What the Elephants Know
The Toronto Zoo has lost four elephants in as many years, and the fate of the remaining herd—Iringa, Thika and Toka—is uncertain. Can a one-hectare habitat in the middle of a northern city be any kind of home for exotic animals with complex thoughts and feelings?
On the morning of November 30, at around 7:45, three keepers entered the elephant enclosure at the Toronto Zoo to begin their daily routine. The elephants live on a dusty one-hectare tract of land with huge umbrellas for shade and three simulated termite mounds. During winter, they spend their nights in a concrete building with a corrugated roof, a poured rubber floor and metal bars as thick as tree trunks. That morning, the keepers were greeted with an alarming sight. Tara, the 41-year-old matriarch of the group, was on her side, unable to get up.
Most elephants can’t lie on their sides for extended periods of time—their sheer mass puts too much pressure on their internal organs—so zoo staff immediately began trying to raise her. Getting into the pen with an elephant is dangerous work—one elephant gored a keeper in 1993. But there wasn’t much time, and the team was desperate.
The eight staff who tend to the elephants had agreed that they wanted to be called in if one of their charges ever went down, and soon off-duty keepers were rushing down to the enclosure to help out or, more likely, to say goodbye. The African animal supervisor, Eric Cole, a 30-year zoo veteran with short-cropped hair and the remnants of an Irish brogue, had had some success coaxing fallen elephants back to their feet in the past. At first, Tara swiped angrily at the keepers with her trunk. She eventually calmed down, allowing Cole and his team to get straps underneath her. Using a winch, they raised the 3,800-kilogram animal to her sternum. Tara struggled. She managed to lift her hind legs but wasn’t able to pull her front legs under her. Keepers tried a few more times to raise her, but she wouldn’t budge. At around 11 that morning, Tara died. “She didn’t appear to have the will,” recalled Maria Franke, curator of mammals. “It’s like she decided to let go.”
The keepers were devastated. “It was pretty shattering,” Cole told me. “Everyone was just drained; the staff was all crying.” They brought Tara’s body out to the paddock so that the other elephants, Thika, Toka and Iringa, could mourn her. Elephants are highly social animals, and females live in tight-knit groups their entire lives. When an elephant, particularly the matriarch, dies in the wild, the loss can reverberate for months or even years. There are stories of elephants returning to the bones of a family member years after the death, rubbing their trunks along the teeth of the skull’s lower jaw in the same way they greet one another in life.
Tara had to be autopsied, so mourning could last only a few hours. The zoo’s remaining elephants—animals who lived with Tara for decades—straddled her and stroked her skin. They used their trunks to throw dirt on her. At the end of the day, keepers transported Tara and brought the rest of the elephants back inside for the night. Because the elephants don’t always get along, they are often kept in separate pens and spend the night apart. When keepers arrived the next morning, however, they found all the elephant dung piled close to the connecting corners of their respective pens. The three elephants—the final members of a haphazardly formed family group that had once been eight—had spent that night huddled together, as close to one another as possible.
Two days later, the Toronto Zoo was quiet, empty save for a few groups of teenagers playing hooky and a handful of daycare kids who toddled past the simulated Serengeti bush camp toward the empty Africa Restaurant (a Harvey’s and a Pizza Pizza outlet in a jungle-themed pavilion). It was a bright, unseasonably warm day, and most of the animals were in their outdoor display areas: tigers stretching out in the sunny section of their Indo-Malaya enclosure, muddy-looking polar bears in the new Tundra Trek area, a group of impalas and kudu blinking in a broad pasture, indifferent to the intruding raccoon and flock of Canada geese that compromised the verisimilitude of their savannah habitat.
At the African elephant exhibit, the mood was sombre. A young zookeeper in gumboots and khakis told me that she’d had an emotional few days. “We look after these animals eight hours a day,” she said. “We become close.” Since Tara’s death, the elephants had been unusually subdued, keeping near to one another, acting tentative. Thika, a 30-year-old female, stood motionless under one of the large wooden umbrellas, one foot cocked at the ankle. In the stillness, you could hear the swish of her trunk as she rubbed it over her rough body, over her head, over her ears, over her eyes.
