The Astonishing Elephant

The Astonishing Elephant

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by Shana Alexander

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When Shana Alexander, a staff writer at Life magazine, won the right to name her own assignments, her first choice was a week-by-week account of a zoo elephant's pregnancy, believed to be the first in the history of captive elephants. Finally, in 1962, after twenty-two months, the baby was born, and Alexander's story was proudly trumpeted on Life's cover.


When Shana Alexander, a staff writer at Life magazine, won the right to name her own assignments, her first choice was a week-by-week account of a zoo elephant's pregnancy, believed to be the first in the history of captive elephants. Finally, in 1962, after twenty-two months, the baby was born, and Alexander's story was proudly trumpeted on Life's cover. Ever since, between other projects, she has made writing and learning about elephants a special interest.

In The Astonishing Elephant, Shana Alexander tells a story filled with drama, humor, sorrow, greed, sex, science—and surprising human interest. Physiologically, elephants are unique—entirely different from all other mammals. Yet, since antiquity, observers have agreed that the elephant is the animal most akin to man.

Today both species of elephant—Africans and Asians—stand on the brink of extinction. Hope is arising, however, from a new generation of young American scientists, many of them women. Female zoologists and biologists have led the field in new findings about elephant ecology, family and sexual patterns, and the animals' continual communication by ultrasound, inaudible to human ears.
The Astonishing Elephant also reveals, for the first time, a hair-raising story of elephant "genocide": in the years between the Civil War and World War I, all male elephants in U.S. circuses were stealthily killed—shot, poisoned, drowned, and even hanged. The reason was musth, a periodic condition of mature males that renders them uncontrollable. So, gradually, only female elephants—now with masculine names—were put on parade, with no one the wiser.

Mostimportant, The Astonishing Elephant details a decade of heartbreaking trial and error and eventual triumph as scientists have tried to learn how to breed elephants via artificial insemination.

Shana Alexander has traveled the world for this story. She has visited India and Africa, interviewing the brave researchers who are devoting their lives to the oversize mysteries of elephants. She has looked back in history, detailing the elephant's importance in every major religion, in work, in warfare, and in its position—now threatened—at the heart of every circus, from Rome to Ringling.
The Astonishing Elephant contains everything old and new that a reader has ever wondered about elephants, told in the stylish prose for which Shana Alexander is celebrated.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Set apart from other creatures in the animal kingdom by size, dexterity and emotional range, elephants have fascinated humankind for centuries. They've tantalized Alexander since 1962, when, on an assignment for Life magazine, she witnessed the first-ever elephant birth in an American zoo. This passionate book chronicles her three-decade obsession with the pachyderm. Following her curiosities down a seemingly random course, Alexander (whose previous books--Anyone's Daughter, for instance--were mostly biographies) explores humans' interest in the gentle monster, from cave paintings to ancient myths, from circus shows to scientific research. She tells of how 19th-century circus promoters regularly killed off the male elephants in their care, details the place of elephants in Hannibal's famous armies and profiles the scientists who have devoted their lives to learning about these creatures by, for example, analyzing gallons of their urine. Meanwhile, Alexander corrects common myths about elephants' character and culture--they have neither graveyards nor a fear of mice--and supplies in their place a series of equally astonishing truths (elephants communicate over miles at subaudible frequencies and resemble humans in their remarkable expressions of emotions, like grief and concern for others, and intelligence). Written in clear prose that mixes technical jargon with colloquialisms, this book is a stampede of emotion and information, and--though a bit disorderly--a gripping account of one species' obsession with another. 16-page photo insert not seen by PW. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
How does a woman born in the 1930s become a champion for a species facing extinction? Journalist Alexander (Very Much a Lady) grew up in Manhattan, where her only exposure to animals was through zoos and circuses. She recalls watching elephants being dressed for the circus parade in "monstrous ballet skirts of pink tulle" and watching them in choreographed dance routines that she found humiliating. Through reading and research, she recognized the special place the elephant holds in many civilizations and its unique relationship to humans. She writes the elephant has an "essential nobility, serenity, sagacity, loyalty and playfulness" and to lose these qualities through extinction would be comparable to losing the best qualities of the human race as well. Opening with a description of the first birth of an elephant in a U.S. zoo (which Alexander witnessed in 1961), Alexander's book is not a typical natural history text complete with dry field observations and research; instead, it is an engaging cultural, social, and historical study full of enthralling and insightful vignettes. This should be popular reading for public library readers from young adult on up.--Edell Marie Schaefer, Brookfield P. L., WI Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Margaret Foley
The biological facts she relates deserve the modifier "amazing".
Carolyn T. Hughes
Anyone interested in the colorful, if sometimes sorrowful, history of elephants will find much to admire.
The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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6.26(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.06(d)

Read an Excerpt


How did I get hooked on elephants-me of all people-a woman born and raised in the middle of Manhattan, someone with zero knowledge or experience of animals, domestic or wild? I was thirty-six years old and had never even owned a pet when I first heard of a young elephant named Belle. She lived at the zoo in Portland, Oregon, and was believed to be in an advanced state of pregnancy. If the zoo's calculations and press releases were correct, Belle's baby would be the first elephant born in the Americas since prehistoric times, when woolly mammoths roamed. Reporters and zoologists from around the world were converging on the zoo, and with scant forethought I hastened to join them. I hung around for a few days, intrigued as much by the colorful gathering of animal experts as by the animals themselves, but nothing happened, and I went home.

