Today is World Elephant Day, so it only makes sense that I would applaud these gentle giants again. They are truly impressive: matriarchal, social, communicative and creative. When I visited the World Elephant Day website, one of its logos said it all: “BECAUSE WITHOUT ELEPHANTS WHAT KIND OF WORLD WOULD THIS BE?”
Of course, my encounters with elephants have not been extensive, mainly from visiting zoos. The first time was when I was little and decided then and there I wanted a baby elephant as a pet. It could live in the basement and backyard. That did not seem unreasonable to me when I was five! I also—many, many years later—was able to interact with an elephant who works in movies. It was an arranged group visit where I was able to give Nellie a bath and join her for a walk through the Lancaster Hills.
I would love to see them in the wild often, relishing in their gentle strength and impressive presence. Of course, living in Bakersfield, California, I do not have many opportunities to go on safari. But I do follow de Wets Wild Blog and savor all of the animal sightings shared there from South Africa. However, its World Elephant Day posting shows elephants in action in all their natural glory. Please go visit this site—and enjoy!
“Elephants love reunions. They recognize one another after years and years of separation and greet each other with wild, boisterous joy. There’s bellowing and trumpeting, ear flapping and rubbing. Trunks entwine.” Jennifer Richard Jacobson
“Of all African animals, the elephant is the most difficult for man to live with, yet its passing – if this must come – seems the most tragic of all. I can watch elephants (and elephants alone) for hours at a time, for sooner or later the elephant will do something very strange such as mow grass with its toenails or draw the tusks from the rotted carcass of another elephant and carry them off into the bush. There is mystery behind that masked gray visage, and ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, great fires, and the sea.” Peter Matthiessen
“It seems safe to say that apes know about death, such as that is different from life and permanent. The same may apply to a few other animals, such as elephants, which pick up ivory or bones of a dead herd member, holding the pieces in their trunks and passing them around. Some pachyderms return for years to the spot where a relative died, only to touch and inspect the relics. Do they miss each other? Do they recall how he or she was during life?” Frans de Waal
“But perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that there are no walls between humans and the elephants except those that we put up ourselves, and that until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.” Lawrence Anthony
“Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing.” John Donne
“I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant is faithful one hundred percent.” Dr. Seuss
“The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephants except in a picture book?” David Attenborough
“When you have got an elephant by the hind legs and he is trying to run away, it’s best to let him run.” Abraham Lincoln
Some Opening Comments:I know that not everyone is enamored of zoos. In fact, the very existence and actual operation of zoos is frequently criticized. In many ways, I agree with the complaints. Ideally, wild animals would stay in the wild. But, unfortunately, many animals are now endangered. Habitats are routinely diminished by encroaching farm lands and road construction, and some animals are being plundered by hunters and smugglers. Some preservation efforts are underway, such as creating nature preserves to protect the animals in their native environments, but there are no guarantees about their success. I would love to be able to visit such places to see animals in the wild, but such travel is not likely for me (and many others)*.
Thus zoos have become a way to showcase wild animals while also learning about them in order to help preserve those at the zoo as well as in the wild. Unfortunately, over the years, not all zoos have been run as humanely as they should be. I remember once years and years ago visiting a zoo where the big cats were confined in small indoor cages, where all they could do was pace—it was a sad disheartening experience. Many complain that the lack of space and natural habitats available via zoos is unfair to the animals, so limiting in fact that reproduction is not even possible. This latter complaint is especially raised regarding elephants. Other complaints look to the mistreatment of the animals behind closed doors when they are not in front of the crowds, whether having to perform or not. These concerns are compounded when “zoos” are small or privately owned, where the animals are often seen as being exploited to simply make a buck.
Fortunately, more and more zoos are providing open spaces and natural habitats as the norm when animal exhibits are being constructed. And more and more organizations and individuals are committed to monitoring and improving the overall living conditions for the animals. These public zoological gardens and aquariums have been in existence since roughly 1870. In 2013, there were 223 North American zoos accredited through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. As Betty White explains in her book Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo (2011), “Increasingly, the good zoos find themselves taking on the role of ‘protectors’—or better yet ‘conservers’—rather than merely ‘collectors’ of wildlife.”
Given this broader context, even though I understand the problems associated with the confinement and treatment of animals, I share Betty White’s appreciation for “the positive changes that have taken place in the whole zoo community over the past few decades, and the critical role they play today in perpetuating endangered species.”
A DAY AT THE ZOO
Even though I understand the problems and controversy surrounding the operation of zoos, I love visiting them. A day at the zoo is always great, even in the rain. Over the years, I have spent many fun days with my dad wandering various zoos to capture pictures of the animals or visiting special exhibits with family and friends.
Some exhibits stand out: I visited the Panda Exhibit at the San Diego Zoo and saw Ruby, the painting elephant, at the Phoenix Zoo. Although it closed in 1987 (bought by Sea World), Marineland of the Pacific on Palos Verdes Peninsula, California, was a great place to get up close and personal with sea life. A visit to Wolf Haven International in Tenino, Washington, provided some glimpses of wolves but also included evening stories around a campfire culminating with some howling from the wolves on site. Terrific!
