Sunday, August 22, 2010

My Friend with a Trunk

A good friend of mine asked me to comment on my friendship with Amai, the African elephant I met while in Zimbabwe. She was curious about why I was drawn to this particular elephant and what our interaction was like. I thought I'd write a short story about the relationship and see if I could adequately explain it. Some things are hard to define and this may be one of them. Here's my best shot.

Amai is the matriarch of a small group of four elephants at the reserve. When I met her, it was very apparent she considers herself in charge. At 23 years of age, she is the oldest elephant (but only by a year or two). What I found particularly interesting was that the four elephants had separated themselves into two elephant "cliques," or smaller social groups. While all four were generally always together, when they weren't working or free to graze, they would separate off a bit. Amai and Tomby were the first group, and Chibi and Kechi the second. When I arrived with a bag of assorted fruit and vegetables for the elephants, I would always greet Amai and approach her first. I'd give her a few treats, but share them with the other elephants also, so nobody was left out. I noticed that Amai watched me very carefully when I was doling out the treats to "the other group." Elephants are known to be jealous and Amai was no exception.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn how affectionate and loving these gentle giants are. They also seem very aware of their size and are careful because they know they outweigh you and could  hurt you. Amai would always treat me very gently, particularly when I was climbing on her back or getting back down, or when she was swinging her trunk around looking for treats. I did have to keep an eye on her tusks because you could inadvertently get poked if you weren't careful.

One of my favorite memories of Amai is when she pulled her huge steel stake out of the ground in order to follow me. When I remember this stake-pulling shenanigan, it still brings a smile to my face. She wasn't trying to escape or get away. The elephants at the reserve were treated well and I never saw any mistreatment or abuse. She just wanted to follow me. It was as simple as that. And she surely wasn't going to let a piece of metal stop her. Although the handlers felt that the stake could keep her in one place, Amai knew it was very easy to pull up. Speaking of the stakes, these weren't attached to the elephants all the time. When the handlers needed to give a lecture to visitors and wanted the elephants to stay in one small area, they would wrap a chain around one foot with a stake attached that was hammered into the ground. They were not chained and staked to the ground all the time. As a matter of fact, the elephants went on about six walks throughout the day and participated in various other activities as well. They went swimming and had set times when they were taken out to graze for a few hours with only their handlers. Of course, my preference would be that Amai and her friends lived as wild elephants. No stakes, no chains, no handlers telling them what to do and when to do it. Just wild elephants, free to roam wherever and whenever they pleased. But Amai isn't a completely wild elephant. She lives in a lion reserve and I think she has a good life and is well cared for. If I could pluck her and her family out of the reserve and put them in an elephant sanctuary, I'd do it in a heartbeat. She's not in a circus or a zoo. And for that I'm very happy.

Sometimes after I'd give Amai a treat I'd ask her to talk. I'd say, "Amai - say thank you!" And she would. It would be a sort of rumbling sound that came from both her mouth and her trunk. And if I said, "Amai, louder please," she'd repeat the noise but much louder. And then patiently look at me at with big brown expressive eyes, waiting for the next logical step. The all-important treat. Out would come the treat, which she'd quickly and happily gobble up. I could either place the treats in the very end of her trunk (which would quickly be slipped into her mouth) or I'd place them directly into her mouth. And what a huge mouth it was! Molars the size of grapefruit and a tongue always covered with the remnants of the recently eaten grass. While the skin on the outside of Amai's ears is very rough like most of her skin, the skin on the underside is extremely soft. Her long dark eyelashes were about an inch and a half long and tapered into small wisps at the end. They really added to her baleful expressions when asking for treats. The hair on her tail was black and coarse and surprisingly strong. I bought an elephant hair bracelet while at the reserve and while it's probably not Amai's hair, I secretly pretend it is.

The next time I see Amai, one of the first things I'll do is walk up to her and give her a big hug. Then her favorite eye massage. She closes her eyes and I gently massage all around her eyes and eyelids while softly speaking to her and telling her how smart and wonderful an elephant she is. I don't know why she loves this so much (and I'd never tried it with an elephant before so I had no idea), but you could tell it really relaxed her and she always wanted more. If you think about it most animals, like humans, like to be massaged, scratched or petted. And this elephant certainly was no exception. When she leaned against me and wrapped her trunk around my leg with her eyes closed, I knew I had a friend for life. Trunk intertwining and nuzzling are considered affectionate actions amongst elephants; they use this behavior to show affection to each other just like people do.

I was very sad when it came time to leave the reserve. I'd miss all the lions and the people I met. But saying goodbye to Amai was particularly difficult. I'm not sure whether any other visitor has ever paid her special attention on a regular basis, for two weeks, like I did. I hope they have. All I know is that I gravitated to her, and she to me. On the day before I left, I went to say goodbye to the four elephants and give them their last treats. The elephant area was empty when I arrived, so I sat on the bench and waited for them to return from their walk. I noticed pieces of corn (one of their favorite treats) scattered on the ground, so I diligently picked up each kernel until I had almost a handful. After waiting (impatiently, I might add ...) for what seemed to be forever but was probably only 10 minutes, I could see the lumbering giants walking slowly up over a slight hill out on the savannah. I saw their hulking gray silhouettes from quite a distance (they're pretty hard to miss).  And when they got close enough and Amai could see me, she picked up her pace a bit and walked right towards me. Elephants have terrible eyesight but excellent smell and hearing. Amai probably smelled me before she heard me. I took my time saying my goodbyes, handing out treats, and hugging Amai. I finally left because I had something in my eyes that needed prompt attention. They just would not stop watering! Besides, it was time for the elephants to go on a leisurely walk and do some grazing, one of their favorite activities.

If you ever have the opportunity to be around elephants and interact with them, by all means jump at the chance. Learn from them.But most important of all, be very affectionate and kind. Elephants are extremely sensitive and intelligent creatures. They can get their feelings hurt very easily, they hold grudges, they become angry, they can be like petulant little children. Scientists believe elephants are capable of displaying a range of emotions very close to that of humans, using different actions and noises. And if you ever meet an elephant who needs a nice relaxing eye massage, try it. If you discover a trunk carefully and gingerly wrapped around your leg, you have yourself a new friend. For life.

 Amai and me - August 2010

Amai Getting Treats - August 2010

 Goodbye Beautiful Girl

 I'll See You Again

 Elephant Postscript.

Here's some facts about elephants that I find interesting. A female elephant's gestation period is very long - 22 months. And elephants can generally live about as long as humans - approximately 75 years. An elephant's trunk (or proboscis), has two projections at the end which they use almost like we use our fingers. Actually, an African elephant's trunk has two; an Asian elephant's trunk only has one. The trunk is used for a wide variety of things: pulling down leaves or branches from trees, sucking up water (it can hold up to 15 liters), breathing, wiping or scratching, and spraying water or dirt on themselves (the dirt acts as a sunscreen). An elephant can pick up a single blade of grass using its trunk! It's also used for communicating, socialization activities, affection, and occasionally as a weapon or tool. An elephant will also use the trunk for picking up smells by holding the trunk up like a periscope. A raised trunk means dominance, while a lowered trunk means submission.

The following passage is from Wikipedia about a particularly interesting study done on elephants which demonstrates their intelligence, among other things:

Mirror self-recognition is a test of self-awareness and cognition used in animal studies. A mirror was provided and visible marks were made on the elephant. The elephants investigated these marks, which were visible only via the mirror. The tests also included invisible marks to rule out the possibility of their using other senses to detect these marks. This shows that elephants recognize the fact that the image in the mirror is their own self, and such abilities are considered the basis for empathy, altruism and higher social interactions. This ability has also been demonstrated in humans, apes, bottlenose dolphins, and magpies.

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