Digital painting from photo by Gopan Nair, Miss Beautiful Eyes (2015)
Mary Helen Blanchard, an educator with over 30 years teaching and writing experience, would often take her 3 children and classroom students to visit the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo in Monroe, Louisiana. There they would visit the zoo’s only elephant, a lonely elder named Shirley, with a crooked leg and torn ear. Then one day she was gone. Old and ill, the zoo sent her to a little known Elephant Sanctuary just starting in Hohenwald, Tennessee. She would be the fourth in their rescue herd.
The earliest known proboscidean has been found in southern Algeria. It is the fossilized skull of a swamp -living animal from the early Miocene epoch, some fifty-four million years ago. The beast apparently stood less than three feet tall, but the anatomy of its head reveals the characteristics of a once present prehensile trunk, hallmark of all proboscideans. Biologists love to speculate on the origin of the prehensile trunk. Under what circumstances might such a structure be advantageous? The ecological setting of some later proboscidean finds indicates they were aquatic or semiaquatic creatures, like the Algerian species. Perhaps this is a vital clue. Perhaps, speculation runs, natural selection favored the evolution of an organ that could harvest vegetation while the animal was in shallow water. A rudimentary trunk, which is formed from the lips, palate, and nostrils, could do that job. True or not, the trunk became an important organ for proboscideans, and its evolution was eventually accompanied by the evolution of tusks. Anyone who has seen an elephant uproot a tree knows what a potent combination trunk and tusks are.
Fully half of proboscidean history was played out in Africa, during which time several major subgroups appeared. Beginning about twenty million years ago, descendants of these groups eventually expanded into every major landmass in the world, with the exception of Antarctica and Australia. The head count of species in the Proboscidea across the globe at that point in prehistory now stands at close to two hundred. It was a diaspora of an extraordinarily successful brand of animal, and the group dominated the Age of Mammals. The fact that only two species remain in today’s world is yet another reminder that dominance is not forever: it never has been in the history of life, and it never will be.
— Leakey and Lewin
In 2012, Lawrence Anthony passed away at home in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. Anthony grew up in rural Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi and was known for his unique ability to communicate with and calm traumatized elephants. In his book The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild, he wrote that the only way he could save elephants that were categorized as violent and unruly and in danger of cull by both poachers and game wardens, was to live with them.
“To save their lives, I would stay with them, feed them, talk to them. But, most importantly, be with them day and night.”
Then, when Anthony suffered his fatal heart attack, a strange thing happened. A herd of elephants he had known, some of whom he had rescued and rehabilitated but had not seen for years, appeared on his doorstep. Two separate herds had traveled 12 hours through the night to get there. They stood around the house in an apparent vigil for two days, then dispersed.
Something similarly remarkable happened in Hohenwald, Tennessee last month, but to get to that part of this story, we have to return to 1999, when Shirley left her Louisiana zoo bound for Tennessee. As she was offloaded she was guided into a concrete stall inside a large steel barn. As the other elephants returned for the night she extended her trunk through the bars and made friends. Later, as darkness fell, an elephant named Jenny came in from the field and suddenly an angelic host of trumpets from the barn were heard over in the main building where the staff was eating supper. A film crew accompanying Shirley from Louisiana went to see what all the commotion was about and recorded the moment.
Decades earlier, Shirley and Jenny had been in the same circus. Jenny had been an orphaned baby just arriving from Africa when she met Shirley, who adopted and cared for her. Now, reunited after decades apart, their joy shook the barn walls and made the ground tremble. That night, after the film crew and keepers left, they bent the 3-inch steel bars separating them so that they could embrace.
Carol Buckley, Executive Director of the Sanctuary, later told a PBS NewsHour interviewer, “That was the love that started our elephant family.”
“Before Shirley’s arrival, the elephants had been imprisoned companions. After Shirley met Jenny, they were sisters and aunts to the mother and daughter. Shirley and Jenny were inseparable.”
Jenny had come to the sanctuary 2 years before, quite ill. She had scars and other traces of misuse and abuse from her past life. She had been exposed to tuberculosis. An attack by a bull elephant had a crippled her back leg, which harbored a hidden bacterial infection that later flared up and likely resulted in her death.
The circus ship Fleurus during the fire in June 1963.
Shirley bore similar scars. She entered circus life as a juvenile from Asia 60 years ago. It is possible I saw her perform in the 1950s when my parents took me to Madison Square Garden for the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey three-ring show. Then in 1963, the Al G. Kelly and Miller Brothers Circus’s boat, Fleurus, caught fire and sank at dock in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Elephants, lions, leopards, bears, llamas, zebras, horses, trained dogs and other animals were aboard. As luck would have it, the tide and starboard list of the ship allowed rescuers to lay heavy planks from the wharf to the boat, giving the elephants an escape route as the fire raged. Although badly burned on her back and legs, Shirley made it off. The scars from that fire would later be worn as the loss of half her right ear and the discoloration of her face.
When she was 30 years old and traveling with the Lewis Brothers Circus, Shirley was attacked by another elephant and severely wounded. Several bones in her leg fused together, creating an abnormal angle and shape. From then on she walked on three legs, her right hind quarter carried like a dangling weight. She performed for two more years before being sold to the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo, where there was only room for one elephant and she would not see another for over two decades. Nonetheless, perhaps because of her boat experience, she was so reluctant to enter the truck to go to Tennessee that she had to be painfully winched in by one foreleg. When she arrived at the Elephant Sanctuary, her keeper of 22 years, Solomon James said, with tears in his eyes “I don’t know who’s the first to put the chains on her, but I’m glad to know I was the last to take them off. She’s free at last.”