That day, in a quiet spot in the Rouge Valley on the other side of the 290-hectare zoo, staff were burying Tara. The autopsy had proven inconclusive—no one would ever know the exact cause of death. Still, the incident presented an unpleasant public relations problem. Tara’s death was the fourth elephant fatality in four years at the zoo, and it set off a storm of criticism. Zoocheck Canada, an organization dedicated to monitoring wild animals in captivity, demanded that Toronto shut down its elephant exhibit. The advocacy group In Defense of Animals rated Toronto the second worst zoo for elephants in North America (a ranking based mainly on newspaper reports). Joyce Poole, a noted elephant expert who has studied the animals in the wild for more than 30 years, wrote a letter to city councillors arguing that the zoo is unable to provide the warm climate, opportunities for social interaction with other elephants, and space to roam that the huge land animals require. The four elephants that died were all around 40 years old; in the wild, elephants can live 15 to 20 years longer. “Toronto,” Poole wrote, “is no place for elephants.” Tara’s death leaves the Toronto Zoo with just three elephants, the minimum recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and puts it in a tough position: either press forward with the elephant enclosure despite the negative attention, or close one of its most popular exhibits.
The controversy couldn’t have come at a worse time. The zoo’s CEO, Cal White, after 23 years in charge, retired four months before Tara died. Before White left, he declared the zoo’s fundraising capabilities inadequate and cut ties to the volunteer foundation that had been attached to the zoo for 34 years. The zoo is owned by the City of Toronto, which doles out about a quarter of the institution’s $45-million budget each year. White planned an ambitious 10-year, $250-million fundraising initiative—a haul that’s required to improve various animal habitats, build a new animal health centre and create new exhibits—but didn’t believe the zoo’s foundation was capable of handling the challenge. Two of the board’s members—city councillors Mike del Grande and Michael Thompson—quit in protest of White’s scheme. Since that time, the fundraising has been done in house, and John Tracogna, the former head of Ontario Place, has replaced White as CEO.
At this moment of transition, the death of Tara—the last surviving member of the original trio of elephants brought to Toronto in 1974—marked the end of an era. The zoo is no longer the forward-looking institution it was when Tara arrived. The monorail is gone, closed after a serious accident in 1994, and though there are some impressive new exhibits, including the new tundra area, many of the other enclosures are beginning to show their age. Something else has changed, too. In the years since the Toronto Zoo opened, the way we think about our relationship to the natural world has undergone a serious transformation. As scientists learn more about the intelligence of certain animals, the complexities of their socialization, and the depths of their emotion (a word that would have been dismissed as flagrant anthropomorphism a few decades ago), the business of keeping wild animals in captivity has come under scrutiny. The modern zoo is in many ways an anachronistic creation, a Victorian institution that has been awkwardly remodelled to fit the contemporary age, with ideas about conservation and education grafted onto the zoo’s core business: entertaining people with exciting creatures. Balancing entertainment and conservation, commerce and education, local politics and animal rights is a difficult trick, and zoos seem to embody all the complicated, contradictory attitudes humans have toward animals.
As head of the zoo, Tracogna will be expected to do more than revitalize a tired civic institution and kick-start a fundraising campaign. In the broader context, the death of a single elephant is a small thing, but it’s representative of some of the bigger questions that zoos will face in the coming years, questions Tracogna will be forced to answer: How does an elephant like Tara fit into a modern zoo? Should she be there at all? What can we learn from her life and death? And, most pressingly, what should a zoo be in 2010?
When Tara was born in 1969 in the wilds of Mozambique, she was 250 pounds, nearly blind, and as close to helpless as the world’s largest land animal can be. Elephants aren’t born with sophisticated abilities but instead develop them over their first years of life. Like human beings and other intelligent mammals, they stick close to their mothers, often literally walking beneath them. Young elephants also grow up within a network of allomothers—the aunts, siblings and cousins that, in effect, teach a calf how to be an adult.
