We Bought a Zoo meets Jurassic Park in a gripping story featuring the evergreen appeal of human-animal friendships and set in an elephant sanctuary, about a thirteen-year-old girl, a cast of elephants, and a surprising new arrival—a woolly mammoth. Sam was born and raised in an elephant sanctuary. When a beloved elephant dies giving birth, Sam develops a connection with baby Woolly—who isn't actually an elephant but was cloned from woolly mammoth DNA. And the billionaire genius behind the cloning experiment will stop at nothing to protect his investment. Smart, determined, and loving, Sam stands up to this powerful adversary to protect the sanctuary and her herd. In the best tradition of child-animal friendship stories, Elephant Secret explores the strong and complex bond between Sam and her elephants while offering a fascinating, authentic glimpse into elephant—and human—behavior.
About the Author
Eric Walters has written one hundred children’s books, which have won more than 125 awards. He was named to the Order of Canada in 2014 for his contribution to literature for children and young adults. Walters also runs the Creation of Hope, a charity in Kenya. He lives in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, with his family. Visit him at www.ericwalters.net.
Read an Excerpt
I lay on my back on the inflatable raft. The warm sun from above and the gentle rocking from below lulled me in and out of sleep. My arms hung down into the water, soothed and cooled. They needed it. Not just because it was a cloudless brilliant sky and the temperature was still above eighty, but because they were sore. I was sore in a lot of places. The tractor had broken down, and I’d pitched enough hay to feed an elephant. . . . Actually, a herd of elephants. I hoped the tractor would be fixed by tomorrow, but there was no guarantee, nor that it wouldn’t be broken again in a week or two. So much of what we needed to run this place seemed to be held together by duct tape, baling wire, and hope. Sometimes it felt like hope alone kept it all going, and sometimes even hope was in short supply. I knew I shouldn’t complain. Things had been going a lot better since we got the— I felt something brush against my left hand, and my left arm was wrapped up in a tight grip. “Oh, no!” I gasped. I was dragged off the raft and pulled beneath the water, unable to escape, powerless to fight as I was going down. Mouth closed and eyes wide open, I found myself staring into a gigantic dark eye shining through the murky waters no more than a foot away. As quickly and powerfully as I’d been pulled under, I was thrust toward the surface, shot out of the water, and propelled into the air. “You big stupid—” I screamed before splashing back down into, and then under, the water. I quickly rose to the surface to the sound of my father’s laughter. He was standing at the edge of the pond, laughing so hard he was practically doubled over. Beside him on both sides were elephants slowly moving into the water or standing half submerged. “I’m glad you found that so funny!” I yelled as I treaded water. I reached out and grabbed my wet baseball cap, which was floating on the surface, and put it back on my head. “It’s not just me, Samantha,” my father replied, still laughing. He was the only one who called me Samantha. Everybody else called me Sam. I pretended it bothered me. Really, I kind of liked it. “You know, even though the elephants didn’t laugh, they might have thought it was funny.” Off to my side was the tip of a trunk, the snorkel, of the culprit. I could identify the trunk, but even if that weren’t the case, I’d know who had done this to me. It had to be Raja. Even if elephants don’t laugh, this one certainly liked to play jokes. Slowly the trunk started to rise, followed by a domed forehead and two brown eyes. Of course it was Raja. He turned slightly to the side, and I could have sworn that he winked at me. He sank back down under the surface, his trunk disappearing with the rest of him. I saw the ripples and knew what was about to happen. Knowing it didn’t mean I could do anything about it. Raja rose up beneath me, pushing against my feet and legs. I reached down to grab on, balancing, getting one leg on each side, until I was riding on his back. Floating forward toward the shore, Raja paddled along until I could feel the change in motion as his feet hit the bottom. His rolling gait carried him and me into the shallows, where he stood still. “You’re going to stop here?” I asked him. “Couldn’t you at least take me to shore?” He didn’t answer, but he didn’t move, either. I reached down and gave him a big scratch behind his left ear. That was his special spot, where he liked being scratched the best. Elephants don’t laugh and they don’t purr like cats, but if they did, Raja would have started to purr right then. “If you keep rewarding bad behavior, you’re only reinforcing it, Samantha,” my father warned. “Are you talking to me or Raja, Jack?” “Jack?” “Well, if you can call me Samantha, I can call you Jack.” “You know I’m going to keep calling you Samantha, so you have to decide what you’re going to call me. My preference would be Dad, or Daddy, or Pops, or even J-Dog.” “J-Dog?” “My rapper name.” I couldn’t help but laugh. “You are the furthest thing from a rapper that I can even imagine.” “Yeah? Toss me your baseball cap,” he said. “What?” “Toss me your baseball cap—you know, the thing that practically lives on top of your head.” I hesitated. “You won’t die if you don’t wear it for a few seconds.” I took off the cap and threw it down to him. He caught it and put it on his head—backward. “Well, am I more rapper-like now?” “You’re a nut,” I said. “That’s Daddy nut. Or you can just call me Dad.” “How about you take off the hat and I’ll call you Dad?” “I can agree to that,” he said as he took it off. “You