Elephant with Sad Eyes - Photo by Kim Neely
I'm not sure when my fascination with elephants began, and I'm not sure what started it. My mother told me a few years before she died that my first-grade teacher once reported finding me crying despondently in the classroom. When she asked about the reason for my tears, I supposedly replied, "I don't know how to spell 'elephant.'"
Mother took us to the circus every year at the Shrine Mosque in Springfield, Missouri, so it's possible that I actually saw live elephants before first grade, but I don't remember seeing circus elephants until I was older.
In the mid-1950s, my family traveled to St. Louis, Missouri to visit my great-aunt Edith. We went to the St. Louis Zoo while we were there, and that's where I saw the first live elephant I remember. I couldn't get enough of her. She was so big, and I couldn't believe our good fortune that we could get so close to her. A chain around one leg was all that kept her in place. I felt sad that she was chained, but kind of relieved, also.
In 1965 my husband won a trip to Las Vegas in an automobile sales contest. The best moment of the trip, for me, was at a cocktail party for all the winners and their guests. The star attraction at the hotel that night was a magician, and he appeared at our cocktail party with a baby elephant he used in his act. People dressed up for Las Vegas shows in those days, and as I stood there in a borrowed cocktail dress and borrowed, sparkly-silver shoes, the baby elephant wandered over and checked out my shoes with its trunk. It stayed there for a magical minute or two, exploring gingerly.
In the 1970s I began collecting elephant figures, many of which I still have. My favorite is the mother with her baby, displayed in the center set of shelves in the photo below (among the Readers Digest Condensed Books, another 1970s collection I can't seem to part with).
I've written here before about paying for the privilege of spending a day "behind the scenes" at the Baton Rouge Zoo, during which adventure I helped to bathe an elephant. That was in the early '80s, and I'll never forget the texture of that elephant's skin. Her name was Judy (like my sister).
The reason I'm writing about elephants now is that I came across a video this morning that reminded me of both the strength and the gentleness of these massive, wonderful animals. If I'd been sitting in the jeep with the photographer who shot this video, I might have died, either from the fright or from the thrill of it. But if anyone was going to die that day, it wouldn't have been the baby elephants; watch how the adults kept them safe.