"If she goes all baby elephant on us, just get behind that."
Eh? You mean the bungy cord? As child gates go I'm not entirely convinced some stretchy rope is going to trouble a 2m tall, 8-year-old weighing in at a rambunctious 1600kg. Even if it is electrified.
I'll just have to trust my new herdmates. Because I am one of them now - a koha of bananas and a brisk trunk rub saw to that. And we're an oddly matched herd, to boot, with me, two elephants, four keepers, a pukeko and a chook that's presently pecking through a freshly laid turd. Oh, and the 30-odd adults and children perched along the fence line, many of whom are filming our every move.
Since her arrival on June 21, Auckland Zoo's oversized bundle of joy has been the star attraction, pulling almost 63,500 more people through the gates this wet July than for the same month last year. In fact it was highest July attendance in the zoo's history.
For all that, though, I doubt many, if any, understand the unique nature of what they're watching today.
What we're doing is called free contact (FC) where keeper and beast interact without barriers, as opposed to protected contact (PC) where some kind of fence separates them at all times. It's contentious stuff, given more keepers are killed by elephants than any other animal (Franklin Zoo keeper Helen Schofield was crushed by ex-circus elephant Mila in April 2012 despite having a PC policy) America's Association of Zoos and Aquariums put a stop to all free contact in 2012; at the same time they also did away with the rather nasty ankus, the traditional spiked tool that has been used for centuries to control elephants via pain and punishment. Which makes Auckland Zoo an even more distant outlier, as they have not only removed most of the walls they'd already ditched the ankus, too.
All these keepers have to protect themselves is each other, their wits and a short stick with a plastic attachment that can be hooked into the folds of an animal's hide.
But if that makes their job more dangerous than most would tolerate, the potential rewards, says elephant team leader Andrew Coers, are worth it. Having worked with elephants for 15 years after being trained in the punishment system, he credits the change in approach for Auckland Zoo having elephants at all. Because while Anjalee has been here barely two months and celebrates her 9th birthday tomorrow, the story of her arrival goes back to August 24, 2009 - the day the zoo's beloved Kashin died.
The 40-year-old elephant (named by a Blockhouse Bay schoolgirl) had been at the zoo for more than 36 years and, in part, it was the old concrete enclosure that did her in, with its unforgiving surface causing constant foot infections. "That was an extremely tough day," says Coers of the decision to euthanase her.
"We'd made all the decisions on what triggers would force us take action, but when they happened and we had to follow through, that was bloody hard. Asking her roll over for the last time ... yeah. But as our vet [Dr Richard Jakob-Hoff] said, when they're suffering like that, ending their pain is the one gift we can offer."
This point was driven home when 35-year-old Coers was in Sri Lanka and watched Sama, an elephant who had lost a leg to a land mine, take four weeks to die because local Buddhist beliefs prohibit euthanasia.
But with Kashin gone, the question became what to do with her stablemate, Burma. Elephants are pack animals, they don't like being alone, and when they are they usually deteriorate and die. To ease the blow they'd left Kashin's body with her overnight, but when she heard the crane arrive to carry it away, she did all she could to smash the door down and stop them.
So the keepers tried jollying her along by being as upbeat as possible themselves. "And it worked. I was shocked how well, really. We had her out walking [in public] within three days."
Then Coers and his wife and fellow keeper, Corryn Coers, put together a list of the warning behaviours that would force her departure while developing a long-term recovery strategy based, in part, on horse husbandry.
The plan threatened to go pear-shaped the night AC/DC played Western Springs Stadium in February 2010. Elephants sense bass vibration through sensitive pads on their feet and Burma reacted so badly it took three days of round-the-clock nurturing to settle her down, only for roadworks to set her off again. After seeing recordings of Burma's night-time distress, Coers and a fellow keeper had no choice but to sleep in a neighbouring cage to keep her calm.
But the effort paid off as they built up a bank of identifiable Burma behaviours that made close interaction doable - if still requiring constant vigilance.
"Elephants are great manipulators," says Coers. "They'll pretend to be sick or sore to get out of work, and they feed off your energy incredibly strongly. Intelligence-wise, I'd put them up there with the great apes and whales, so what we're trying to do is build a rapport based on trust and confidence. It's a psychological game instead of the traditional one that was based on fear, and I'd say the simple fact that Burma is still here advocates our approach."
Not everyone is convinced, however. Auckland Zoo's director receives constant emails from international zookeepers questioning their free contact approach. "Look," says Coers, "I've got kids and a family, I don't want to die. We could scare them [the elephants] into doing what we want but society won't wear it so we have to do something else. And yes, it is tricky, we're still learning, but the aim is that over time the elephants will see the benefit in it themselves [through food rewards]."
It wasn't until 2011 - two years after Kashin's death - that Auckland Council approved $3.2 million (being recovered through a 10 per cent increase in the zoo's entrance fee) to bring two new elephants to Auckland. Which isn't to say we were buying them - international treaties mean they can only be gifted; the money covered costs such as transportation and quarantine.
And even then it didn't guarantee we'd get one. No one particularly wants bulls - we definitely didn't; they're difficult to manage and can't be kept with the females - and on the other hand, everyone wants to keep their best females for breeding. So when it turned out that America was going to be no help and Europe had a five-year waiting list, Coers turned to Sri Lanka's Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.
