I was never into Disney as a little girl. I found the characters too shrill and cloying, not to mention unfunny. Mickey and Minnie seemed to me like those camp counselors you had who thought that if you wrote down your negative feelings on a piece of paper and then threw it away, you would feel better. As a 6-year-old, I distinctly remember thinking, You can go can go to hell and drown in friendship bracelets, Mickey and Minnie.
Well, maybe not in so many words.
I was really more of a Danger Mouse, Mighty Mouse, and Bugs Bunny kid. However, there was one Disney character that touched me so deeply, ruined me so wholly, that the effects are still in place today. I refer to Dumbo, the big-eared elephant.
Dumbo was beyond cute. Dumbo’s story crushed my heart. I mean: guh. It was only much, much later that I was able to see the racism and sexism in the movie, to see it as flawed. But by then, the movie had instilled in me a deep sensitivity toward the world of elephants.
I love all animals. However, forgive me for playing favorites, but there are several things that make elephants exceptional. Namely:
- They live in strong matriarchal family units
- They are highly intelligent and social animals
- They mourn their dead, even years after
- They have excellent memories
- They use their trunks to “hug” one another
- Baby elephants are the cutest baby animals on the planet (NO CONTEST)
As an adult, I began to research the plight of elephants in captivity – in particular, those in circuses. I watched undercover videos of circus elephant training. (Please be forewarned; these videos are difficult to watch.) I read about the history of circuses and their current conditions. (This is a good overview.) I vowed never to visit another animal circus or take the children in my life to one of them.
Overwhelmed by the callousness and cruelty, and feeling powerless, I also researched ways I could help. To my surprise and delight, I learned about an “elephant rehabilitation” facility in Tennessee that takes in retired circus elephants and gives them a peaceful environment in which to live. The Elephant Sanctuary provides over 2,000 acres of land on which the elephants can roam. There are quite a few heartwarming stories of particular elephants that they’ve helped, but maybe one of the most amazing is the story of two circus elephant friends reunited after 20 years (you can watch it here: Part I and Part II.) One day, I hope to visit The Elephant Sanctuary and help beyond my measly donations.
Outside of the United States, elephants in Africa are killed for their ivory tusks. Poachers have claimed the lives of thousands of elephants since the 1970s, and it continues today. Poaching leaves many elephant orphans, in turn creating more death, as orphaned elephants rarely survive into adulthood without the help of their families.
This is how I came to foster a baby elephant.
In 2009, my husband and took the trip of a lifetime to Egypt and Kenya. Before we left for the trip, I researched elephant orphanages in the hope of being able to visit one and help in some way.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya, is one of the best animal orphanages in the world, helping not only elephants, but orphaned rhinos and other animals as well. For a $50 donation, you can foster an orphan and receive updates on their care, photos, and other warm fuzzies from across the ocean. If you foster an elephant or rhino and happen to find yourself in Kenya, they have a special program where foster “parents” can visit the orphanage after hours and see the babies coming in for the day from the field, being fed, and readying themselves for sleep in their pens. I considered this not only the trip of a lifetime but an experience I had to have before I died.
I scanned the list of available orphans, and – of course – wanted to foster them all. I couldn’t afford it. So I settled on the baby that seemed to need the most help. His name was Isiolo, after the area where they found him.
Isiolo had fallen into an erosion gully – dehydrated, hungry, and scared. His herd might have been killed or decimated by poachers, and the remaining adult elephants, if any, likely could not rescue him once he fell in the gully, so they left him. (I’m not judging, but… damn). Samburu tribesmen found him and he was transferred to the good folks at the Sanctuary.
I wasn’t Isiolo’s only foster parent; anyone who happened to choose him when donating became his “foster parent.” But fostering him made me feel better about contributing to a solution even a world away. And I couldn’t wait to meet him.
The orphanage emailed a few days before we left to let me know that Isiolo was sick, and somewhat mysteriously so. I hoped that it was nothing beyond dehydration from being in a ditch for so long, that the care and attention he was receiving would cure him. Quickly. However, the orphanage warned me that he might not be as energetic as the other orphans. I understood, and it didn’t matter to me.
The day of our orphanage visit was bright and hot. Our trusty driver and guide, Hassan, knew the orphanage well and had even already met Isiolo on a previous visit. He said Isiolo was strong, would pull through. We arrived at 5:00 PM, just before the elephants and rhinos come in from the field with their dedicated, trained caretakers.
He was the first back from the field. He pranced in, ears flapping, somewhat slower than the rest, but still young and curious. Isiolo became shy when he saw us. He slowed down, reaching his trunk out to smell, feel. I followed him back to his pen, leaned over the gate with my arm down, hoping he would come to me. After he got his nightly milk bottle, he tried to suckle a gray blanket in his pen – hung there to resemble a mama elephant. He moved on from that, feeling his way around his pen, touching the walls, the floor. To me, finally. He felt my arm with his trunk, paused, looking up at me. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the moment tingled. I smiled down at him and whispered “hello.” Then, he lay down to sleep.
I consider meeting Isiolo the highlight of our trip – more than the horseback ride at sunrise to the pyramids, more than the visit to the Masai village, more than the pink flamingos of Lake Nakuru.
Going home to regular life was difficult. I considered changing jobs to become a large animal veterinarian, moving to Tennessee to see if I could get a job at The Elephant Sanctuary, signing up for an elephant rescue volunteering program in Sri Lanka. Africa had changed me. But like all trips, over time, it faded and I returned to a regular routine, remembering what it was that I liked about my own life.
I would get updates from the orphanage regarding Isiolo. He was still sick but getting by. I had hope.
Then, a few months after we returned, I received the following message:
“The night of Saturday 5th September 2009 turned into an unexpected tragedy in our Nairobi Nursery. Our precious little 5-month-old baby bull, Isiolo, suddenly, and most unexpectedly, died in his sleep. Isiolo had been struggling with mysterious ill health for many months, ever since he cut his first molars, and the cause baffled everyone, including the Vets that were called to come and look at him many times. There were no obvious symptoms to pinpoint the cause of his problems…The only obvious indication of things not right was the fact that he cried when getting up from a recumbent position suggesting that he felt pain in a joint, yet there was no obvious swelling, nor limping to indicate where the problem lay – “
I stopped reading.
I felt I had failed him. I know it makes no sense. I had nothing to do with his care beyond donating money. The orphanage had trained, dedicated caretakers and world-class veterinarians who kept a watchful eye on him, who cared about him as much, if not more, than I did.
He died in his sleep, the message said. A later autopsy revealed that he had a diseased liver that was twice its normal size and blue rather than red, enlarged lymph nodes indicating a chronic infection, and an Achilles tendon ripped from his right tarsal joint, which, according to the vet, would never have healed. Isiolo, in his short five months of life, had suffered the loss of his family and was in constant pain.
It was like I had met the real-life Dumbo. I was able to let him know, briefly, he was loved. In turn, he had let me.
At work, I have a coffee mug with the silhouette of an elephant on it. You might not think so, but I get asked about it a lot.
Why elephants? someone once asked me.
It’s too much to tell. What should I say about Isiolo and his suffering? Or the elephants in circuses who are prodded, kicked, tortured? Or the baby elephants in the orphanage who suckle gray blankets instead of their mothers, killed for their ivory? What can I say that will make this person my partner in helping to fight for them?
I just like them, I say. They’re interesting creatures. Then I smile.
To help elephants, consider: