Friday, 23 January 2015

Elephant No. 112: Some Favourite Elephant Books


As you can imagine, the two Elephant a Day blogs have required a lot of reading about elephants. To save time, I do the bulk of my research online. But every so often, I like to dig in to an actual book.

First up, the children's novel, The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo, with dreamlike illustrations by Yoko Tanaka. It's a lovely, rather melancholy book about an elephant who suddenly comes crashing through the roof on an opera house to land in the lap of a noblewoman, conjured up by a hack magician.

The elephant is carted off and chained up in a horse stable, where she only knows that she is dizzy and confused:
     There was, all about her, a great hubbub and roar. The elephant ignored it. She wanted nothing more than for the world to hold itself still.
     After a few hours, the dizziness passed. The elephant opened her eyes and looked around her and realized that she did not know where she was.
     She knew only one thing to be true.
     Where she was, was not where she should be.
     Where she was, was not where she belonged.
It's a story about far more than the elephant, however. As one review put it: "From the unexpectedly miraculous feats of a two-bit illusionist to the transformative powers of love, forgiveness, and a good mutton stew, there is much magic afoot in this fable-like tale [with its] uplifting message of redemption, hope, and the interminable power of asking 'what if?'" (Booklist).

It would ruin the story if I were to tell you more, so I'll just leave you to read it for yourself if you're interested.

Illustration: Yoko Tanaka

For those who followed my original blog, the name Lawrence Anthony, author of The Elephant Whisperer, will probably ring a bell. Anthony owned the Thula Thula game reserve in Zululand, South Africa, and was its head conservationist.

He is perhaps best known, however, for accepting a herd of rogue elephants who would otherwise have been destroyed. The matriarch was known for breaking through electric fences by either twisting the wire around her tusk until it snapped, or charging through despite the pain. The herd raided guest camps, broke out of reserves, and generally wrought havoc.

In Anthony's own words:
      Marion didn't shy away from saying they were "troublesome." But what did that mean? Were they just escape artists? Or was this a genuine rogue herd, too dangerous and filled with hatred of humans to keep on a game reserve in a populated area?
     However, here was a herd in trouble. Despite the risks, I knew what I had to do.
     "Hell yes," I replied. "I'll take them."
 So begins Anthony's incredible adventure with the Thula Thula herd. Like juvenile delinquents, the elephants begin by testing Anthony and his family, often putting the Anthony family in danger. However, there are also many hilarious and moving stories of elephant behaviour and misbehaviour. On one occasion, the elephants toss an al fresco dinner for Thula Thula guests; on another, one of the female elephants destroys an annoying cellphone by stomping it into the ground.

Touchingly, when Anthony died, somehow the herd knew, despite being miles away in the bush, and made the trek to his home in tribute. You can read more of that story here.


Behemoth by Ronald B. Tobias is the story of elephants in North America. My first thought when I bought it was that it would be mostly about zoos and circuses, but it's about far more than that. The back cover says it best:
In the two hundred years since their arrival in America, elephants have worked on farms, mills, mines and railroads, in Hollywood, and in professional baseball. They've contributed to the national discourse on civil rights, immigration, politics, and capitalism. They became so deeply ingrained in the American way that they were once accorded the right to vote and the right to provide testimony under oath—and they have included brutal punishments when convicted of human crimes.
On the surface, it sounds like it could be a mighty depressing book, but it's actually a wonderful read. Humans are depicted as a bunch of amazing weirdos when it comes to their use of elephants.

For example, there is the story of Tusko, who came to prominence in the 1930s. Originally owned by a man named Slim Lewis, Tusko made numerous appearances across small-town America, appearing in parades (sometimes parades of one), parking lots and any other place his owner could display him. Often Lewis and Tusko were mere steps ahead of the law, because Lewis had a cavalier attitude towards things like permits.

The trouble was that Tusko had a personality and, as Tobias puts it:
Slim knew he couldn't say for sure Tusko would be at a certain place at a certain hour because that depended upon his disposition, not theirs. He might cooperate and step onto the trailer happily, or he might decide to destroy it. One never knew for sure which elephant would show up.
Lewis eventually partnered with a shady character known as "Colonel" Barber. Deciding that Tusko would make an excellent one-elephant demolition crew, Barber allowed a house-wrecking company to hire Tusko to knock houses off their foundations.

Most of the stories are a bit sad, as humans never really seem to know how to handle elephants when they're sick, old, or difficult. But for a look at the bizarre story of elephants in America over the past two centuries, it's a great read.


And finally, Topsy by Michael Daly. Although nominally intended to tell the sad story of Topsy the elephant, the book also covers much of the early history of elephants in America, including the first elephant to arrive there in 1796. Weirdly, the poor creature was never given any other name than "The Elephant", no matter where it appeared—which perhaps makes some small bit of sense if it's the only one.

A few years later, when another elephant arrives, things get silly. At a stock market in Manhattan, among the pigs, cows and lambs, there was an elephant. Purchased by a prosperous farmer named Hachaliah Bailey, this new elephant came with a dilemma:
One problem his new acquisition presented was what to call her, for she was not The Elephant, just An elephant. The creature would require a name to distinguish her from the one who was still out there, touring.
He settles on Old Bet, who became one of the most famous elephants in the northeastern United States.

Most of the book, however, is about circuses, menageries, and sideshows, as well as eccentric circus owners such as Adam Forepaugh and P.T. Barnum. Jockeying for position as producers of the biggest bestest circuses, men like Forepaugh and Barnum pretty much stopped at nothing to come out on top.

Topsy's life and death are beautifully told in Daly's book. Her end is well known—after killing a surly keeper who stuck a lit cigarette in her nose, she was electrocuted by Thomas Edison in a spectacle attended by 6,000 people.

Daly ends his story of Topsy with a rather touching tribute from other elephants. Although I won't share it here to avoid ruining it for those of you who might read the book, to me that short anecdote was worth the price of the book alone.


All four books are highly readable and entertaining. In the end, however, there's something sad about every elephant story I've ever read. While the elephants themselves always play starring roles as intelligent, sensitive, and sometimes difficult, they are never in charge of their own destinies. The magician's elephant appears and disappears at the whim of others. The elephants in Behemoth are used and abused in bizarre ways. Topsy was declared rogue and electrocuted. The only elephants in these books who seem to sometimes have the upper hand are the elephants of Thula Thula, making free with everything from lawn chairs to antelope enclosures.

The reality is, of course, that, throughout history, elephants have been exploited by humans. Sometimes our intertwined story makes for some very difficult and depressing reading. But there are also many stories of elephant ingenuity, altruism and feistiness that make you cheer them on and wish them a much brighter future.

Source: Pixgood

Elephant Lore of the Day
Today's elephant lore is about another elephant book.

When I was little, I had a Little Golden Book I loved called The Saggy Baggy Elephant. In the story, by Kathryn and Byron Jackson, a number of jungle animals mock a baby elephant for its floppy ears and wrinkly skin. Some even offer to eat bits of him to make him less wrinkly. Eventually the baby elephant comes across creatures as wrinkled as he—other elephants, of course—and they all dance together.

Which, it just occurs to me, means the elephant had been orphaned. Orphaned elephants have become common in many countries, as poachers kill adult elephants for their tusks and meat. Luckily, there are a number of facilities dedicated to the saving and rehabilitation of traumatized babies. To read more about the work being done by two of them, please click on the following links: David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.

Cover of The Saggy Baggy Elephant by Kathryn and Byron Jackson.

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