I’ve seen elephants in my time: like many children, first in zoos, where I’d be amazed at their size and deflated by their small enclosures; in one of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s wretched parades; and even outside New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where I was explored by an elephant’s trunk while trying to get the Cathedral to stop elephants walking up its aisle as part of its annual celebration of the Blessing of the Animals. (The Dean defended the elephants’ presence as evidence of the spectacle of God’s creation.)
When I learned that Maggie, the Anchorage Zoo’s solo elephant, would likely be staying in Alaska through another long winter before she’s moved to a facility with other elephants in a warmer state, it made me think about the wild elephants I’ve experienced and what their lives mean for the thousands of captive elephants in the U.S. and around the world. There’s good news, though: a few weeks ago, Maggie was moved by plane to a new home at the Performing Animal Welfare Society in San Andreas, California. Here she has elephant companions, access to acres of land to roam and no restrictions on her freedom. Read about and see video of her new life here: here.
Also, the first aerial survey of southern Sudan in decades found, as reported this summer, vast herds of migrating wildlife and a substantial population of elephants, including a herd on a remote island. The animals were incredibly resilient, managing to survive a generation of civil war. Ironically, peace won’t necessarily make their lives easier. Elephants and others are at risk from intensified poaching and competition with human settlements as war refugees return and the process of development picks up pace.
This spring, I visited Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. It was the beginning of the rainy season and the grass was tall and mostly a soft green. On our first drive, we spotted giraffes, elands, warthogs and ostriches. Then open grassland. Then, we saw the elephants, first in the distance and then closer. They were moving toward the river’and us. We counted: at least two, no three, another there behind a tree, two coming in from the left. As their bodies became distinct, we saw big, full-grown females, younger adolescents, and some who, on an elephant scale, were tiny, tucked under their mothers’ bellies.
There were fourteen in all. We could hear the soft calls, mini-trumpets, and the footfalls as they descended the sandy banks to the river just below us. En route, one of the adolescents lay down in the sand and rubbed; one of the babies tried to do the same, although not quite as gracefully. When they got to the water’s edge, they moved along, making way for others, the youngest ones protected within the legs and trunks of their elders.
I’m sure they saw us: how could they not? We were perhaps only fifty feet away. But I couldn’t detect any fear or disdain in them, even as our digital cameras buzzed furiously. They kept drinking, a few moving their feet into the water, and observing each other and their surroundings.
What startled me most, apart from the fact that we were there with them, was that, while large and broad, the adult females had leanness about them. I thought of their cousins, the Asian elephants in circuses, and how large they were in comparison, and how different. I thought how captive elephants, Asian or African, performing or in zoos, must be so bored, denied the chance to be themselves, kicking against the goads of their confinement (physically and metaphysically) that never give way.
They must eat to fill the voids.
It was depressing, this contrast, and the starkness of it. As I watched the extended family drink and trumpet and simply enjoy who they were and where they found themselves, it made the tragedy of captive elephants more visceral. These elephants inhabited their beingness, their elephantness; it is what we who watched found exhilarating and awe-inspiring.
Those other elephants in zoos and circuses, “working” in the logging industry or assisting panhandlers in Asian cities, are shadow selves. I can’t blame them for the blunted power of their elephantness. This can only be undone by granting them the freedom to rediscover who they are in the world. In a place like this.
I was also struck by how their elephantness had absolutely nothing to do with us. We could observe and appreciate it, but we had no role in its being or its denial. We were animals together and, on these grasslands, the elephants were at home. We were only passing through.
About ten minutes before we left the elephants, I heard a call. It wasn’t a trumpet or a grunt, but something low and slightly musical and, to my ear, kindly cajoling. The other elephants began to shift, backing up and taking their feet out of the water, bringing the youngest among them closer with a movement of trunks, looking up and out and just slightly back across the plain from where they’d come. It was the matriarch: doing what the books, public television specials, and scientific studies tell you she does. Leading the group, not by dominating but directing.
When I got back to New York, I told Ingrid Newkirk of PETA about my time in the Mara. “Seeing elephants being elephants is always stunning, isn’t it?” she replied. I hadn’t realized how rare that is, or how much elephants in captivity have been denuded of themselves. Elephants are at risk in the wild from habitat loss, hunting and the still-raging trade in ivory. But they’re also threatened by captivity. What I saw in the Mara convinced me that we must not keep these magnificent animals chained or bound, or force them to perform tricks. It’s this simple: We must allow them to be who they are.
Now that Maggie can live with others of her species she’ll be more of who she was meant to be. Surely, all of us human beings are more human for it.
For more on human-elephant relations today, see Charles Siebert’s gripping and at times downright horrifying 2006 New York Times expose, An Elephant Crackup? It’s pachyderms pushed to the brink, and then some — new forms of elephantness, all rendered very sensitively. A brief excerpt:
“…It has long been apparent that every large, land-based animal on this planet is ultimately fighting a losing battle with humankind…the elephant is not going out quietly. It is not leaving without some kind of statement, one to which scientists from a variety of disciplines, including human psychology, are now beginning to pay close attention.