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Elephants, Sublime and Ridiculous

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Any zoo loves having baby animals to draw in visitors. The Columbus Zoo boasts Beco, child of mother Phoebe, 22, and father Coco, 38, Asian elephants in their collection. Phoebe's captive-born, while Coco was taken from the wild in Thailand in 1971. Imagine what his life has been like since. He's lucky to have ended up here.

Phoebe was pregnant with Beco for 655 days. Oh, my. 270 days was plenty enough for me. Imagine being pregnant for almost two years! With a baby elephant! He was born on March 27, 2009. So he's about 8 months old in these photos.

But there's more. Phoebe's pair of lovely and anthropomorphically-placed breasts (yes, you're seeing elephant cleavage!) produce three gallons of milk each day. Ye gods. She'll nurse Beco for two years. That, at least, is in line with expectations for humans...

I will never forget my encounters with wild African elephants in Kruger National Park in South Africa. The first I ever saw was a huge bull in musth (rutting condition) which charged our mini van (which at that moment felt entirely too mini) while one of our party was snapping photos. "I must move the van! He's coming on!" our guide Peter Lawson warned. "Wait! Wait! I need this shot!" shouted the photographer in our group (That was before my own incurable lensmania came on). Peter waited until the last moment to stomp the petrol and send our van shooting out of harm's way. Yiiiikes. Waay too close for comfort. We were all mad at the photographer, even as I now have come to understand that particular mania for the perfect shot.

Well, you seldom get the perfect shot, but you try and try.

But the very best moment I had with a wild African elephant came one night when I heard a cracking sound outside the little hut where I had been sleeping. It was a dark, moonless night and black as the inside of a cow. I stepped out on the tiny front porch of the straw-thatched hut and saw nothing, though I heard something very large breathing and sighing and rocking very close by. I strained my eyes, leaning forward into the blackness. And very gradually became aware that the reason I could see nothing but black was that my entire field of view was taken up by the bulk of an elephant which was eating a small tree planted inches from my porch. I was literally two feet from its face. One swing of its trunk could have sent me flying into next Sunday. Its huge and gentle eye materialized before me, fringed by long lashes.

I looked directly into that fist-sized eye and the elephant blinked languidly, like a whale might, acknowledging me without fanfare. I made out the rest of it by starlight and stood perfectly still, smelling its rich manurey aroma, as it finished demolishing the newly-planted tree, then walked soundlessly into the center of the compound to drink from a fountain: slurrrrppp, pattersplash, suuuuck, ahhhhhhhhhhhgggg. A deep elephant sigh of satiety. I felt blessed beyond all measure and comprehension to have been so close, to have been acknowledged, left unharmed and trembling with delight in my thin white nightshirt.

Speaking of delight...I am great fun at a zoo if you want a barrage of encyclopedic information and appreciative gusto right at hand. I am a terrible person with whom to go to the zoo if you're prudish or easily embarrassed. I revert right back to about age 4, consumed with curiosity and unabashedly enthusiastic about seeing my first pile of red panda poop or the bits of animals that get Photoshopped out of many magazine photos. So kids love to go to the zoo with me; some adults, not so much. Oh well. There's no keeping a good Science Chimp down.

After getting his little foots wet, Beco had an urge.

and Zick cranked up the 300 mm. telephoto for the perfect shot. Ahhhh. The pause that refreshes.

Hey Beco, if it's nice out, leave it out.

Duuude. You are too cute for words.


Wonderful collection of (revealing) photos today, JZ. What a welcome break from the sad news of the world. Thanks. XOM

Posted by Anonymous January 14, 2010 at 2:00 PM

Hence the expression--let it all hang out.
I love love love elephants. One of my students wrote about the Elephant Sanctuary a couple of years ago, so I looked it up on the Internet and then joined.
Love elephants.

Delightful post! An enjoyable read. You have the gift. ~karen

Your life's treasures, shared.
I can only imagine being so close and the pure privilege that moment must have been.

Your young elephant friend looks to have a lot of possibilities for self-entertainment, too. I am reminded of a joke about a dog with the punchline "because he can."

Musth you?

Maybe there is something to that "nose thing."

AHEM! (Laughing hysterically... little bebeh elephont sees nothing wrong with this, of course!)

Laughing aside, I love your telling of your nighttime close encounter with the elephant in South Africa. Magical.

Wow, I miss a few posts and it's pachydermporn over here.
Just kidding.

That baby has the same birthday as one of my babies.

You are not the only grown-up kid at the zoo (wink).

Heather said, "magical". Yep, that's the word that best describes this post.

Wonderful, dazzling just what I needed tonight! Pictures and words priceless - that last one, well, yes, well, sheesh. Such a boy! :-)

I love your stories, and how you tell them.

Missing Chet Baker, I must admit - sending him a virtual hug.