For Tara, this formative period was cut short. From the ’60s until the early ’90s, tens of thousands of elephants were killed across southern Africa in government-approved culls designed to prevent the animals from overwhelming local ecosystems. Armed with semi-automatic weapons, teams would descend on a family group in light airplanes or helicopters, followed by trucks loaded with labourers who would perform the skinning and butchering that would follow. The organized cull is a nightmarish scene. Frightened calves scramble to find safety between the legs of adults; panicked, trumpeting elephants are mowed down by the dozen, their still-warm bodies stripped of their hides and valuable tusks. Cullers, aware of the deep emotional bonds that form between family members, had a perversely humane aim: to kill every single elephant, leaving no grieving survivors.
Calves were the exception. Small enough to transport and valuable enough to make the effort worthwhile, young elephants were often spared. For Tara, Tessa and Tantor, the first group of elephants adopted by the Toronto Zoo, this meant that their introduction to humans was traumatic: probable witnesses to the massacre of their entire family, they were put into crates and shipped overseas. The young elephants were bought by a German animal dealer and sent to facilities in Europe, where a curator from the newly formed Toronto Zoo selected them as the first animals in what was to be an ambitious new exhibit. In the summer of 1974, they were shipped to Hamburg, where Toby Styles, the senior elephant keeper at the brand new Toronto Zoo, was preparing to escort them across the Atlantic.
After Tara died, the remaining three elephants stroked her skin and used their trunks to throw dirt on her. They spent the night huddled close together
When I met him in his Ajax home, just down the highway from the zoo that employed him for 26 years, Styles was getting ready for a road trip. Since retiring in 1999, he and his wife, Suzanne, have travelled a lot. The two spent five years in Africa following elephants in a beat-up Land Rover, driving down unmarked paths in the savannah, observing the animals to which Styles had devoted his life. He is a zoo man from a different era—a gruff, bull-necked lifer who came up through the system at a time when trainers were called “wranglers” and were more likely to have worked their way in through the circus or the farm than through a masters program in zoology. He was raised in Banff and has worked with animals his entire life, from a boyhood gig wrangling weasels for Walt Disney’s “True-Life Adventures”—a series of notoriously not-true-to-life animal documentaries—to a job with a California company that trained animals for films, to years as a keeper at the Calgary Zoo. In Toronto, he rose from elephant keeper to executive director of marketing and communications, becoming the public face of the institution, the man known as Mr. Zoo in his dozens of TV and radio appearances.
Above all, though, Styles has always been an elephant lover. “In my opinion, there are two kinds of animals,” Styles told me. “Elephants, and everything else.” Styles named Tara after his daughter, who was herself named after an older elephant. In his Ajax home, he keeps two photo albums devoted to elephants. He showed me pictures of Tara, Tessa and Tantor from their first meeting. In the carefully mounted photographs, the young calves are up to Styles’s shoulder, their broad foreheads traced with a light fuzz of brown hair, their dark, wide-set eyes peering out from between the bars of the reinforced wooden crates that were their homes for two weeks during their crossing.
Styles took the three elephants, along with a black rhinoceros, from Hamburg to Toronto on the Polish ocean liner Zabrze, one of the few boats that would take deck cargo at the time. The elephants were still wild, not yet used to humans, and Styles remembers the trio using their trunks to knock down overly curious Polish sailors. Rounding the coast of Scotland, the water got choppy. Against the advice of the captain, Styles strapped on a life jacket and harness and staggered across the deck to feed and water the elephants. He remembers the crossing as a stressful time spent shovelling elephant dung in gale force winds and constantly worrying that the increasingly aggressive rhinoceros would burst out of its crate. Tessa, the smallest of the three, became sick on the journey. She developed sores on her trunk that were tended to by a retired German doctor onboard. When they finally pulled into Montreal 14 days after setting sail, the elephants were loaded onto a flatbed truck and driven to Toronto, where they arrived at their new home on a warm evening in July. Just weeks before the grand opening, the new zoo was teeming with last-minute activity. That same evening, a shipment of fur seals from South Africa had arrived. Tessa had grown weak, and Styles was eager to get her out of her cramped crate, but workers were still putting the finishing touches on both the elephant and seal enclosures. The keepers improvised, and the young elephant spent her first night in Toronto sharing the hippo exhibit with a group of barking seals. Two days later, Tara, Tessa and Tantor moved to the zoo’s new African elephant exhibit, where they would spend the rest of their lives.
