in Milwaukee. The relationship between these wild animals living in captivity and their human caretakers is a complex one, and one that visitors generally don’t get to see.

Milwaukee photographer Dick Blau and animal and culture historian Nigel Rothfels collaborated on a new book that delves into the fascinating relationship that exists, called Elephant House.

"I became quite interested simply because the elephant is a challenge for artists. 'How do you actually make a picture of an elephant' is not a cliche," says Blau.

Together Blau and Rothfels went to study the Oregon Zoo's Asian Elephant Building to learn more about the daily routines of its residents - both human and animal. Both partners wanted their project to not take a stance in the debate over zoos, but instead challenge the reader and highlight the bonds between the elephants and their keepers.

"Over the years I've been asked more times than I could possibly count, 'should elephants be in zoos?' I think my simple, and maybe a little bit of a flip but it's also a true, answer is that elephants are in zoos and there's hundreds of them," says Rothfels. "I intended to not focus too much on whether, but sort of how they are and why they are, and what a future for them might look like."