Thank you!!

I got to teach a biology class of 10th graders today, reproduction came up...they'd have loved this! I would have lost what little control of the whole situation I had. Nothing like a group of sophomore boys to find the randy stuff in anything.
Caroline, the emergency Sub

Ohhhhhh. Thank you, thank you. (When I saw the first pic of Beco's equipment, I wondered that you had only mentioned mom's cleavage. Then I kept reading....) Often wondered why elephants have breasts like humans and all other 4 footed mammals have udders in the back? Do you know, oh wonderful Science Chimp?

Holly, I wonder that, too, and I wonder why their forelegs and back legs bend just as ours do instead of the way all other animals' do. Everything about elephants makes me wonder. Elephant breast placement points out their relationship to the sirenians (manatees and dugongs) whose teats are beneath the front flippers. However, manatees apparently evolved from a common terrestrial ancestor of both elephant and sirenians, going from land back to water, so the teat placement was already established, one would surmise. It is certainly eye-opening to catch a glimpse of wrinkly grey but perfectly anthropomorphic breasts on a nursing elephant! One can only wonder at it.

Most of all, I wonder how we have justified treating them as anything other than gods walking the earth. I remember so vividly the horrible 60's and 70's when they were being exterminated for their ivory; I remember the dreadful culling of overpopulated troops in what refuge they had left once the poaching me it was nothing short of genocide. I watched a film last night about an elephant matriarch named Echo who took care of her troop until she died at 64. There was a first-time mother elephant who was afraid to let her new baby lie down to sleep. Every time the baby would lie down she'd lift it back to its feet. She almost killed it from exhaustion before she finally understood that it was OK for it to sleep lying down (adults sleep on their feet). Think about the thought process there--is it so different from the human mother who is afraid her baby will stop breathing and checks neurotically all night? Elephants are something other, something singular.

I for one would love going to the zoo with you. When we're out on our hikes one of our favorite activities is "name that scat"--or tree or flower or bird. Being curious is how we learn. Being a 4 year old about it is how we have fun.

I would love to go to the zoo with you.

Oh Julie! You were right! I LOVE your Beco pics and story! I tried to get some Beco pics recently inside...but it just didn't work. I think I'll have to wait till he and Phoebe are outside again.

The story of your night time encounter in Africa leaves me envious, too. I think it would have been so hard to NOT squeal with joy once you realized what you were seeing.

Sue Roberts

Posted by Anonymous January 15, 2010 at 7:55 AM

I'd be one who would love to visit the zoo with you. I'm pretty up front and curious about everything, not always a trait fellow adults are comfortable with.

Your comment about anatomically correct pics being photoshopped reminds me of a newsletter I used to do at the nature center I worked at a few years back. I was putting graphics into a list of kid's classes and I found a lovely line drawing of an elephant, and used it for a preschool class section. After it was published a mother called, absolutely appalled with the picture. I hadn't really looked all that closely and it turned out that it was a very masculine elephant indeed! Poor lady...

I love it when you comment in the comments section, Julie - as you always share more information for all of us. Reading comments is such fun - everyone's comments!

I would so much love to spend a day at the zoo with you!

I love how you made the elephant three-dimensional in this post; imagining the sound and smell brought it to life for me.

By the way, I took pictures of coyote and elk poop on my last trip.

Julie -re treating them as the gods they are - my dad had tickets to a circus when my kids were little (hadn't been to a circus since I was little). We were standing outside watching 'elephant rides', a pathetic misnomer for a sad, chained elephant walking in a small circle with kids on her back. I just stood there and watched her. And I started crying. It was such a sad sight, this magnificent animal reduced to this life, being chained and hauled and moved in a train. And then going inside the tent - watching tigers jump through hoops and bears ride bicycles...these wonderful, gorgeous creatures...

I never took my kids to another circus.

Science Chimp take a look at this video from the Netherlands of an elephant birth.It is VERY graphic but does have a happy ending.
Did you know that the babies had to be kickstarted?

Posted by Anonymous January 15, 2010 at 7:11 PM

Funny stuff.

I too saw the film about Echo, and shed a tear at her passing.

Hmmm, interesting. I don't know about african elephants, but adult asian elephants do lay down to sleep in short little 20-40 minute ele-naps. They have to feel very comfortable about their environment to do it as it does take a while to get back on their feet. The elephants that have been rescued at The Elephant Sanctuary lay down all the time to nap. Nothing better than to watch the ele-cam at the Sanctuary watching them snooze with their ears slowly flapping off the flies as they sleep. Now THOSE elephants truly live in paradise. Most zoos just do not give the elephant enough space to move and they die at much earlier ages of complications from foot rot and painful arthritis. Elephants are meant to move, not just for food either. They travel 15-30 miles a day. Check out the Elephant Sanctuary at for more information.

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