One of the threads I’d like to explore in this blog is just what the title of this post says.

My friend Elaine commented upon the death of an elephant at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (it used to be named the Wild Animal Park). It seems that there was a territorial dispute, and one elephant killed the other.

Fights (often to the death) like this happen in Wild Animal Parks (WAPs) simply because there isn’t enough room for each dominant male and his harem. I’m in the process of writing the memoirs of my friend Brian who worked at a WAP for 21 years, and he recounts a battle over territory between a Cape buffalo and a black rhino that was epic, and tragic.

As I’ve been ghost writing these memoirs (and working on a novel that parallels the memoirs) I’ve done a lot of research and what I originally thought about Africa and its ability to sustain a good life for these large animals was wrong — i.e., there really is NOT enough room for them.

One of the books I read in my research was Zoo Story by Thomas French, (excellent), and it begins with the relocation of a large number of elephants to the SD WAP and also to a zoo in Florida (in Tampa, I’m pretty sure). The relocation turned into a battle with several groups weighing in pro and con: PETA for one, Zoological Societies and many many more organizations on one side of the issue or the other. Mr. French pointed out very clearly that the two African parks from which the elephants were being moved could not possibly have sustained even half of the elephants that were there.

This was a total surprise to me. After decades of watching documentaries on elephants in Africa I’d assumed that there was plenty of room. Not even close. There was enough acreage there, even with the incredible encroachment of the massive amounts of people into what was once wilderness. But the park could no longer sustain the elephant population because elephants beat the hell out of the land! They are incredibly destructive: pushing down trees, ripping up the ground, eating or destroying any and all vegetation and pretty much making the land unfit to live on.

So at least half of the animals had to be moved.  Zoo Story  gives a lot of the details and then goes into a lot more about the Tampa Zoo. Very compelling. And what is going to happen to elephants in the future is anything but clear.

I’ll be writing more about this later and I certainly want other comments here on the blog, so please jump in.

I’m including hereafter in this blog a couple of exerpts from Brian’s memoirs that deal with elephants. There’ll be more to come, and hopefully the book will be out before next June (probably an eBook) but we have to consult with a lawyer first — don’t want to get sued if/when we point fingers.

Exerpt 1

They say that elephants never forget and I saw many, many examples of that while working at the Park. One came home to my partner and me with a vengeance.

It was late spring, the weather nice in the morning but sometimes a bit warm in the afternoon, and the job du jour was cleaning out the moat line around the Asian elephant enclosure. We were there with the track loader and the big five yard dump truck. We’d put the caterpillar [loader] in there the day before, so we threw our lunches and gear into the dump truck and drove over and into the enclosure. The keepers had to let us in because of the two gate system they had over there. The elephants were curious about what was going on and the keepers were holding them back as the interior gate was opened. What the keepers used were these two foot dowels with pointed hooks screwed into the ends – basically a one inch thick stick with a hook. It was amazing to me that such tiny devices could be used to control such large animals, and it shows how tame the animals were: if they had been wild at all those hooks would have been laughably inadequate.

The area was a couple of acres large. I felt like we were inching forward in the dump truck – its speed is OK on paved roads but here it was pretty rough terrain. The exhibit was so rutted that we’d have been scraping our scalps off the roof of the cab if I’d driven too fast. The ground was full of pits because the elephants constantly dug in it when they were looking for soil to throw on their backs. They’d kick at the earth with their feet to loosen it up then use their trunks to gather it in a pile. With the curled end of their trunks they’d surround the little pile of dirt then throw it onto their shoulders and backs with one smooth motion. The dirt acts as a sunscreen, (I don’t know theSPF). Seven or eight elephants constantly relandscaping coupled with the fact that the animals’ grazing had left no grass growing resulted in a cratered surface that was painful to drive over.

Moat cleaning was so routine that I wasn’t expecting any difficulty but I knew enough to be alert – I’d dealt enough with rhinos to know how much damage a large animal can do. I was just poking along when I heard the keepers screaming. I wondered what was up and I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head and my heart started hammering when I realized it was a big elephant charging right at us! It was such an alarming sight and I didn’t know what to do, so I just stopped the truck. (If I hadn’t stopped, she would have just run us down anyway – they can run over twenty miles per hour and we couldn’t do more than ten on that terrain).