When Shirley turned 70 in the summer of 2018, her birthday was not only celebrated at the sanctuary, but at the Yarmouth County Firefighters Museum in Nova Scotia. “Shirley survived the circus life, survived the Fleurus ship fire, and has survived all these years, so it’s only fitting we have a party in her honor,” Curator Nadine Gates said. The event included birthday cake, punch, and some of Shirley’s favorite treats — watermelon and bananas.
Carol Buckley told PBS that the bond between Shirley and Jenny was never more touching than in the last days of Jenny’s life. There are few things harder to bear than a parent’s loss of a child.
“The day before she died, Jenny had been down and she wouldn’t get up. Shirley stood by her and insisted that Jenny get up. Jenny just couldn’t get up. Then Jenny stood up but she had to lean on Shirley to keep up. If you looked at Shirley’s face, you could see that she knew that Jenny was dying. Jenny dropped to the ground and Shirley walked into the woods.”
“After Shirley left, Jenny started to make this rumbling noise. With each exhalation, she would rumble. It was almost like a singing. As Jenny did this, Bunny and Tarra (two sanctuary elephants) came running over. We thought that was it and she was going to die. And then Bunny and Tarra started trumpeting and rumbling. At a certain point, I turned to Scott (Director of The Elephant Sanctuary) and I asked him how long this was going on. He said 58 minutes! Well, she continued for another two hours. Jenny lived through the night and was even perky and silly. She passed in the morning. And when she died, she did a vocalization that I had never heard. It was like a trumpet. It was very low and got quieter and quieter. She passed very peacefully without straining or exerting herself.”
“To experience this ritual was amazing. I had never seen anything like it.”
Shirley stayed in the woods until Jenny passed. She didn’t eat for two days. She was comforted in her grieving by the Asian elephant family, particularly her “sisters” Bunny and Misty.
On February 22, 2021, it was Shirley’s turn. Age 72 and feeble (the average lifespan of an Asian elephant in captivity is 48 years), she had become the second oldest elephant in North America. Jellybeans were her favorite treat, but knowing that Shirley loved all but the licorice-flavored beans, the staff would carefully pick those out. Her handlers were aware she was going when she laid down in the barn and would not get up. After her death the other Asian elephants came to say their goodbyes. Her sister Tarra quietly spent hours at her side. There was no trumpet chorus this time, just a silent vigil.
At one time, Asian elephants ranged the entire length of the Silk Road from Syria and Iraq east across Asia south of the Himalayas down to Indochina and the Malaysian archipelago. Today they are listed on the ICUN Red List as endangered. Their population has declined an estimated 50 percent over the past 75 years, leaving fewer than 40,000 in the wild. The Chinese Asian subspecies went extinct in 1986. Habitat loss is their greatest threat, and 70 percent now live outside protected areas. Counting both African and Asian elephants, some 35,000 were illegally killed in 2020 — 100 per day — mainly for ivory.
According to an estimate by Vaclav Smil, 10,000 years ago humans and their livestock were a mere 0.1 percent of the entire live weight of mammalian biomass. The other 99.9 percent was in elephants, deer, gorillas, and so on. Today, 95 percent of terrestrial animal biomass is in the eight billion people and their cows, chickens, pigs, dogs, cats and goldfish. This turn planetary evolution has taken shows no signs of reversing direction, or even slowing.
Global production of meat and milk is projected to more than double by 2050. When considering this in terms of land area, consider too that a natural, wild elephant herd requires a minimum of 1000 square miles (2600 km2) of habitable reserve, although a sensitivity analysis shows even that may not be enough. Even slight variations in events like droughts and floods, which we know will grow dramatically this century, can elevate the risk of extinction. Of the parks and game reserves in Central and Southern Africa, 35% are now considered adequate in size to support wild elephant herds, but even these are infringed by human expansion; ie: logging, mining and cattle ranches.
Raising and slaughtering some 55 billion food animals consumes 30 percent of the earth‘s entire surface and 80 percent of the total land occupied by humans. Subtract feed crop production and the area currently taken by grazing cattle is 26 percent of the ice-free land surface of Earth.
With nowhere left to roam and an inhospitable climate in the wild, the last remaining elephants may go, like Shirley, Jenny, Tarra, Bunny and Misty, into captive exhibitions, performing for circuses until they are too old and unwell, and then, if they are lucky, to some remote hilltop in Tennessee to die, along with their memories.
The future we leave our grandchildren may include meaningless books about a king named Babar or a baby named Dumbo. They will have no real world references for such creatures, any more than we have for dragons and fairies. Nor will we be able to explain how two separate wild herds knew Laurence Anthony had died.
Begon, Townsend and Harper, Ecology: From Individuals to Ecosystems, 4th ed. London: Blackwell (2004).
Bradshaw, Corey J. A. et al, Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future, Front. Conserv. Sci., 13 January 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419
Leakey, Richard and Roger Lewin, The sixth extinction: patterns of life and the future of humankind, Journal of Leisure Research 29, 4: 476 (1997).
Masson, J. M., and S. McCarthy, When Elephants Weep : The Emotional Lives of Animals, New York: Delacorte Press (1995).
Schwagerl, C. The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How it Shapes Our Planet, London: Synergetic Press (2014).
The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.
“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.