Author: Erica Dunne
The memories are hazy from my time with the two-legged ones.
I remember the warning squeals as the oxpeckers took flight, their blood-red eyes staring down at our lumbering helplessness.
I remember the muscular trunks of the elders, the way the earth beneath my padded feet trembled with the thrumming of the herd.
My mother guided me beneath her tree-trunk legs. I took solace in her wrinkled hide, cool and darkly painted with watering-hole mud.
The images flicker and fade. Fields and fire. Red-stained earth. The buzz of insects rising and falling in a deathly chorus. I was small-eyed and heavy-footed—no match for the two-legged ones who cornered me with sticks and stank of sweat. Did they kill my mother? I’m not sure, though it pains me even worse to think they drove her off.
These are the things I carry within me. If only I had been a simple dung beetle, all reflex and instinct with no sense of past. What good is memory if all it stores is grief?
Boxed in crates. Imprisoned in cages. I forced myself to forget the vast expanses of my youth. The deep green of a mountainside dew-speckled at dawn. The cool lavender hills that took three moons to reach. The two-legged ones sold me to a zoo, then a succession of circuses. Hot tents and noisy crowds. Boozy handlers with short tempers and sharp pokers. They clapped manacles around my ankles. As I grew, the chains grew—longer, larger, heavier. I heard their steel-tongued hiss in my sleep. “You belong to us. You will always belong to us.”
I was their entertainment. Draped in bright-colored blankets and feathered caps. Clubbed on the head until I learned to stand on two legs as they did. To throw and catch a ball. To balance on a tub. Pain was my teacher. Rage, my sole companion. One day, I charged at my handler. The performances stopped. The chains grew thicker.
I stopped dreaming of the deep green mountains.
Can an elephant hope? It is not in our veins. We are born of habit and ritual. We are like the underground streams we follow—gravity-bound, dependent on seasons and each other. Hope is the fledgling who flies from the nest. The sapling that sprouts improbably from a rocky crevice. Elephants are not birds or trees. The wind offers us no providence.
But hope, like the wind, found me.
I didn’t trust it at first, so long accustomed was I to darkness and constraint. The walls of my stall. The chains on my ankle. I quaked at the approach of the two-legged. I reared back if they tried to touch me. And yet here I was, surrounded once again by green hillsides, umbrellaed by nothing but open sky and the welcome companionship of others of my kind. We lumbered about on legs gone arthritic from lack of exercise and wheezed through lungs turned tubercular from our dank confinements. But we moved together, a herd born from our collective sorrows. From the others, I learned things I had forgotten, like how to read the promise of rain in the wind or the tenor of the forest in birdsong.
Slowly. Gradually, I exhaled into my new home. And in that space I had been holding back from the world, something new flooded in. Trust. First, in my herd and then, in the two-legged ones who spoke in gentle voices.
I let them snip the last manacle from my ankle. I watched the heavy chain fall then tossed it with my trunk, once, twice, feeling a burden lift inside me, greater than the weight of the chain. Something fluttered in my chest. I looked up and caught a flock of birds in flight. I watched the sunlight on their outstretched wings and for some reason, I felt among them, gliding on the providence of wind.
Billie the elephant spent 42 of her first 44 years in captivity—the last 13 of them in a 20’ x 20’ stall. Her nightmare of abuse and mistreatment ended after the USDA prosecuted the circus leasing company for animal welfare violations. In 2006, Billie was transferred to the Elephant Sanctuary, a 2,700-acre natural habitat in Tennessee that provides herd socialization and care for rescued zoo and circus elephants. A true sanctuary, it is closed to the public so that the rescued elephants can bond and heal apart from unnecessary human contact. It took Billie almost five years to trust her human caregivers enough to allow them to remove her last ankle chain. She now roams free.
Today in America, there are more than 300 elephants still in captivity, the majority in zoos, though some smaller circuses still use them. To learn more about Billie and the other elephants at The Elephant Sanctuary, visit: www.elephants.com