know I probably have a better chance of training the elephants to do what I ask than I do of training you.” “You don’t train a daughter.” “Certainly not this one, anyway,” he agreed. One by one, the entire herd, all eleven Asian elephants, had entered the pond. Some had disappeared completely. Others were snorkeling, only their trunks and the tops of their heads visible above the water. Some waded in with their backs breaking the surface. There were so many sounds coming from the elephants. True, they didn’t purr or laugh, but they chirped, squeaked, squawked, clicked, and rumbled. People who get all their information from watching Disney cartoons think that elephants only trumpet. They do that—and it’s amazing to hear—but they make many other sounds as well. Still standing in the shallows was Daisy Mae. I wanted to go and see her. “Down!” I said to Raja. He reached back with his trunk and helped me slide down into the waist-deep water. I sloshed toward the shore. “Hey, Daisy Mae, how are you doing?” I gave her trunk a gentle rub. Daisy Mae was a terrible name for an Indian elephant, but it was the name she responded to. Every elephant that wasn’t born on the property had been rescued or donated by somebody in North America. Daisy Mae was from a private collector in Kentucky. He had a personal menagerie, and he’d thought that owning an elephant would be a good idea. Of course it’s never a good idea for somebody to own an elephant. To his credit, he’d had more than ten acres of property for Daisy Mae and a big-animal vet who treated her, and he’d managed to keep her alive and healthy for almost two years. When he finally realized it was too expensive and just not right to keep an elephant on its own, he arranged for us to take her and paid for a special animal-transport company to bring her here. That was more than five years ago. Since then he’d made a donation every year to help pay for her upkeep. If other people were that considerate, we wouldn’t have been so tight for money all the time. Some of our elephants had lived through a lot before we got them. Some had been like abused children shut up in somebody’s basement or attic. They’d survived without enough space and without a family or a herd. An elephant living on its own is like a prisoner locked away in solitary confinement. They’re prisoners who have committed no crime except being an elephant. “She’s doing well, isn’t she?” I asked. This was a comment, a question, and a concern all rolled into one. “Daisy Mae’s doing extremely well, and that’s not just my opinion but Doc Morgan’s, too.” My dad handed me my baseball cap, and I put it on, tucking my hair under it. “But things could have changed since the last time he examined her,” I said. I couldn’t help but worry about her. “He saw her yesterday while you were in school.” “You didn’t tell me he’d been here.” I was surprised. There wasn’t much that went on with the elephants that I didn’t know about. “I did. Just now. Do you have water in your ears from when Raja dunked you?” “You and that elephant both think you’re funny. You’re both wrong. What did Doc Morgan say?” “That she’s healthy and progressing through the pregnancy just fine.” Daisy Mae was very pregnant—twenty-one months, or four weeks away from being ready to deliver. “And how is the baby?” “Doing well. He let me listen to the heartbeat. It sounded like a drum.” “I wish I could have been there to hear that,” I said. I’d heard it when he did his previous examinations, but still it would have been thrilling to hear it again. I felt like a niece or sister who was supposed to be there for all Daisy Mae’s doctor visits. “School does get in the way sometimes, but summer is almost here,” my dad said. “Ten more school days. I’m counting.” “The important thing is that you’re going to be here for the birth.” “That is more important. I can’t believe we’re practically there. Why can’t elephants be more like bunnies?” He laughed. “A litter of elephants would be incredible.” “Even twins would be amazing.” “Amazing and extremely rare. We know she’s carrying only one baby.” “Right. It’s not so much the number of babies as the length of time it takes for an elephant to have even one baby.” “You know the rule of thumb—mostly, the larger the animal, the longer the gestation period. A mouse pregnancy is less than a month, and an elephant’s is twenty-two months.” “Twenty-two months is ridiculous. A hippo isn’t that much smaller than an elephant, and it gives birth in less time than a human. Blue whales aren’t pregnant for that long either, and they’re much bigger.” I knew about most animals, not just elephants. Part of the reason I liked being there when Doc Morgan examined or treated one of our elephants was because I wanted to be a vet when I grew up. “It’s size and complexity. Orca whales carry for about seventeen months, and giraffes about fifteen. And as you know, the closest relative to an elephant is a manatee, and they carry their young for about thirteen months.” “I wish elephants took thirteen months,” I said. “I’m tired of waiting.” “It will be worth the wait. Scientists believe there’s something about elephants and the complexity of their social structure that requires them to be born with fairly advanced neurological development.” “As opposed to the nine months a human is pregnant and the complexity of human social structure?” I asked. “You have a point, but you know how I feel about most humans.” I did know, and I didn’t feel any different. Elephants are loyal and kind and gentle, and while some people have those qualities, most don’t. We continued to stand at the edge of the pond as Daisy Mae waded deeper into the water until only the top of her head and her trunk showed above the surface. “I want things to go well,” I said. “So do I. So do I.” Daisy Mae wasn’t just pregnant. She was pregnant by