For years I was a member of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aviary there lets visitors see shore birds up close. But you can also interact with starfish and sting rays and catch some great views of sea otters, both in an indoor exhibit as well as outside in the bay. One year (1992) there was a great jellyfish exhibit too, and another year Dad and I enjoyed a catered outing to see local wildflowers. I love the Monterey Bay Aquarium!
Exhibit Program Cover
Over the years, I also have fond memories of the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch in Texas. There, animals were viewed from the car as we drove through the park—and even fed some animals—llamas, zebras and ostriches—through the car windows. I especially liked seeing the Rhea and its baby following behind and the start of a Crested Crane’s courtship dance.
For about ten years, I worked at Moorpark College, a mid-sized two-year college within the California Community College System. It is the only community college in the country that offers an onsite teaching zoo**, where students learn to care for and train animals in preparation for jobs at zoos and preserves as well as in the entertainment and conservation industries. The Exotic Animal Training and Management Program (EATM)—affectionately dubbed America’s Teaching Zoo—operates an on-campus zoo that covers more than 9 acres. An elephant would occasionally visit the campus, but one never lived permanently as the zoo. There were plenty of other animals, however, from birds of prey to sea lions and from wolves to tigers.
A documentary was made, showing the hard work and dedication involved with participating in this impressive program. This unique EATM program offered many challenges and surprises for everyone on campus. For example, Moorpark College was undoubtedly the only campus where the President would be called by a community member and asked to keep the students from walking the Water Buffalo in the neighborhood park. Or where the sun rose to the bellowing whoo-whoo-whooping of some very vocal Gibbons. Also, once the aged lion—a long-time mascot for the zoo—died, a new lion cub was donated from a sanctioned breeding program. It was great getting to welcome this new little guy to campus!
LET’S TAKE A WALK & VISIT SOME OF THE ANIMALS AT THE ZOO
Special exhibits and specific memories are great. Technology even makes it possible to view some animal exhibits without ever leaving home. For example, some days I watch the Elephant Cam from the San Diego Zoo and see elephants in real time, including the two youngest–both under 4 years old. But the best days at the zoo are still ordinary typical days, when you can wander leisurely from exhibit to exhibit, seeing a wide range of animals.
Each day will be a bit different from the next depending on what zoo you are visiting, what special exhibits are open, and even the mood of you and the animals. But if you pause to really watch a minute, to try to communicate and understand, to appreciate what you see, any walk through the zoo is bound to be a glorious adventure. Of course, you better make sure you show care and respect to the animals!
If you have not visited a zoo in awhile, take Paul Simon’s advice and see “what’s happening at the zoo”! (Just don’t believe his assessment of elephants.)
What zoos have you visited?
Do you have favorite animals you always visit?
*It would not be the same as seeing animals in the wild, but you can visit a great blog–de Wets Wild–to see photographers of animals in the wilds of South Africa.
**The other college in the States that offers animal management training works with dolphins and such, so it brings the students to the ocean; that campus does not have a zoo on its own campus.
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“The quizzical expression of the monkey at the zoo comes from his wondering whether he is his brother’s keeper or his keeper’s brother.” Evan Esar
“Zoo: An excellent place to study the habits of human beings.” Evan Esar
“I am personally not against keeping animals at zoos, as they serve a huge educational purpose, but treating them well and with respect seems the least we could do, and with ‘we’ I mean not just zoo staff, but most certainly also the public.” Frans de Waal
“Zoo animals are ambassadors for their cousins in the wild.” Jack Hanna
“Zoos are becoming facsimiles—or perhaps caricatures—of how animals once were in their natural habitat. If the right policies toward nature were pursued, we would need no zoos at all.” Michael J. Fox
“It could be said now that all animals live in zoos, whether it is a zoo in Regent’s Park, London or a Nigerian Game Reserve. Perhaps what’s left to argue is only the zoo’s quality.” Peter Greenaway
“All zoos, even the most enlightened, are built upon the idea both beguiling and repellent—the notion that we can seek out the wildness of the world and behold its beauty, but that we must first contain that wildness. Zoos argue that they are fighting for the conservation of the Earth, that they educate the public and provide refuge and support for vanishing species. And they are right. Animal-rights groups argue that zoos traffic in living creatures, exploiting them for financial gain and amusement. And they are right. Caught inside this contradiction are the animals themselves, and the humans charged with their well-being.” Thomas French, Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives
“In zoos, along with the animals, the humanity of man is also prisoned! No cage is humane!” Mehmet Murat ildan “The zoo kills the ‘wild’ in wild animal.” Mokokoma Mokhonoana
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Mahatma Gandhi
If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man. All things are connected.” Chief Seattle, Suwamish Tribe
“Only animals were not expelled from Paradise.” Milan Kundera
“If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first art of abstinence is from injury to animals.” Leo Tolstoy
“We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” Immanuel Kant
“Man is the only animal who blushes—or needs to.” Mark Twain
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” Anatole France