The first modern zoo was built in London in 1828, born out of a public fascination with the exotic creatures found in Britain’s growing empire. The animals were arranged taxonomically: all the cats in one building, the odd-toed hoofed mammals in another, the birds of prey in another. The aim was to create a moving, breathing catalogue of living things, a kind of stamp collection of nature’s creations.
For the next 125 years, despite numerous changes and innovations, the basic structure and purpose of zoos remained the same. Animals in barred cages were presented for the edification and amusement of the public. In the late 1960s, that began to change. The birth of the environmental movement prompted new concern about our treatment of animals, which filtered its way into the world of zoos, where a few leading institutions recognized that in order to justify holding wild creatures in captivity, zoos needed to be more than just theme parks. Conservation became the industry buzzword. Zoos began to think of themselves as stationary arks, safe havens in which to breed and rehabilitate endangered species while their wild populations recovered.
The Metropolitan Toronto Zoo (as it was originally called) was built in the midst of this change in philosophy. The old Riverdale Zoo, a traditional monkeys-behind-bars institution, had been around since the turn of the century, but in 1966, a group of 11 citizens formed the Metropolitan Toronto Zoological Society with the aim of creating something better. Like professional sports teams or opera houses, zoos are civic status symbols, and Toronto, a growing city with growing aspirations, would need a top-notch zoo.
The man chosen to direct the operation was Gunter Voss, a passionate, uncompromising German zoologist who was, by both profession and inclination, most definitely not a people person. A prickly micromanager, Voss knew what he wanted and fought hard to get it. Instead of arranging animals taxonomically, Voss made Toronto the first zoo divided entirely by “zoogeographical” regions, displaying groups of animals based on their natural habitat and range. He also emphasized the role conservation would have. “Four words can describe the zoo,” he told a reporter from Toronto Life in 1974. “Recreation, education, research and conservation, the last being the most vital point. We’re living on a limited planet, living with limited resources. Nature is being wiped out. Zoos must begin to match game reserves and natural sanctuaries to propagate and maintain the gene pool.”
Voss’s ambition extended to the elephant enclosure. Elephants have always been at the centre of the modern zoo. Along with lions, gorillas and other large, lovable mammals, they are what zoologists call “charismatic megafauna” and what show business people call “a big draw.” At the Toronto Zoo, Tara, Tessa and Tantor were soon joined by Patsy, Tequila, Iringa, Jo and Toka (young elephants also captured in Mozambique), creating a much larger group than most North American zoos could accommodate. Unlike the majority of zoos, which kept elephants chained up overnight, Toby Styles decided his elephants would be allowed free movement within their enclosures. The zoo’s decision to adopt Tantor, a young male, was also ambitious. Male elephants are easy to care for up to a point, but as adolescence hits and they become violent and unpredictable, they require their own enclosure and extra staff. Owning a male elephant is expensive, but the zoo was eager to begin the breeding work that Voss had said was so important.
Soon Tara and the others settled into their new home. Patsy, the largest of the group, quickly asserted her dominance, and a crude hierarchy was born. One of the ironies of zoos, which in theory are supposed to allow visitors a glimpse of a wild animal, is that in order to survive in a zoo an animal must be at least partially tamed. In Toronto, the keepers and elephants developed a routine. When the staff arrived each morning, they fed the elephants breakfast before putting them through a set of “behaviours”—training routines designed to stimulate the elephants and to make their life at the Toronto Zoo more manageable. Tara and the others learned to present their feet to be inspected for wounds and sores. They learned to touch assigned targets. They learned to come when called, move when told, and stand still while keepers took blood samples, for which they were rewarded with jellybeans. During the summer, the elephants graze in their outdoor exhibit, where they are on view to the public until closing. During the winter, they are shifted around their indoor cement enclosure, moved between different 400-square-foot pens while mechanical metal gates bang and buzz like prison doors.
