Monday, January 25, 2010
WINSTON— Wylie Malek has liked elephants for as long as he can remember. His father, Kris Malek, said as soon as his son was able to sit up and watch TV he was fascinated with the giant creatures, whether real ones on the Discovery channel or cartoons on Disney.
Wylie, 10, is autistic but has already proven himself to be a hard worker and willing to do the tough jobs — just ask the elephants at Wildlife Safari.
When the Maleks discovered they lived just miles away from three elephant residents of the safari park in Winston, they became regulars, stopping in every couple of months since Wylie was 2 years old.
Eventually, park officials noticed his passion and enthusiasm for the gentle giants and worked up an arrangement that has benefited the boy and his co-workers for the last two years.
“We don't do job shadows on a regular basis,” Dinah Wilson, elephant manager, said. “But he has been an inspiration to us.”
Wylie, a student at Green Elementary School, works with trainers about once a month to do almost every aspect of elephant care. He spreads sawdust, shovels waste and puts out food. When it is time for an elephant bath, Wylie raises a brush high above his head, spreading soap and bubbles across their thick, gray skin.
“Wylie likes to outwork me, I think,” elephant keeper Timmy Hamilton said. “We were sweeping hay in the barn and we had a race and he won.”
The boy constantly has a positive attitude, Hamilton said, and she hasn't found a chore her young helper won't complete.
“He wants to be out here every day,” Kris Malek said. “He is pretty proud that he has a job. He feels pretty important to have that responsibility (and) takes it real serious that he gets to come out here.”
He wants to be an elephant keeper “forever,” Wylie said. The boy might not know exactly what that means, his father said, but he knows he wants to be working with elephants for life.
The young man's communication skills have improved through the interactions, his father said, both with the adults at Wildlife Safari and with kids in his classes at Green Elementary. Sometimes it is hard to get the otherwise reserved boy to stop talking about the elephants, his father said. When he recites for the fifth time how much an elephant can eat, his family has to change the subject, Kris Malek joked.
“I think in the last year especially he has gotten much more gregarious, more chatty,” Wilson said. “He is getting more comfortable with my staff and he works well to help. He likes being here and we like him.”
The elephants like him, too, Wilson said, as they have a noticeably calm demeanor when he is around.
He is a natural elephant man, she said.
“Some people say I am the lucky one,” Wylie said. “I feel lucky. I like it out here.”
• You can reach reporter Heather Morse at 541-957-4208 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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