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The Cowboy and his Elephant
The Story of a Remarkable Friendship
By Malcolm MacPherson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Malcolm MacPherson
All rights reserved.
What the old hunter knows is legend. Among all the animals no tighter bond of emotion exists than the one between female elephants, who live with their mothers until they die. Through the ages they have wandered the plains of southern Africa in mother-daughter-grandmother "communions." They have lived for and within one another, with no conceivable distinct existence. Indeed, separation condemns them to a living death by the most painful of means — longing for the herd. Only a special few elephants have ever triumphed over this loss and loneliness. One of them was born in Zimbabwe in the spring of 1988.
* * *
A short time before her birth, in the last contractions of labor, her mother had squatted on her hind legs, her sides heaving with the weight of her burden. With a bellow and gargantuan groans and sighs she pushed the infant from her womb neck first, with its head tucked between its long forelegs, somewhat resembling a high diver. The light-gray-colored bundle dropped onto the ground with a soft thud and lay in stillness inside the clear wrapping of the amnion. Other elephants looked on, apparently with intense curiosity.
The mother let out a sigh and a shudder. She extended her trunk and helped her baby escape the sac that had been her world for the twenty-two months since her conception. The infant struggled with an instinctive urgency to steady her own ungainly legs. She slipped in the mud of mixed dirt and amniotic fluid. She raised herself again, but she did not stay upright. Drained by the effort of standing, falling, and falling again, she tried to raise herself one last time. Now her aunties, as elephant researchers sometimes call older females, rushed in to steady her. With their pointed pink trunk "fingers" they touched her body tenderly.
With that a fanfare of trumpeting, harrumphs, rumbles, and thunderous stomping and dusting — altogether a raucous celebration — filled the air. The females trumpeted and bellowed, defecated, and ran in shambling circles of pure elephants' joy.
Hearing the news from afar, relatives from the herd came around. The bulls stood apart, throwing trunks of powder-dry ocher dust in clouds over their heads and rumbling to one another, curious and aloof. They eyed the teenage females in passing to try to judge their readiness to breed. And soon, as always, they lost interest and went back to sparring with their tusks. They posed, huge and majestic, and challenged one another with playful charges and furious dustings, squabbling over who was better than whom.
The females paid them slight heed. As they fussed over the baby, their displays of genuine caring were as heartwarming as any in nature. The birth brought them great pleasure — or whatever elephants feel when theirs is the world in which a baby has been born. This generosity of spirit reflected some deeper, mysterious, and unique emotion that only some few females of the mammalian species can feel. In this female world of such close community, the newborn was theirs, as if she had emerged from their collective elephant-family womb. The baby was their new daughter, granddaughter, cousin, and niece, but to each elephant of childbearing age, as an individual, she was also her baby alone.
And what an arrival she was! Shiny and new, tippy on her feet and nearly blinded by the sharp African light, she peeked out from between her mother's legs and uttered her first cry of "Pra-pra," the tiny plaint of a newborn that means "I'm hungry." Her mother gave a soothing rumble from deep within her, and rich, chalk-colored milk dripped from her nipples.
As a normal and, one might say, beautiful baby, the newborn stood about two and a half feet tall at the shoulders and weighed slightly under 150 pounds. She was battleship gray (bright pink behind her ears), with baggy pink skin bunched at her knees like a child in her grandpa's long underwear. The hair on her head — a frizzy, wine-colored cap — gave her a confused, sleepy look, like someone whom the inconvenience of birth had startled out of a delicious dream. Standing in the shadow of her mother's flanks, she explored her own being with a dubious mien.
She swayed her trunk as if it were a deadweight. An irritable look in her sharp brown eyes seemed to say, This whatever it is on the front of my face is a mistake. Please, whoever gave it to me, remove it. She had no control over the trunk's finer functions and only a modicum of command over the larger of its forty-thousand muscles. For now it was plainly a nuisance. She stepped on it with a squeak of pain. It got in the way of her mouth, suckling her mother's breasts. She slept on it under her head when she lay down. It altogether seemed to be a bother, and would remain a bafflement for some time to come.
Her map-of-Africa ears, rubbery and pinned to her head, soon flared and startled her. Their purpose too was hard for her to grasp. She could see them with her peripheral vision, and when their shadows fell on the Kalahari sands, she spooked, screamed, and ran to find her mother.