In 1980, Thika was born to Tantor and Tequila, the first African elephant bred in Canada. She was followed by Tumpe (who was shipped to Vancouver and eventually died at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 2009), Toronto (who died of salmonella poisoning at the age of 10), and T. W. (who died just two days after birth). In 1989, Tantor collapsed hours after surgery to remove an abscessed tusk, leaving the zoo without a bull. For a time, keepers hoped to use new advances in artificial insemination to try to increase the group, even beginning the long process of preparing Thika for the procedure. In the end, however, they decided it was too risky, effectively ending the Toronto Zoo’s elephant breeding program.
You can’t know what goes on inside an elephant. They seem somehow inscrutable, possessing a mind that is profoundly different from primate brains. As Eric Cole says, “Their intelligence seems to come from a different direction.” Over the past few decades, however, while Tara and her companions continued their circumscribed routine in Toronto, scientists have been making some impressive discoveries about the elephant mind. Fieldwork by experts like Joyce Poole has revealed their intricate social networks. Using MRIs, researchers have discovered that there’s some basis for the cliché about elephants never forgetting: they have a huge hippocampus, one of the structures in the limbic system that is important in memory.
Elephants have passed what is known as the “mirror test.” Put in front of a mirror, most animals are unable to recognize themselves (dogs, for example, bark at their reflection and peer behind the mirror in search of the other animal). In 2006 at the Bronx Zoo, a female elephant called Happy stepped in front of a mirror and looked directly at her reflection. Using her trunk, she then reached up and touched a white X that had been painted on her forehead. According to researchers, the test showed that elephants are self-aware, able to recognize themselves as individuals separate from their environment, joining a “cognitive elite” group that consists of primates and cetaceans. In other words, elephants seem to have consciousness, the ability to gaze at themselves and think: I am elephant.
The picture that emerges from all this research is of a creature that is socially complex and empathetic. Scientists now recognize that animals like elephants are capable of intricate decision-making and feelings. In small ways, the rigid barrier we have put between human beings and all other living creatures has come to seem slightly more permeable. With that, the moral questions about keeping these animals in captivity have grown more urgent.
Captive elephants commonly suffer from a range of physical maladies: herpes, tuberculosis, arthritis, and especially foot disease, caused by decades of walking on hard floors. Now scientists have begun to discover serious mental issues. Large groups of unrelated females never form in the wild, yet Tara and the others were thrust together with the expectation that they would form a family unit. Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist and academic, argues in her 2009 book Elephants on the Edge that African elephants orphaned by the cull display signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. They startle easily and exhibit asocial tendencies, inattentive mothering and other characteristics typical of humans who have undergone a profound trauma. Tara and the other elephants who may well have witnessed the death of their families had been deprived of the intricate social support network most young elephants are given during their early neural development. Like troubled kids pushed into a foster home, the elephants didn’t always get along, and carefully managing the shifting alliances, bullying and moments of aggression that flared up between roommates became a big part of the keepers’ job. The keeper gored in 1993 was injured while trying to break up a fight between Iringa and Thika. Last summer, Tessa, the elephant who got sick on the boat and became a weak, somewhat odd adult, was jostled by Thika during feeding, causing her to topple over and eventually die. “These orphaned elephants are misfits; they always have been,” says Eric Cole. “Considering their backgrounds, I’m surprised we’ve never had any psychotic elephants.”
During the winter, the elephants shift around their indoor cement enclosure while metal gates bang and buzz like prison doors
In the wild, elephants can range for miles in a single day, encountering other elephant groups, new foods, new threats and mental challenges. Toronto’s herd has lived on the same one-hectare patch of land for 36 years. The staff tries to stimulate their minds as best they can—giving them tree trunks to strip, teaching them new behaviours, giving them balls that contain a hidden treat—but it’s difficult to create a healthy mental environment in a cement box. One of the ways the elephants have reacted is by engaging in what scientists call “stereotypic behaviour,” a mindless repetitive motion that is never exhibited in the wild. In circuses and zoos, elephants neurotically sway back and forth or bob up and down, a behaviour displayed by people with autism. According to Poole, this is an elephant’s coping mechanism to handle the stress of captivity.
