WINSTON — Douglas County’s largest resident turned 38 years old and celebrated by eating whole watermelons and making footprint paintings on Saturday.
George, a 10-foot-tall African elephant at the Wildlife Safari in Winston, shook his trunk in the air while a small crowd of people sang “Happy Birthday” to him in the elephant barn.
“We want to give everybody the opportunity to come down and celebrate George with us,” said Olivia Plocinski, an elephant trainer. “This is definitely his favorite day of the year and he knows — as soon as we start setting up, when he hears the music playing — he definitely knows it’s his birthday and he’s always very excited.”
George weighs about 14,000 pounds and has lived at the safari for 32 years. A portion of the ticket sales for his birthday and regular elephant encounters go to elephant conservation groups like the International Elephant Foundation, which deals with issues like the elephant and human relations in Asia and poaching in Africa.
Camden Planalp, 8, had a birthday on Friday and came out with 13 friends and family members to meet George and celebrate their birthdays together. He sang to George while wearing paper elephant ears.
“I’m glad that (George) isn’t being hunted. I was scared at the start because I’ve never pet an elephant,” Camden said. “They are about to be extinct because people hunt for them for their tusks.”
Camden’s mother, Ashleigh Willis, said Camden loves elephants and even did a school project on Asian elephants.
“We told him last weekend and he was so excited, he literally asked me every day about it,” Willis said.
The safari held random raffles for elephant paintings, which were also sold at a table in the barn next to the table for the International Elephant Foundation. Children could color their own elephant ears, eat pink-frosted cupcakes and pet George’s trunk.
George wrapped his trunk around the bars of his pen, because he knows that’s how he gets more attention.
“A lot of the behaviors that they know are what we call husbandry behaviors, things designed to help us take care of them, things as simple as picking up their foot. Because they’re so strong and intelligent, they have to participate in their own care,” Plocinski said. “All that fun silly stuff is actually great mental exercise for them. Keeping them physically healthy is only part of the equation. Keeping them mentally healthy is just as important.”
Alex Munroe, 5, beamed when he and his family posed for a photo with George.
“This is the best day ever because I like elephants,” Alex said.