means of a special program. Money had been invested in our sanctuary, money we needed badly, on the condition that three of our elephants were artificially inseminated—artificially made pregnant. I found the idea a bit strange—okay, really strange—and gross until my father explained it to me. He said that the best way to guarantee the survival of elephants is to create genetic diversity. Since you can’t easily ship elephants around to be mated, artificial insemination is the answer. It might be weird, but some wealthy eccentric investing money to create new elephants wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Rich people do stranger things with their money, and this made more sense to me than buying a fancy yacht or building a bigger mansion. My father had heard rumors that ours wasn’t the only sanctuary where this offer had been made. Unfortunately, Daisy Mae was the only one of our three elephants whose pregnancy was successful. Raina’s didn’t “take” to begin with, and Tiny had carried for about a year. That was very sad for all of us. I wasn’t surprised that Daisy Mae had managed to carry her pregnancy all the way. She was already the proud mother of Bacca, “baby” in Hindi. Bacca was more than two years old and completely weaned. Still, he never strayed far from his mother. Right now he was off to the side, rolling around in a mud wallow, having fun and watching his mother with one eye. My father was unusually secretive about the details of the program. He talked to me about almost everything, but not much about this. I’d pressed him for more information, but he said he really didn’t know much himself. When the project started, two years ago, he told me that they wanted things to be kept quiet, so the money was shrouded in mystery. But what more did I need to know? They gave us money and the chance for a new baby elephant. How bad could any of that be? Anybody willing to invest money in elephants had to be a pretty good person. The best thing so far about us being in the breeding program was that it meant an infusion of money for our sanctuary. We’d been getting by on donations, admission fees from visitors to the sanctuary, and whatever my father could make working at the local diner as a waiter. None of that income was guaranteed. The additional money wasn’t a fortune—it certainly wouldn’t pay for a tractor that didn’t break down all the time—but it was enough to help keep us going. We could pay the mortgage on the property, and we weren’t scrambling for food for the elephants. Elephants eat almost continually. Each of ours could have eaten up to three hundred pounds of food a day. Some of it they foraged, but most had to be brought in and distributed, sometimes by hand. Today it had been my hands—and arms and shoulders and back. We owned more than two hundred acres of open land with trees, creeks, and, of course, the pond. Our property was the size of almost two hundred football fields. It was big, but even an area this size wasn’t big enough to allow the elephants to free feed. Without the bales of hay we brought in, they would have destroyed every tree, shrub, bush, and blade of grass. Our sanctuary was the only place I’d ever lived. I hoped that like Bacca and the new baby, I’d never have another home. Why would I want to live anyplace else? When you have paradise, you don’t up and leave it. And right here by the pond was my favorite place on the property. “I better go to work,” my father said. “You don’t work on Saturdays.” “Barney’s out sick, and a shift is a shift. We can always use the money. Are you okay with being left alone?” “I’m fourteen, not four.” “Don’t you mean you’re thirteen and not three?” “I’m fourteen in less than three months. Right after that, I’m going to start saying I’m fifteen, because technically I’ll be in my fifteenth year.” “Don’t rush away the years, Samantha. Someday you’ll be as old as me.” “About two hundred years from now.” “Careful, there—show some respect. I’m only ninety-nine years older than you. I just feel bad leaving you alone, especially at night.” “Night or day, I have a herd of elephants to keep me company and a twenty-foot fence to guard me, so I’m not too worried.” “Speaking of fences, I need to do a perimeter check tomorrow. That storm may have done some damage.” The weather was heating up quickly, and over the past few weeks, we’d been hit by a series of thunderstorms. Thank goodness none had developed into a tornado, but yesterday’s thunderstorm had threatened to. Instead it was just massive rain, big winds, and enough lightning to light up the night. My father was afraid that some of the fences on the far side, by the creek, might have been weakened or washed away. “I could have a look,” I volunteered. “You should think about hanging out with friends occasionally.” “Actually, I was hoping to just hang around here with friends, if that’s all right.” He looked unsure. “I guess that would be okay. How many people are you talking about?” “There will be twelve of us altogether, but only one of us is a people.” “So you want to stay home with the herd instead of going out with friends?” “I will be with friends.” “You could invite a few human friends over,” he said. “I see them at school.” He shrugged. “Who am I to argue? It’s not like I spend a lot of time with people. Are you all right fixing yourself dinner?” “As all right as I usually am.” “Point taken,” he said. I didn’t mind cooking for myself. I made more of our meals than he did—nothing fancy, but he didn’t much care what he ate. Sometimes I thought he’d be happier grazing with the herd. My father gave me a little peck on the cheek and headed for the house. I turned back and watched the elephants. They were splashing and swimming and spraying one another and themselves. They were rolling in the mud on the bank and playing. Dinner could wait.