This new information has led zoos to rethink their position on elephants. Most are trying to rebuild their facilities, creating larger enclosures that can better meet elephants’ needs, but some institutions have decided that humanely keeping elephants in a cold urban environment just isn’t possible. In May 2004, the Detroit Zoo announced that it would be closing its elephant exhibit after 76 years. In a memo explaining the decision, the director, Ron Kagan, stated, “Now we understand how much more is needed to be able to meet all the physical and psychological needs of elephants in captivity, especially in a cold climate.” In 2006, the Bronx Zoo—perhaps the most famous zoo in the world—announced that Happy and her two companions will be the final elephants in its collection.
At the heart of these decisions is a tacit admission that the conservation agenda of zoos, at least when it comes to elephants, has failed. When the Toronto Zoo opened, Gunter Voss said that zoos needed to “propagate and maintain a viable gene pool.” The zoo has had some success with this. It participates in a number of valuable conservation programs around the world and has created breeding programs for such creatures as the black-footed ferret, the Vancouver Island marmot and the Puerto Rican crested toad. Overall, though, and with elephants in particular, the dream of the zoo as a centre of conservation hasn’t come to fruition. Across North America, zoos aren’t able to breed enough elephants to maintain their own collections, relying on wild-captured animals to stock their exhibits. When the cull was banned in South Africa in 1995, the supply of orphan elephants shrank to almost none, leaving zoos like Toronto with aging elephants and little chance of getting new ones.
Zoos have begun to recognize that an argument based purely on conservation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. After all, is a theme park in a northern city really the best place to preserve an African species? The new industry buzzword has become education. Zoos are places that teach children about the natural world; captive animals are charismatic ambassadors for their wild cousins, creatures that inspire people to make meaningful conservation choices. Peter Evans, the long-time board member who acted as interim CEO before Tracogna was hired, says that the aim is to “create an awareness of life.” Elephants and other charismatic animals that immediately draw people in are essential.
Giorgio Mammoliti, the outspoken city councillor running for mayor who has a prominent role on the zoo board, believes that elephants are a vital part of the zoo, but his argument is financial. “Right now, if we got rid of those elephants, you can take that 1.5 million people that are coming through the gate and probably cut it in a third,” he told me. “People want to see elephants. There’s no question about that.” Mammoliti has big plans for the zoo. The junket he took to China to lobby to bring pandas to Toronto drew headlines last year. The ambitious councillor dreams of making the zoo a classy destination, with black-tie fundraisers that attract the Bay Street crowd and private partnerships with companies that can bring innovative ideas. Why not a zoo château, for people who want to explore the grounds over multiple days? What about a chairlift? The councillor won’t contemplate a radical rethinking of the zoo’s approach to animals. “We’re hearing criticism primarily from groups that want to shut down zoos completely,” Mammoliti told me. “Credibility comes into play.”
The elephant issue is just the beginning of a radical animal welfare agenda. Rob Laidlaw, the executive director of Zoocheck and one of the most prominent critics of the Toronto Zoo’s elephant exhibit, does indeed advocate for big changes. The argument over elephants, he says, is “the leading edge of a debate about what zoos should be.” Holding elephants in captivity is especially problematic, but what about gorillas? What about tigers? What about impalas? David Hancocks is the former director of Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and one of the most forward-thinking authorities on zoos. In the 1970s, he recommended closing Seattle’s elephant exhibit and was quickly told by a city councillor that he would be leaving town before the elephants would. He says the recent outcry over the treatment of elephants is a sign that zoos aren’t keeping up with the times. “I think 20 years from now, people will be saying, ‘How did zoos get away with all of this?’ ” He sees the zoos of the future as places that legitimately try to live up to the promises about conservation they have been making for 35 years. Places that may have smaller collections, fewer exotic animals, and a real focus on animal welfare. Places that most assuredly will not have elephants.
Other major zoos have closed their elephant exhibits. If holding them in captivity is a problem, what about gorillas, tigers and impalas?
