Today is a wonderful day for thinking here in Tallahassee. A gentle rain has been falling all day, and gentle rain is good, since it doesn’t scare the dogs. Thunderstorms have them all scurrying around, bumping into the furniture, trying to compress themselves into two-dimensional creatures that might fit under the couch. Or would that be one-dimensional?
So today, my thoughts are about elephants. Elephants have long been my favorite wild animal, although I’m also quite fond of the big cats, cheetahs in particular. To digress for a moment, the March issue of Smithsonian Magazine (which you may be able to find at www.smithsonian.com) has a fascinating article about cheetahs. The most fascinating fact: the DNA of every cheetah alive is virtually identical. Researchers believe that cheetahs ran into a “bottleneck” about 12,000 years ago, coincidental with the onset of the last Ice Age. That wiped out saber-toothed tigers and mastodons, but a few individual cheetahs survived and have subsequently interbred. That leaves them completely vulnerable to the same diseases and threats, and it’s very hard to keep them alive. What a world it would be if cheetahs became extinct.
Back to elephants. One of the things I recall is that when they are sick, they voluntarily go to a sort of elephant “graveyard” to die. Then, as their fellow elephants pass by the graveyard in the course of their migrations, they will stop and handle the bones with their trunks, as if remembering and grieving for their lost comrades. The other thing I recall is a show on the Discovery Channel which showed elephants working cooperatively to free a baby stuck in a mudhole. And finally, elephants will sometimes “adopt” an orphaned baby, whereas many other species will never do so.
The occasion for thinking about elephants was an article in this morning’s NY Times about “Jenny”, a 32-year old former circus elephant in the Dallas zoo, which the zoo wants to transfer to a sort of drive-through zoo of 5 acres in Mexico. If you haven’t been there, there is a drive-through zoo in Loxahatchie, near West Palm Beach, called Lion Country Safari. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve been there. The best you can say for the animals there is, at least they aren’t dead. Just almost.
So there is a sanctuary in Tennessee that Jenny’s friends want her to go to instead. There she would have 300 acres, which she would share with only a few, maybe four, other elephants. One of the zoo people scoffs at that being a better choice. He says the space doesn’t matter, it’s what you do with the space that counts.
So keep me in a cell, but give me good food. Is that what he means?
Jenny is a “problem” elephant, who mutilated herself in different ways when she arrived at the zoo. Her trainer at the circus was reportedly exceptionally cruel, and Jenny’s behavior is described as PTSD. I have no doubt that is accurate.
Water for Elephants is of course the title of the wonderful 2006 novel by Sara Gruen. Although it’s set in the 1930’s, and great strides have been made in animal care, even in circuses, circuses still make me retch. I’ve never been to one, nor will I ever go.
I feel better about zoos, at least the good ones, which have shifted their focus from display to preservation. But until I read this story, I never realized there was such a conflict between zoos and sanctuaries. In this case, the Dallas Zoo should be ashamed of itself. To read Jenny’s story for yourself, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/15/us/15elephant.html?scp=1&sq=Jenny%20the%20Elephant&st=cse