Thursday, September 20, 2012

How to train an Elephant

How to Train an Elephant

I’m waiting in the main lodge at Stanley’s Camp. I transferred some guests here so they can “Walk with the elephants.” When we were kids, my brother wanted a pet elephant in the worst way. Maybe it was after the circus came to town, I can’t recall. I do remember asking Dad how the man taught a horse to count. “Shane, that horse was the same age the last time the circus was here. It doesn’t know how to count, it knows if it stomps it’s foot until the man takes off his hat, it gets a sugar cube.”

We grew up on a farm, so we already had most of the usual critters; dogs, rabbits (we used to play with the rabbits and our dog at the same time. She’d playfully flip them with her nose, carry them by the scruff of their necks, chase or herd them back to us. Jody behaved so well around the rabbits that my brother and I let the rabbits out to play with her and then we went about seeking the day’s adventure. We returned to find disturbingly little of our three rabbits scattered about the lawn. Country lessons come with harsh finality.

A succession of horses, bookended by two Shetland ponies and an Appaloosa Dad christened ‘Ugly’ because it had eyes of different colors. In between we had several quarter horses, one of which was pregnant when we bought it, unbeknownst to us. I broke the foal with some direction from Dad on how to go about it. My sister was the first to ride it after me. She took it across the road by the pond where it promptly threw her. Kelley came back holding her broken arm. Dad said, “I guess it ain’t broke yet.”

But Kyle kept asking for an elephant. Always aware of an opportunity for his children to teach themselves, Dad told Kyle to do the research, see what it takes. Asian elephants need seven bales of hay a day. The African elephants like the one I’m watching right now, are bigger and need even more, up to 200 kg of food and 180 liters of water. And never mind the dung, what a job it would be to shovel all that shit.

The first thing you do is tie the baby elephant to a post. Actually, the first thing you do is get yourself a baby elephant. How one goes about that, I haven’t the foggiest. Females stay in herds of mothers, daughters and immature males. Since it takes about ten years before an elephant has learned enough from its mother to survive on its own, the matriarch vigorously defends her herd and the substantial time and energy given to raising young.

But let’s say you did acquire a baby elephant. What you need is a stout post-think telephone pole- and a chain. You chain the elephant to the post. Over the course of several days, the elephant will pull and pull, forgoing food and water, trying to get away. If it succeeds in yanking the pole out of the ground, breaking it off or somehow getting loose, that elephant will never be contained.

If the chain holds, eventually the elephant will give up. From that day forward you can tie the elephant with string and he’ll never struggle. He has a long memory and will not forget that it’s futile to resist. See, they do remember but they don’t reason.

Now you can go about the business of teaching it to wear a saddle, trumpet on command or what have you. But they do remember and if you’re not careful they may turn on you. Our company has done two med-evacs involving elephants, actually one was a rescue because armed farmers fired on the elephant before it could stomp the man to death, the other was a body recovery. And it wasn’t really a body recovery, it was more of a parts and pieces clean up in aisle seven. Chunks of the man were strewn over a large area, suggesting that the mother tore him apart with her tusks and tossed the hunks with her proboscis.

In the end, Kyle decided he Dad was probably right, an elephant would just be too much, “Hey Dad, what about a buffalo?”

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