When I asked Toby Styles about the future of Toronto’s elephants, there was a long, considered pause. Styles has been as integral to the Toronto Zoo’s elephant exhibit as anyone, so he wanted to make himself clear. “Those elephants, living all that time in Toronto, they’ve made a difference,” he said emphatically. “They’ve made an elephant real to a whole lot of people. We’ve learned things from them.” He stopped for a moment. “But, with all that, I’ll say that it’s time to let them go. All of those good things don’t make up for the winter weather.” The things he’s learned about elephants in the past 35 years have convinced him that they have no place in Toronto.
The next time I visited the zoo, on a morning in March three months after Tara’s death, things had settled down at the elephant enclosure. The living arrangements in the elephants’ house had been reorganized, with the three surviving animals sharing a space designed for eight. Thika, despite being more than a decade younger than the other two, had taken over as matriarch, and she was using her new-found power to antagonize Toka. The keepers, like concerned primary school teachers, were trying to teach the two to get along, forcing them to spend time with one another in short “compatibility sessions.”
That day, Iringa and Toka faced away from Thika, a sign of submission, while the new matriarch paced back and forth by the entrance to the pen, snaking a searching trunk through the bars. Eric Cole rubbed it affectionately. Like everyone who works with the elephants, Cole is in love with them. During a particularly bad heat wave a few years ago, he decided to try keeping the elephants outside all night rather than in their steamy indoor pen. For the first week, Cole and his staff worked 24-hour shifts, staying with the animals through the night to make sure they were adapting to their new circumstances.
Standing outside the enclosure, watching the three creatures, Cole told me he’s hopeful that the zoo can figure out a way to continue with the exhibit. He’s fighting hard for a new multimillion-dollar facility that could make them more comfortable in the winter, and hopes that they can bring in more elephants one day soon. Right now, it isn’t possible, but in South Africa (where the elephant population has more than doubled since the cull ended 15 years ago), officials have announced they will begin the controversial cull again. Soon orphan elephants could be available. Soon the zoo’s breeding program could begin again.
“If we had a baby elephant, that would be a top draw,” he said hopefully. He warmed to the topic, enthusiastically spinning out his dreams for the exhibit to which he’s devoted so many years. “If we build a facility and we draw the public in, we have the potential to raise a lot of money for conservation in the field. We could fund a whole lot of programs that could immediately affect elephants’ long-term survival.”
Up close, the elephants are enormous and beautiful, projecting a grave, alien intelligence. Humans have long attributed magical powers to them
As he talked, the elephants continued to shift and pace in the enclosure behind him. Moving away from the others, Iringa stood silently in the muddy paddock. She’s an intelligent elephant, the fastest to learn a new behaviour, and, though he was reluctant to admit it, Cole’s favourite. Up close, she is awe-inspiring—enormous and beautiful, projecting a grave, alien intelligence that suddenly makes you understand why humans have long attributed unlikely magical powers to elephants. From here, I can see the thick, wiry eyelashes that shade her eyes. I can see the soft padding on the bottom of her enormous feet, a touch of pinkness at the base of a craggy mountain of grey. She is smelly and huge and more real than any National Geographic video, which, of course, is the reason so many zoo people think that the public needs to see her.
While we watched, Iringa began to sway. With her feet stock-still, her right hind leg cocked at an angle, she rolled her head back and forth, her trunk swinging from left to right, left to right.
I asked Cole if she was showing stereotypic behaviour. “Yes,” he said slowly. “That developed after Patsy died. Of all the elephants we’ve had, Iringa’s probably the one who’s been most affected by the loss of her cohorts. It’s funny, she didn’t even like Tara. She probably just misses having all those other elephants around.”
He suddenly caught himself. Cole is an unsentimental man. He doesn’t buy into the mysticism around elephants. They are intelligent creatures, but they aren’t people, and he is constantly vigilant against the kind of sloppy thinking that tries to give them human emotions. “Who really knows what she’s thinking?” he said, correcting himself. “I could say, ‘She’s swaying because she’s thinking about her own mortality’ or something like that. The truth is, you can’t know what goes on inside their heads.”
We silently watched her. Without moving from her spot, Iringa swayed from left to right, her trunk swinging like a pendulum. It was a joyless, mechanical movement, detached from emotion or instinct, and in that moment—bobbing back and forth—she was not a wild creature. She was something else, something in between, something that exists only in the places where humans keep animals captive.