The sun had just peeked over the slash pines in Loxahatchee early on a recent Monday as Terry Wolf got ready for the dirtiest job around. He looked the part of a man who oversees the care of 1,100 animals at Lion Country Safari, the drive-through zoo in this western Palm Beach County town. He wore olive cargo shorts and a khaki shirt that completed the uniform of an explorer on the Serengeti. There was just one item missing from his ensemble at that moment, and, sweet Jesus, it was an important one. "You've really got to tape them off so they don't slide around," Wolf said. As he spoke, he pulled a pair of disposable plastic gloves over his hands, past his elbows, and up to his shoulders. He secured them with duct tape. Wolf was about to go into the backside of a 10,000-pound elephant named Bulwagi. No glove is truly big enough for a job like that. "Last time was not really so bad," he recalled, "but sometimes lots of... well, let's just say he releases on top of me."
Suited up, Wolf ducked between the bars of Bulwagi's temporary cage and lifted the elephant's scraggly tail. "OK, I'm going in."
Now, before this gruesome scene continues, it's important to put it into perspective. There's a damn good reason Wolf covered himself in elephant turd that Monday. It had to do with Bulwagi's being, well, such a freakin' stud. This 22-year-old, Loxahatchee-born-and-bred goliath has a higher sperm count than any other elephant in any zoo across the United States. That means zookeepers everywhere are lining up for Bulwagi's semen like girls at a Brad Pitt sighting.
To be specific, only half of the country's 30 male elephants are at accredited zoos. What's worse, only a pack's dominant male has a high-enough sperm count to mate. That leaves Bulwagi and two others as the most eligible elephants around.
It used to be that zookeepers would have simply set Bulwagi up the old-fashioned way, on blind dates with the nation's most eligible female elephants. But the truth is, Bulwagi is still a youngster at 22, and like some young human males (we know, it has never happened to you before), the poor guy isn't much of a performer. "He's got a girlfriend here," Wolf says, pointing to Lady Bird, the female elephant Bulwagi has had his eye on for years, who is standing in a grassy field nearby. "But he gets too excited. He usually finishes before he can start."
So that leaves Wolf with a messy alternative. Remarkably, in the way animal keepers seem to take on ugly assignments with blind love of their work, it's a task he doesn't speak of with any trepidation. About three times a month, Wolf dons shoulder-high gloves for the quickest way to get a sample from young Bulwagi. The details are, frankly, a bit too disgusting even for New Times, but let's just say it involves a meeting between a gallon jug of lubricant and Bulwagi's prostate. It seems elephants are into that sort of thing.
After the first try Monday, Wolf took a break to wipe a much-needed paper towel across his face and tape on a new pair of gloves. He explains that at first, zookeepers with Disney's Animal Kingdom brought an ultrasound device to Lion Country so he could find his way around. That was back in 1999, and since then, Wolf has perfected the process blindly. He gives props to Bulwagi. "He's gotten into it," Wolf says. "I'm strictly just the doer of the deed."
The high sperm count is only part of the reason Bulwagi is in such demand. Many elephants aren't as, well, excitable as Bulwagi, Wolf says. Jack, the male elephant at Disney's park, won't put up with such an invasion, and others simply don't have the quick turnaround, requiring handlers to spend exhaustive hours trying to collect a sample. So Bulwagi is perhaps the first male in the history of the world to become popular for his lack of sexual stamina.
After an earlier collection that Monday, Wolf sent the sample over to Lion Country's veterinarian. Then came the bad news: The semen was too diluted when Bulwagi peed at the end of the process; Wolf would have to go back in.
If you're wondering, Bulwagi doesn't seem to care about the whole thing. He casually deposited piles of hay and apples into his mouth with his dexterous trunk during the process. Occasionally, his left tusk would bang offhandedly against the bars of the cage. He broke his right tusk in half when he fell one night when he was young. It developed a cavity not long after, and zookeepers had to remove it. His girlfriend, Lady Bird, who stood in the field throughout the procedure, didn't seem to mind the missing tusk. In fact, she didn't even care that her guy was getting kinky without her.
After an hour in the hot morning sun, Wolf finally got the results he was looking for. Two of the keepers, using poles with bags on the end to catch the semen, managed a bounty. Under a microscope back at the vet's office, millions of little Bulwagis swam frantically in that upstream fight against natural selection.
From there, veterinarian Rose Borkowski bundled the sample into a bright blue case designed to transport the horse semen prized in the racing community. Sperm has a shelf life of 36 hours, so zookeepers had to work fast. Lion Country employees have in the past accompanied the samples to other zoos, charging them only for travel expenses. Bulwagi's sperm has already made 30 trips like that, and in April, he became a father for the first time with a female elephant at the Toledo Zoo. The privately owned Lion Country considered charging for the work, but Wolf says he talked the owners out of it. "I said, 'How can we charge for something that is helping the survival of a species?'" he recalls. "It's really fortunate they changed their minds."
For this collection, the general curator from the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, New York, came to pick up the sample. Chris Ruedin stood by through the procedure and quickly took the hand-off from the vet. Ruedin then rushed the package to Palm Beach International Airport.
"Can I speak to the supervisor?" Ruedin said when reaching gate security at the airport.
"What do you have in the package?"
"Elephant sperm," he said.
The security worker didn't hesitate with her answer. "I'll take you to my supervisor."
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Six hours later, zookeepers in Rochester got their female elephant, Genny C, ready for a procedure that makes what Bulwagi went through seem pleasant. "It's very difficult to find the anatomy of a female elephant," Wolf explains delicately. "They usually use miner's helmets."
Bulwagi never got to meet the recipient, but you'd have to think that if this was an Internet date, he would've liked Genny C. At 8,400 pounds, she's a little flabby for a female, but she's got such a great story for the obligatory AOL profile. She was just 3 years old when poachers killed her mother in a South African preserve. Young elephants don't have much chance of survival after becoming orphaned, so preserve workers captured her and shipped her off to the zoo in Rochester, where she has lived for the past 24 years. The zoo changed her name from Timba to Genny C to reflect the locally brewed beer, something that's got to help her with the guys.
The Rochester zookeepers mixed Bulwagi's sample with ones also collected the same day from a male elephant in an Arkansas sanctuary and another at the Kansas City Zoo. From there, it's up to nature to decide which sperm will win. Zookeepers won't know until October whether Genny C is pregnant. If she gives birth after the standard two-year pregnancy, the youngster will have a DNA test to figure out who's the father. Then it's on to the Jerry Springer Show for the "I Have Three Dads" episode.
For now, Lion Country workers are considering ways to deal with the popularity of Bulwagi's sperm. For one thing, Lion Country patrons sometimes drive by as Wolf is working his magic, something that has elicited a few questions about a fifth leg. Employees are still trying to work out the wording of a sign warning of elephant semen collection ahead.