Each time the zoo veterinarian convinced himself birth was imminent, he telephoned me, and I leapt onto the next plane, determined to write the story of this major milestone in the annals of mammals.

My fourth mad dash to Portland finally paid off, and early on the morning of Easter Saturday, 1962, I arrived in time to observe and eventually to write up for Life magazine, what the editors billed on Life's cover as BIG BLESSED EVENT: 225 POUNDS AND ALL ELEPHANT.

Playing midwife to an elephant had been fascinating, and more fun than any previous story I'd worked on. Over the succeeding years, between celebrity profiles, political commentary and, finally, books, I wrote a few other elephant stories. Gradually I learned more about this most compelling of creatures, and always I stored up notes for the bookon elephants that I knew from my first days in Portland I would one day find time to write.

Only after I'd begun writing it did I recognize that my empathy for the order Proboscidea had begun long before Portland. As a girl growing up in the 1930s in a series of New York City apartment hotels, most of them shadowed by the complex latticework of the Sixth Avenue El, my surefire sign of spring was the annual arrival in nearby Madison Square Garden of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. My father, my sister, and I regularly attended this event with the fervor of Crusaders, catching two or three matinees every year. Our father, a composer of popular music, was a pal of Merle Evans, the red-coated circus bandmaster, and this assured us not just the best box seats in the arena, but early admission to the preperformance menagerie and freak show set up in the Garden basement.

Usually we got to the basement early enough to watch the elephants being dressed up for the "spec," the big parade that began the show upstairs. We were astonished one year to see immense gold tiaras being attached to the elephants' heads with rhinestone chin straps, and monstrous ballet skirts of pink tulle tied round their middles. The spectacle made me feel squirmy and sad. Our father explained that this season the pachyderms would be lurching and twirling to ballet music commissioned by the circus from Igor Stravinsky, and performing dance routines "choreographed" by George Balanchine. At age eight I'd never heard of Stravinsky or Balanchine, nor of choreography for that matter, but I was painfully aware of the humiliation these great beasts must feel at finding themselves in such inappropriate, insensitive circumstances.

A few lines back I used the word "sad." The truth is, performing elephants have always embarrassed me. Let the vainglorious lion be king of beasts. To me the elephant is mandarin, and I do not enjoy watching him on his hind legs.

Given the facts of my animal-free childhood and early life, where does my strong attachment to elephants come from? Musing about this not long ago, I recalled a forgotten treasure of my earliest years, a French Noah's Ark book. It was a gift from my mother's Parisian friend, and she used to read it aloud to three-year-old me seated on her lap. I don't speak French these days, and had not thought of L'Arc de Noah for about sixty years, until dawn one morning in the Serengeti, in East Africa, where I had gone on assignment for National Geographic. I was being driven across the empty savanna in a Land Rover when far off on the horizon a frieze of wild animals appeared in silhouette against the rising sun. Suddenly I was on my feet waving my arms and shouting, "Les elephants! La girafe!"

Doubtless I also got hooked on elephants because I was already hooked on metaphor. Every writer is, and the elephant is one of the oldest, biggest, and most universal metaphors mankind has ever stumbled against and been wowed by. An awareness that elephants are something very special is found in every civilization. Students of Scripture used to quote the powerful passage in the Book of Job:

Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; He eateth grass as an ox.

Lo now, his strength is in his loins, And his force is in the stays of his body. He straineth his tail like a cedar; The sinews of his thighs are knit together. His bones are pipes of brass; His gristles are like bars of iron. He is the beginning of the ways of God.

Alas, better scholars now agree that this particular behemoth was, I regret to say, a rhinoceros.