Her legs were long, thin, and unsteady. In the coming weeks she would watch the older females cross their back legs at the knees while standing in repose, and when she tried to imitate them, she would fall over on her side. Her legs commanded her in directions she did not wish to go, like someone at the mercy of strong gusts of wind.
Her broad forelegs were like cumbersome round winter boots encasing the dainty feet of a ballerina on pointe. She could feel herself walking gracefully on tiptoes, but when she looked down she saw only tree stumps. She could not even glimpse her tail, which hung down from the end of her ridged spine like a short hemp strand with a frizzy, blown-apart tip that resembled nothing so much as an exploded trick cigar. Neither could she see around her bowed sides how the skin under her tail and around her back thighs drooped like oversize trousers slipping down to her knees.
As a whole, if her mother or her aunties had whispered to her in those first hours after her birth that God had drawn her as a silly cartoon, she would have had to agree. She possessed no sleekness, no aerodynamics, no impression of grace or speed or agility.
Though her mother, as a young adult, had grown into her mature elephant proportions, she, like all elephants, would continue to expand in size and weight throughout her life. She towered over her baby. Nine feet tall at her shoulders and weighing 4,400 pounds, she gave scale to the baby's tiny size and weight. She was the image of what the baby would grow up to be over a long period of physical maturation that parallels the stages of human development.
* * *
For now, infancy exposed in stark relief the baby's parts: Nothing born should have had such big ears, and a nose like a hose, and such size and girth, and a tail that was hardly worthy of the name. The baby was smaller than most. Ultimately her size might shape her character: She could grow up as a runt or, by compensating for her size with intelligence and a capacity to adapt, she could become a leader. It was too soon to tell.
But Amy — as she would later come to be called — was already different. Her brownish, amber-colored eyes contained none of the hard darkness of the bulls or the more common dark reddish-black of other females. It was a color said to signify intelligence. Her eyes peered out of her head as if they belonged to another creature inside her baggy skin. Her baffled gaze posed the same enigma that the older female elephants raised when they would pause in unison to look skyward as a cloud floated by. According to the wise old Brahman priests in India, elephants were gods who worshiped the sun and the moon.
Amy's mother soon grew impatient and took herself several yards from the birth celebration for food and rest. A daughter of the matriarch, she was acknowledged to possess strength and character. She was smaller but more dominant than her sisters, whom she bossed, and they obeyed as if she herself were the matriarch.
Like all female elephants of every age, she switched effortlessly from watchful mother to distracted child. Lessons for life were surely to be learned in "play," but as the true kings and queens of Africa, elephants lorded over life. They seemed to have leisure, which they used for friendship and gaiety, courtship, reverence — and for itself alone.
Now Amy's grandmother scooted away the aunties and cousins as if in weary disgust. Their doting over Amy threatened to weaken the baby, whose ability to keep up with the herd was a matter of her survival. The family was migrating in loose association with its herd along the western edge of their territory, inside the 423,000acre Charisa (in the Sengwa Wildlife Research Area), on the boundary of Zimbabwe's Chizarira National Park. The Sengwa River traversed the Charisa and meandered across a valley floor of escarpments and cliffs of Karoo sandstone before pouring into Lake Kariba, some fifty miles below the falls. Each family member needed sixty pounds of forage daily to satisfy his or her appetite. Wander for food was what elephants did, how they lived, and what consumed their time. It was their job.
After the hiatus of the birth, the matriarch rumbled a familiar call, "Grah," the "Let's go" signal. The elephants stood still, as if frozen in place. They listened to her calls, and they obeyed her without question. For she alone was their link to the lore of their collective past. She was their leader. Without her they would not know what to think, or do, or where to go. Until the day she died, she was their mother, their compass, their memory.
With their ears flared, the family set off in single file at a pace to ease the strain on the baby. The aunties guarded the column's rear and flanks against the jackals and hyenas that had already devoured Amy's placenta and sought her out eagerly as a tender meal. Her mother urged her along when she scampered through a forest of legs. Many big eyes peered down and never lost sight of her. Elephants' eyes, with the acuity to spy a tiny morsel on the ground from seven or eight feet high, and to see to their sides — and with a slight movement of their head to their rear — missed nothing, especially not a 150-pound baby careening through their legs.