She charged up, her head level with the dump truck’s elevated cab. I thought she was going to bash right into us, but she pulled up sharply at the last minute, dust clouds rising around her. The windows were open so I could see every crease, crack, wrinkle and hair on her gray, leathery skin as clearly as if I were looking through a magnifying glass. Her musty smell filled the cab and she pushed her trunk inside, smelling my crotch right away to identify me. Evidently I passed the smell test because she reached her trunk across me to smell my partner, her mouth filling my window and this huge, wide, angry eyeball level with my head. When she smelled him, it must have pulled a memory lever in her brain. She pulled her trunk back and blew snot all over him, absolutely covering him with snot.

The keepers were attentive and they sprang into action, trying to get her away from the truck by pulling at her with their flimsy hooks.  I was pretty calm considering that I was in the center of an intense whirlwind of action: the truck was rocking back and forth as the giant pushed in then backed off; my partner was cowering against the passenger side door, already squirming in discomfort from the snot all over him and scared silly by the elephant’s onslaught; I could see the concentration in the keepers’ eyes as they yelled and jumped about like Lilliputians around Gulliver, brandishing their hooks; the elephant’s shaggy head was so close to me that I could smell her breath and feel the exhalations on my face and arms.

It took a few minutes to get her away from the truck — with an animal that size and with the tools they were using it was really up to her when she’d leave. The upshot was she eventually felt like complying and let them lead her away.

Well of course we had to get my partner cleaned up – he couldn’t work all snotted up like that and the smell was rank besides. We started on back for the shop where the lockers were.

Our drive out of the exhibit was slow and once the adrenaline rush of an encounter with the four ton animal had worn off I turned and took a good look at my partner. I started laughing. Then I started howling. He was sitting there in as sorry a physical situation as a man not hurt could be, but the fact that I didn’t have a speck of snot on me and he was literally covered with it from head to knee was funnier than I could have imagined it to be. I laughed till my sides ached and the tears in my eyes made it hard to drive.

“Why do you think that elephant did that? I asked him when I could catch my breath.

“I know that old elephant,” he spat out. “ Her name’s Carol. I worked her over in some shows a few years back. Our job was to hit ‘em till they obeyed. I guess she was just getting even.”

I couldn’t get much more out of him than that, and for a few minutes we drove in silence. I’d heard stories about elephant abuse. I hadn’t witnessed any myself, but the mental pictures I had were bad enough. But in a couple of minutes, and after a few more glances at my snot-covered partner, my good humor returned. “Payback, Baby, payback!” I thought to myself, and that started me laughing again.

“Shut up!” he snapped, but that made me laugh all the harder.

He got cleaned up, we made the trip back in the turtle-paced dump truck and were let in to the enclosure by the keepers as we’d been earlier in the day. They said Carol was under control, so I got into the 951 Cat [loader] and started scraping out the silt and debris from the moats and loading the dump truck with its big front bucket. [The big shovel-like thing on the front.] My partner was driving the truck this time when – deja vu – he heard the keepers yelling again. I was only on my second or third shovel-full of moat sludge when Carol came charging again.  She hit the dump truck with her head right where Justin was, right on the door. The impact was terrific. Then with her massive head down she started pushing and the dump truck actually started to go over! Luckily I was holding the Cat’s bucket in the back of the dump truck, so she was pushing against the combined weight of the truck and the tractor.  If the bucket hadn’t been right where it was I’m sure she would have pushed that dump truck right over with my partner inside.

The handlers got Carol under control again, and we decided to get out of the exhibit.  By this time it was obvious that she had it in for my partner, and it was to the point where we were concerned for everybody’s safety.

Exerpt 2

For a time, working with elephants was the most dangerous of all zoo jobs. According to Thomas French in his excellent book The Zoo there was an average of a death a year among the trainers and keepers. (The Niagara Center for Animal Rights Awareness says that “It is estimated that over 100 people have been killed by elephants worldwide since 1980). Much of this came about because of a policy known as “free contact”, which is self-explanatory: humans getting in there with the elephants and being very hands-on.

The measure and depth of elephant society is coming more clearly into focus, but during that death-a-year period it wasn’t so well known. The treatment of elephants was changing dramatically: it was a transition from controlling elephant behavior so they could act as performers and workers to allowing them the space they needed to develop herd identity and order. Young elephants had often been beaten with ax handles and chained to already-trained elephant veterans to learn what humans wanted them to do. The brutal handling became a thing of the past but trainers still felt they could interact closely with the behemoths. Obviously it wasn’t safe for the puny humans so a new, “controlled contact” or “protected contact” policy was initiated, wherein the animals would be separated from the trainers and vets and be handled through the bars of cages. With this in mind, the elephant enclosures were completely restructured and new methods of positive enforcement and reward became the accepted training methods.