Herodotus, in the fifth century B.C., termed the elephant of all animals the most akin to man. Writer to writer thereafter, through the centuries, from Aristotle (". . . the beast that passeth all others in wit and mind ... and by its intelligence, it makes as near an approach to man as matter can approach spirit") to Cicero, deploring the slaughter of elephants in the Roman Games (". . . they arouse both pity and a feeling that the elephant is somehow allied with man . . . ") to Chaucer ("For mayst thou sormounten thise olifaunts in greatnesse or weight of body?") to passionate John Donne ("Nature's great master-peece, an Elephant, / The oncly harmlesse great thing") the elephant has caused poets, playwrights, scholars, aphorists, fabulists, and all other citizens of the world of imagination to bow and marvel, scratch their heads and nibble their quills. This century's poets are no different. They can neither resist the elephant nor agree about him. To D. H. Lawrence he incarnates the world's mightiest, most oceanic orgasm. Marianne Moore sees the same beast as the very avatar of Buddhist tranquillity: "asleep on an elephant, that is repose!" My own viewpoint is closest to that of Louis MacNeice, who begins his elephant poem: "Tonnage of instinctive / Wisdom in tinsel . . ."

Over the years I have come to understand that human beings and elephants enjoy a unique relationship, different from our connection to every other animal species. Perhaps it is because, as Ivan T Sanderson remarks in The Dynasty of Abu, "Elephants are just as unlike all other living things as we are."

Romain Gary may have said it best in a well-known love letter, "Dear Elephant, Sir:"

... For a long time now I have had the feeling that our destinies are linked.... In my eyes ... you represent to perfection everything that is threatened today with extinction in the name of progress, efficiency, ideology, materialism, or even reason, for a certain abstract, inhuman use of reason and logic are becoming more and more allies of our murderous folly. It seems clear today that we have been merely doing to other species, and to yours in the first place, what we are on the verge of doing to ourselves.

Above and beyond these correspondences, elephants have always had a mystic importance to man, a special connection unrelated to size or power or skeletal structure. No animal has been more beloved than the elephant by all the peoples and cultures who have known him, and I know of no legends, myths, or folktales of evil elephants. In real life, of course, exceptions always come along to prove the rule, and nothing is perfect, least of all elephants, as we shall see.

Nonetheless, the animal seems to be a universal symbol for good in every part of the world and throughout human history. Elephants and mammoths appear in the prehistoric art of Europe, Africa, Asia, the Arctic, and even of Central America. Elephants ridden by turbaned mahouts carrying traditional Indian elephant hooks have been found carved onto Mayan stele dug from the deepest jungles of Guatemala.

The elephant, I have learned, is unique among all the creatures of earth and sea. Nothing else is anything like it. At the same time, a mysterious, even metaphysical bond connects our two species, and always has. Humans and elephants are very alike in myriad ways, and this likeness fascinates people everywhere. The elephant fires the human imagination like no other beast. It appears in the art and myth of virtually all the peoples of the world. It turns up in every major religion, and it has been performing chores for mankind and stunts for our enjoyment since history began.

What is one to make of it all? Perhaps this: elephants are not like us entirely, but they are a lot like the very best of us. They are like what we would want to be, the ideal toward which we strive. They have essential nobility, serenity, sagacity, loyalty and playfulness, a simple goodness, a lack of animosity-unless provoked. They occupy a special place in our consciousness; they convey a sense of perfect beings. In many ways, they represent what Jehovah, Jesus, the Prophet, the Buddha, and the other great teachers of mankind adjure us to be. Yet these same creatures that appear to embody the best in humankind have throughout history brought out the worst: our savagery, greed, and unfeeling cruelty.

And the sadness? Perhaps it stems from a visceral awareness that today both elephant species, Asian and African, tremble on the edge of extinction. Yet if we allow the elephant to vanish from the planet, do we not forfeit some of what is best in ourselves?

What People are saying about this

Roger Caras
Shana Alexander can take almost any subject and make it wonderous and fascinating. When she picks a suject that is already both of those things, she acts as an incredible magnifying glass for all of us who follow her into yet another field of knowledge. She has done her art and craft proud by taming the legendry of this greatest of all land animals. Utterly fascinating. She handles 'awesome' so easily and so well.
Peter Beard
This book tells you everything you'll ever want to know about every kind of elephant in the world.
Maya Angelou
Sometimes Shana Alexander invites us to rock along with her, vicariously yet elegantly, in a jeweled howdah. At other times we're mahouts along with her, urging the beasts forward on their mighty feet.

Such a massive subject—from the hidden secrets of the American circus to preserving the species—deserves a huge writer, and both are well met in The Astonishing Elephant.

Meet the Author

SHANA ALEXANDER is the author of numerous books, including the bestsellers Nutcracker and Anyone's Daughter, about Patty Hearst. Her other stories of true crime detail the lives of Jean Harris and Bess Meyerson. Her book about her own family, Happy Days, was published in 1995. She lives on Long Island.

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Astonishing Elephant 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Charlottes-son More than 1 year ago
A wonderful book, and a good read. I love to share this book. By the time I was finished i though so much more about the work Shana Alexander has done. So glad she was there to help. So glad she wrote about it.