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Debbie Ethell is an elephant's best friend

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KOTA founder Debbie Ethell gets warm reception in Lake Oswego, West Linn


SUBMITTED PHOTO: DEBBIE ETHELL - Her elephant herd in Kenya always puts a smile on the face of Debbie Ethell. She has been following the life of the herd since she was just 8 years old.

The more Debbie Ethell learns about elephants, the deeper she falls in love with them.

That is why she founded the KOTA (Keepers Of The Ark) Foundation last year and why she has poured her life into an extraordinary effort to prevent elephants in the wild from becoming extinct.

Ethell is doing this in a most remarkable way: by education. She believes that the more people, especially children, learn about elephants the more they will take action to save their lives. With her lesson plan Ethell is opening doors to “The Secret Lives of Elephants.”

“Elephants resemble us in so many ways,” Ethell said. “We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding them. Elephants make bonds that last for life. They have complex emotions. Their power to forgive is staggering. Elephants really have the greatest qualities of the greatest human being you know.”

Before people dive into elephant education they should first know one thing: Elephants are in big trouble. The huge, magnificent beasts are being plundered at such a high rate that it is feared they will become extinct in the wild in only 10 years or even less. Just in the last few months major newspapers and news magazines and Internet news sites have featured headlines like “New elephant study shows catastrophic decline in Africa,” “Africa elephant population dropped 30 percent in 7 years,” “Elephant numbers plummet in worst decline in 25 years,” “100,000 elephants killed by poachers in just three years,” and on and on. Another sad headline is: “Elephants on path to extinction.”

Ethell wants to do everything in her power to keep this from happening. To hear her is to believe her, and she has gotten an overwhelming reception from schools and service clubs in Lake Oswego and West Linn. In fact, they are just wild about Debbie.

However, there could not be a more ironic person to lead such a cause than Debbie Ethell. Before she could fight to save the elephants she had to fight to save herself. For eight years her life was a wreck.

“I started using alcohol and drugs when I was 12 years old,” Ethell said. “By the age of 18, I was heavily addicted. I knew more judges than I had friends. I literally lost everything.”

Horrible things happened to her: Like starting a fight that ended up breaking her leg in five places; expulsion from school; blacking out while driving and smashing into trees and other solid objects. “It’s a miracle I didn’t kill anybody,” Ethell said. At times she lived in her car in the parking lot of a gas station in California, her mind in a twilight zone. She was so out of it, she said, “I didn’t even know I was homeless.”

The worst thing she did, however, was waste her potential.

That is until Dec. 23, 1998.

“That was the biggest day of my life,” Ethell said. “The old me died. The new me was born.”

It started out like any other day, with Ethell scoring all of the alcohol and drugs she possibly could. She was very good at this. But on this day everything Ethell ingested did not work. She couldn’t get high.

Finally, all of the stuff she had taken mixed together in her system and she had her final blackout.

“I remember every minute of that day from start to finish,” Ethell said. “I remember every single horrific minute. After that I completely dropped out and pulled myself away from everything and everyone in the life I had been living. I entered the recovery community and I became what I am supposed to be. Finally.”

In a few years Ethell went from being homeless to owning a splendid and huge (3,500 feet) home in Portland. In the driveway there was a “tricked out” bright red VW Jetta. Ethell was rolling in money because she started several mega successful spray tanning businesses that put her on the upper level of Yuppiedom.

But Fate was about to push her down the mountain again. Upon reaching this peak of success, the Oregon State Legislature abruptly passed a bill that made the requirements for a spray tanning business so stringent that it put Ethell and many other owner-operators out of business. This legislation could well have been unconstitutional, but Ethell did not have the resources or will to fight it. Things were so bad that she even considered a return to the bottle.

Instead she decided to go to college. During her years as an alcoholic she had been kicked out of four colleges, and her math grades in school were abysmal. When she took a college entrance test she found her math skills were humiliatingly bad: at the fifth grade level.

The worst barrier was her age. Ethell was 35 years old, and that alone almost made her give up before she started.

“I told a friend, ‘I’ll be 40 years old when I graduate!’ “ Ethell said. “She said, ‘How old will you be if you don’t go to college?’ That was the best thing anyone ever said to me. I wasn’t 40 when I graduated. I was 41.”

Ethell gritted out the math classes and compiled a superb academic record, with a 4.0 GPA that put her at the top of her class at Portland State University. She graduated summa cum laude and earned a degree in science. She was ready to pursue what a higher power always seemed to be intending for her life — saving elephants.

This was a seed that had been planted in her when she was just 8 years old, when she became hugely enthusiastic about elephants and started tracking a herd in Africa. After she gained sobriety she did an astronomical amount of research on the herd with the intention of presenting it to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Africa. It was a leap of faith, because Ethell took the money she’d been saving to buy a car and used it to get a plane ticket to Nairobi. Sheer persistence won her a meeting with Angela Sheldrick (daughter of trust founders David and Daphne Sheldrick), who was absolutely floored by the amount of research Ethell had done. Sheldrick was so impressed that she let Ethell go deep into the heart of Kenya to meet her elephant friends in person for the first time.

A year later she founded KOTA.

Ethell feels absolutely no temptation to fret about a misspent life.

“I have no regrets about my past whatsoever,” she said. “It took everything that happened to me to be at the place where I am today. I couldn’t have done what I am doing now sooner. It took what it took.

“My past has brought me to where I am now. I learned how to fight. I learned how to work hard. I found courage that I never had before. My past created my future.”

In a life filled with wild surprises, Ethell got one of the biggest when interest in her education plan took off like wildfire.

She is stunned by the number of speaking invitations that have poured in. She had no idea she was such a great communicator.

“It all started at the Wilsonville Rotary Club,” Ethell said. “I’ve spoken to 30 service clubs and I’ve just been asked to speak at four more. I’m very passionate about this and it comes through.”

The Debbie Ethell Save the Elephants crusade has scored an even bigger impact at schools. She has already spoken at 13 schools and 50 more are waiting on her. Oregon schools are starved for programs on a subject in which they rank among the very worst states in the nation — science — and it is her work in schools that Ethell is banking on for attaining the funding to put KOTA on a stable financial basis. Her ultimate goal is quite humble.

“I want to find someone smarter and richer to take this over from me,” Ethell said.

For now she is striving to keep her mind, body and soul together as she attempts to fulfill the flood of speaking engagements coming her way. She has a list of appearances longer than an elephant’s memory, and she laughs because it seems impossible.

But then Ethell thinks back to the moment in Africa where she viewed what she calls “my herd” for the first time. As she rounded a curve she heard a deep rumbling.

“It looked like the entire hill came alive as the elephants began to move all at once towards me and their keepers. They walked right up to me and extended their trunks for me to blow in, which you do as a way of greeting them. It was incredible and overwhelming.”

After greeting each elephant, Ethell said, “It was there on that rock that I took a picture of myself. I never wanted to forget that my entire life had led me to the very rock I was standing on.”

For more about Debbie Ethell and KOTA go to kotafoundation.org .

Contact Cliff Newell at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Rombo the elephant gets some loving attention from Debbie Ethell. Rombo wandered alone for years after his mother was poached. He was incredibly curious as to who I was, Ethell said.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Debbie Ethell is shown on one of the happiest day of her life: When she graduated from Portland State University. It changed everything for me, she said.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - A gifted public speaker, Ethell is shown addressing the crowd at the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos in Portland on Sept. 24. She is in high demand by schools and service clubs.