Elephant man

Hal Halvorson

Photo by D. Brian Burghart

As the troop of sixth-graders from Sun Valley Elementary fires questions about every single detail of the skeleton rising above him, Hal Halvorson gestures at the various points of interest—here’s a broken hip bone that never healed quite right, there are the eye holes, there’s a barely developed tusk. Halvorson may be vice president of the Potomac Museum Group—the people who brought the elephant display to the Wilbur May Museum—but it’s plain to see he enjoys this science stuff on a far less sophisticated level. Halvorson is only in town for a moment longer, just long enough to set up the exhibit, ELEPHANTS, before heading back to a suburb of Minneapolis, but his work will be on display through May 11.

How did you get into elephants?

There’s a Wooly Mammoth skeleton in the other room that was found in 1994 by a farmer outside of Kenosha, Wisc. They were digging with a ditch digger, and it was throwing up bone. The operator was astute enough to go to the owner. The owner went to a local archeology organization where the former Wisconsin state archeologist was working. He was very experienced in archeology, but he had no experience in paleontology, which he got as he got into this mammoth. It was fully butchered by paleo-Indians. It was one of the most amazing finds in North America. The carbon dating takes us back older than any association that we knew of, 14,500 years. Anyway, he had no experience getting bones out of the ground, and he was looking for someone to help him, and that’s where our name came up. He used us to work on the paleontological side. We were helping him with the study and restoring the bones, got them mounted, made a cast. … At that time we decided it would be a good centerpiece for education in elephants.

Why is important for people to know about elephants?

Worldwide, the elephant populations are in desperate situations. Humans are encroaching on all their natural lands. In Africa, farmlands and fence lines have divided up their normal range so they can’t wander as much, which costs them severely when it comes to droughts or other reasons. The same thing is happening in Asia. Here in the United States, the reduction of using the elephants in circuses has put extra pressure for zoos to take elephants, and zoos can’t take as many as they would like. So, what do we do with all the elephants in North America? We have to find sanctuaries for them or they have to be put to sleep. Hopefully, this show gives a good understanding of the past and what we’re doing and where we’re going with elephants in the present and into the future.

What other interests do you have along scientific-type lines?

I’ve run a nonprofit organization that has specialized in education of kids. We take them out to Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, different places, and we set up and dig dinosaurs out in the field in the summers.

That’s neat.

Yeah, it’s really fun to get these inner-city kids out into the middle of nowhere where they see a cow for the first time, much less dinosaur bones. That’s just inconceivable for most kids. When they get done with something like that, we’ve ripped the top of their heads off and crammed a whole bunch of stuff in. They’re really seeing life from a different angle after they’ve done something like that.

Do you ever hear from those kids?

I have Ph.Ds who started out in high school with me. That is very rewarding. We started in 1989, so in a 13-year time period, that’s pretty impressive. That probably means more to me than anything else.