Male bighorn sheep are known for their head-butting battles, but apparently in Elmer’s mind, anything was fair game. Among keepers, he was known as “...the most pugnacious sheep imaginable. ...Chances are that when you approach his corral he will come trotting over with his head cocked to one side...to look you over. If you pass inspection, he’ll invite you to come in and wrestle.”
But it wasn’t just humans that were potential sparring partners. Elmer seemed to think that anything not edible in his environment was placed there for him to demolish.
During a storm one night, Elmer got excited and pushed down a large eucalyptus tree that stood in his corral. The next morning, Elmer’s keeper at first thought the tree was a victim of high winds. But in the end, the physical clues told a different story, and Elmer got credit for the “take-down.” Of course, while everyone was trying to figure out what happened, Elmer was having a grand time head-butting his fallen “opponent.”
At the time, Elmer and his “girlfriend,” Irma, were the only Nelson’s bighorn sheep in a zoo anywhere in the world. They had been placed with us in 1947 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The bighorn sheep population had been declining at a frightening pace for more than two decades, and the species’ future was at risk.
In late spring of 1949, Elmer and Irma produced the first zoo-born Nelson’s bighorn sheep—a proud milestone that made the cover of ZOONOOZ in August 1949.