Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Old souls and giant spirits

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.


  1. What a coincidence! I've been thinking of elephants all week long. I just finished reading two books you might enjoy. "Still Life with Elephant" and "An Inconvenient Elephant" both from Amazon. They are novels but the author has helped raise baby elephants as well as rescue horses. Also a wonderful book which I've read three or four times is "Modoc". I just boxed them up for my daughter to read, we are both lovers of elephants.

  2. Noel, thanks for the book recommendations. I haven't read any of those and will try to find them.

    Don't you have a trip to Africa coming up soon? Maybe you'll have your own close encounters of the jungle animal kind.

  3. I didn't know about your love for the elephants. They are amazing critters! I saw a video recently of a drowning baby and how half a dozen females worked together to get the baby to safety! My BFF has a special connection too and asked for an elephant on her wedding ring!

  4. elephants and circus were part of our growing up. when the circus came to town everyone went.

  5. Elephants are amazing and I, too, have a small collection...from china and clay to wooden to blown glass. But only if their trunks are UP (good luck). I have elephant earrings and an elephant dangle on my charm bracelet. Who knew there were so many of us that love them so. They are majestic and gorgeous and I hate to see them in the circus. There is an elephant rescue place somewhere in the southeast...can't remember where now but they live out their days free and well cared for.

  6. Oh, my! I can't imagine being in that car...what courage these photographers displayed!

    The elephant must be a totem for you. And what a wonderful totem to have...I'm sure you've looked it up.

    I have a friend who also collects figures of elephants. I love their faces...and I really dislike that they are made to do tricks and such in circuses and zoos. The elephant is such a dignified animal...it takes away from their dignity, I feel.

  7. What an interesting post and video! I'd love to feed an elephant.

  8. Also a coincidence: I just unpacked a box and found the elephant that my father got on one of his trips. It's a wooden carving, with ivory tusks (so that shows it's pretty old). I absolutely love having it in my life.

  9. The trip to Africa starts on the 11 of Sept. I hope that's not a bad omen. Speaking of elephants we have all been part of the "Rescue Jenny" program and the Dallas Zoo refuses to give her up. She is old, given medication to help her depression and has awful sores and foot problems from not being able to walk. The elephant sanctuary is in Tennessee and many, many people have contributed to send her there. She is getting more elephants for companionship and not much more room although they are redoing the elephant enclosure. I cry everytime I think of it. She looks the the picture that Kim took. I am hoping to get pictures of happy elephants in Africa and I will be sure to post some on my blog.

  10. Elephants always seem to have such kind eyes. I can't say that I have ever really had an animal attachment (some people think it has to do with past lives) and that sort of bothers me. I used to try to talk to spiders when I was little, always looking for Charlotte. Never found her. And then, when Liv was a baby, I was bitten on the bottom of my foot by a brown house spider and was nearly crippled for months by it, so that interest in spiders bit the dust fast....

  11. Those elephants are so beautiful!

  12. I would like to try to get to Abu's Camp in Botswana near the Okavango Delta. For many years it has been a refuge for rescued elephants from zoos and circus'. Randall Moore established this refuge after being left with three elephants near Seattle and took them back to Africa where they were eventually released back into the protected wild.

  13. Holly, I did a search for the video you mentioned. WOW! Just WOW! Thank you for calling it to my attention.

    Patsy, it was a big deal for us, too. I always begged Mother for one of the very expensive (50 cents when five cents was the norm) Hershey bars, because I was always SO certain mine would be one of those with a prize ticket inside. It never was, of course.

    Val, I find it sad now to see elephants in the circus, but when I was a kid, it was the most awesome thing ever! Sometimes it's painful to take off the blinders of youth. I've seen videos (and read books about) the elephant rescue place you mentioned. They're doing wonderful work.

    Marion, the idea of an elephant totem had never occurred to me, so I hadn't looked it up until you mentioned it. Very interesting!

    Janet, it used to be possible to feed the elephants at the BR Zoo, if we stretched our arms out as far as possible, and the elephant stretched its trunk far enough across the moat. It was interesting to see how gently and precisely it could grasp the food from our hands.

    Duly Inspired, I, too, have a carved wooden elephant with tusks that are purportedly ivory. They look like ivory, but I've always wondered if they really are.

    Anonymous/Noel, I can't imagine how excited you must be about your upcoming trip. I'm shocked that the Dallas Zoo refuses to give up an old, depressed, unhealthy elephant when a sanctuary is available. Very sad!

    Maria, yes, elephants do have kind eyes. Sorry your search for Charlotte the spider ended so badly. As much as I like most animals, ALL SPIDERS IN MY HOUSE MUST DIE!

    Sister-Three, they sure are beautiful.

    Noel, I hope you do get to visit Abu's Camp. What a wonderful opportunity that would be.


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