Two elephants were offered, with one failing the disease screen test and the other being withdrawn, before eventually Anjalee was suggested. Having been separated from her mother as a baby, she had developed a self-confidence that made her perfect for the solo trip to Auckland. The whole exercise kept Coers away from his family for six months before they joined him and his new charge on Niue for her 90-day quarantine period.
It had taken much longer than anyone expected. "Ask anyone here," says Coers, the zoo's elephant team leader. "If we'd known Burma was going to be alone for five and a half years, we'd have sent her to Australia and I'd have been more than comfortable with that, elephants need to be with elephants."
The trickiest part was introducing the two new herdmates. For several days Burma didn't want to know.
The keepers began locking them in their cages overnight. The essentially roofless enclosures meant they remained in full sight of each other. More importantly, they could also hear each other.
Elephants produce bass rumbles below our ability to hear from a bulge in their foreheads and, for the first time in more than five years, Burma's calls were getting a response. She couldn't help but open up to them.
"The vibe in the barn changed," says Coers, "which was just fantastic for us. We could finally, after all those years, go home at night knowing that they had each other as company."
Now, only two months in, it remains a testing and cutting-edge exercise in animal husbandry, but the pair seem to be settling into an auntie-niece dynamic. If Coers and Burma's usual handler, Odin Neil, are treated as the authority figures, it's the female keepers, Corryn Coers, Lizzie Wilson and Elle Haag, who get them acting up - for some reason the elephants play best around other women, with Anjalee always trying to get her own way. She loves lucerne grass, so once their hay nets are hung she scampers to eat all the good bits in hers, then calls Burma over and skips around her to gobble her grass as well. If a toy is thrown to Burma she'll dash in to steal it off her - for almost 2 tonnes she's amazingly agile, albeit in the fashion of an unpredictable cannonball.
As for the rest of the zoo, that remains a slightly scary place - you can never be sure what will set an elephant off - but it's a good sign that when something unexpected pops up they go head-to-bum herd-style so they can watch each other's blind spots. When your bum's as big as theirs you've got no idea what's behind you.
They're right fusspots too. Drop a load of fresh peat or dirt and they'll roll in it all day, but once it's "gone off", so does their interest. They've also got little love for the Western Springs water that has replaced the town supply in their pool and it takes a special toy to coax them in for a dip.
Otherwise, Anjalee's days revolve around training, reorientation - the sole reminder of her old home is the Sri Lankan commands the keepers use - and eating. Elephant digestion is ridiculously inefficient so they must constantly eat, with Anjalee chewing through 120kg of food per day and Burma 150kg to 200kg (meaning they produce 60kg of dung a day as well). But if Anjalee has already learned six new behaviours (such as log-rolling and foot-lifting) - to Burma's 30 - she remains the biggest challenge of Coers' career so far.
With his eye on a career as a builder, Coers had gone to the zoo for work experience during his fifth form (Year 11) year. He got so hooked he used some money from his grandmother to buy a car so he could continue the commute from Waiuku even though he wasn't being paid.
It took a couple of attempts to get on to the elephant section in 2000 and he remembers being a nervous newbie as he first interacted with Kashin. "But she listened to me when, really, she didn't have to. She was and always will be an incredible elephant." He sees some of his old favourite in Anjalee - they both cross their back legs and blow into their mouths with their trunks.
As for his relationship with Burma, there was that famous day in January 2004 when he lost her. "How do you lose an elephant? I still get shit about that," he says. While playing with a log, she dropped it on to an electric fence and being a curious elephant she climbed out. The first Coers knew of it was when he noticed a large phoenix palm outside the compound was missing - elephants love them. After her second breakfast Burma decided on a walk, only to blunder into a jogger and then dash into the hillside bush behind the zoo.
The police wanted to bring in a helicopter and the armed offenders squad, which would most likely have meant a death sentence, but the zoo kept them at bay as the keepers tried a grid search and they quickly found her trembling, scared to death in a small clearing before coaxing her back to safety.
It has had a lingering impact, elephants remember the moments that impact on their lives, and the world outside their enclosure remains a scary place. Even Anjalee, as young as she is, has a good memory. "If you smacked her on the head she'd probably think you're an arsehole for a couple of years," says Coers.
As for what awaits them, the zoo's future looks to be full of elephants. In a year or two Anjalee will be artificially impregnated and everyone's hoping she'll have a girl - a bull would probably have to go. At the same time there's a third Sri Lankan elephant, again a female, to find, with maybe a bull to follow later down the track. Then, once a breeding programme kicks in, they hope to build up to a herd of nine or 10.
But right now the keepers are just looking forward to the end of winter. Normally, the barn door is left open so Burma can sleep under the stars if she wants, but for now they're sharing her cage, with auntie standing guard as her new charge sleeps. Coers hopes it's a mothering act, but even if it's more about keeping an eye on an excitable child, it's a good behaviour to see. It's vital that these beasts bond.
"We could work them separately if we have to, but that goes against their natural herd instincts and we'd rather not battle to get them walking together, because they do have a job to do. Walking gives our visitors a unique experience and ideally the elephants should see a value in it as well. So, yeah, it's been a really good winter, but you haven't seen anything yet. Once Anjalee has a baby, that's when this place is really going to go nuts."
To celebrate Anjalee's birthday this weekend, Auckland Zoo has several events planned.