No sight could convince an observer of the goodness of their being more than that of female elephants on the march. They showed toward one another what humans would call contentment, joy, and affection. They touched as though they would rather have been there and nowhere else, and with no other creatures. They were at peace. Their world pleased them, as the ladies of the land. They were the world.
The baby Amy grew stronger, heavier, taller; and with a widening world, she was learning where she belonged in an order that changed over the seasons by birth, maturity, and death.
The elephants displayed personalities as varied as any extended human family. Unlike the bulls, who separated from the family when they reached adolescence — in their early to middle teens — and achieved their prominence through physical strength, females found their order through assertiveness, character, intelligence, and judgment; the capacity for memory, and something else mysterious and hard to define. Some elephants remained adolescents their whole lives, forgetful and foolish, while others brooded and stood aloof, and still others sought neither high nor low ground but were content to eat, breed, raise their young, remain a part of the female family, and die.
The more assertive females stood up to the younger bulls that pestered those females who had already chosen as a mate a more dominant male. These females tolerated no bullying. They stood between their sisters and trouble, and led them away from harm. They worked and lived together as a unit, subsuming individuality, while the males distinguished themselves in more clearly obvious ways, presenting themselves in broad strokes. They were cranky, or outright mean, or sometimes just timid, souls who were terrified of their own shadows, and so on. Males needed to define themselves thus. Females did not. And this made them who they were.
As a collective of mothers and mothers-to-be, the females spoiled the babies; watched over them; and nurtured, encouraged, and praised them. They did not discipline or punish them for their mistakes. A moment's inattention or a baby's wandering away from the herd to play could mean a life ended quickly. Indeed, the brutality of nature served elephants as discipline served humans.
* * *
Those who know elephants, work with them, study them, and have hunted them have never doubted their intelligence. One hunter says, "These are special animals. I know it. I'm not a guy who has ever done research. I just kept my eyes open and lived here among them for forty years. They are the most intelligent animals of all, period."
Amy depended on her elders' intelligence in times of trouble. All elephants got stuck — in mud, in pits, in bowls under the surface of shallow water, in sand. Amy was no different, and she was curious. Once she found herself trapped on a shelf in the river. She could not climb the bank. She screamed her alarm call. Her mother panicked and ran to her rescue. She saw the trouble, and she called the aunties to help her. With patient but insistent coordination, the adults waded into the river and pushed and prodded with their tusks and trunks to lift her up to safety.
Years before Amy's birth, when lightning had sparked a wildfire that burned hot and fast, one elephant in the family was seriously scorched, and in her agony she lost the will to flee from the flames. She screamed in pain; she faltered. The other females, heedless of their own safety, rushed into the fire and pushed her to get her out. Her family would not allow her to give up, and she lived.
Another time, also before Amy's birth, a younger female died of unknown causes. She had not been shot, and she was too young to have died of any ailment of old age. The other females, by their subsequent actions, did not believe that she was dead. They tried to pick her up. They pushed her huge body more than fifty yards into a clump of thick underbrush, where they inspected her all over with their trunks. They pushed at her; they mounted her; they screamed at her, shaded her, and brought her water.
Some hours went by. Humans arrived, and the elephants fled. The humans removed the dead elephant's tusks, and with butcher knives they cut a large panel of valuable hide off her side, leaving a broad square of bright white subcutaneous tissue exposed to the light. The females returned that night. Clearly upset by what they saw, they set out to "doctor" her. One by one they went down to the riverbank some miles distant and picked up mud, with which they returned to salve the dead elephant's whitened side. And when they were done, and the dead elephant was dark skinned once more, in the eyes of the other elephants she should have been ready to come along with them. They waited. In the morning, when she did not get up, they went on reluctantly without her.
This remarkable ability to feel distress in their own kind — and also in other, unrelated species — and to try to relieve it sets elephants apart from other species. This compassionate quality certainly impressed Alexander the Great, who fought the Battle of Hydaspes in early summer 326 B.C., in which the Indian monarch Porus was grievously wounded and would have died if the elephant he was riding had not carried him off the field of battle, laid him down on the earth, and with its trunk plucked out the arrows from his body with a gentleness that Alexander described as "human." So impressed was he that later he minted a coin in the elephant's honor.
Excerpted from The Cowboy and his Elephant by Malcolm MacPherson. Copyright © 2001 Malcolm MacPherson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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