Furniture crouches, hidden, beneath white sheets, covered in a layer of dust fine as sifted flour. Overhead lights hang flocked with cobwebs ragged as Miss Havisham’s rotted wedding lace. The air is chill and gray, mote-ridden in the faint gleam of light that seeps around the edges of drawn curtains. No one has lived here in eight months, but it feels longer somehow. Any noise is swallowed up immediately, as if sound is not allowed.
I cross the room and, two-handed, thrust back the curtains, letting in a spill of watery sunlight to mark the tracks of my boots across the floor. Time for a shake-out, a deep clean before winter closes in and–cavelike, bearlike–seals this place shut against the cold.
Hello, there. When last we met, I’d just returned from Oregon after a momentously successful launch of my book Elephant Speak: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd. We left Portland for home on Sunday, March 8, ignorantly unaware that the state was about to shut down in response to the steady advance of COVID-19. By the end of that week, we were in our own lock-down in Connecticut. (I thank whatever miracle worked in our favor that we returned unscathed and uninfected after a week of glad-handing and hugs.)
It’s eight months later and so many life-changing experiences have occurred, not just worldwide, but personally as well. My husband’s job underwent transformation, and we decided to move to Ohio. Our house went on the market on a Friday, a price-war commenced the very next day, and the house was sold by Monday, which of course meant a mad dash to begin packing and start the hunt for a new place to live. We lifted, hoisted, broke-down…and sprang arms, backs, and shoulders in the effort. (A shout-out to the fine folks at Buy Nothing Hebron who generously gave us their empty boxes to save us the expense of buying new.) Ed traveled alone to Ohio to meet with a realtor and look at houses we’d chosen on realtor.com; a depressing experience for both of us, having forgotten how rare it is for a house’s listing and the actual structure to coincide.
In the midst of all this, our most-beloved dog Holly–eleven years of age and medically fragile–decided it was best to die rather than endure the stress of a move. She departed in the space of a few sudden hours, leaving us devastated, empty, and stepping around the dog-shaped space on the kitchen floor as if she yet lay there.
We split the move into two days for sanity’s sake, and the cat, Ruby, sang me the song of her people for five hours until, exhausted and confused, she passed into sleep with her head on my fingers, stuck through the bars of her carrier. For two weeks, we lived in a spare bedroom belonging to our eldest and her husband, walking on proverbial tenterhooks so as not to make them wish we’d chosen an hotel or short-lease apartment, as we waited for the purchase of our new home to go through. Not long after we moved in, we learned that my mother-in-law, living in a care facility and largely uncommunicative, had died of COVID.
Back at the end of June.
This was September.
And no one had thought fit to tell my husband.
Now here we are with Thanksgiving behind us, Christmas before us, and little sense of our place in the world anymore, our main focus being to keep to ourselves and stay healthy.
And how have YOU been?
A Word On What Comes Next
The story you’re about to read, “The Last Zoo Keeper,” was written in 2017 and published that same year in Wild Musette Journal #1702, long before any of us regular Joes had heard about COVID-19, much less experienced its depredations. In a twist of irony, it’s a tale of pandemic and what comes afterward, how we are smelted and redefined. I wrote it in honor of my dear friend Roger Henneous. I hope you enjoy it. (And, yes, I engaged in a tiny bit of editing.)
THE LAST ZOO KEEPER
After the pandemic had killed everyone but him, Emerson left the city and wandered without purpose, a shambling thing half-dead with grief. He longed to lie down and die as well, but a hot kernel of regret kept him walking; guilt for having failed Imogen.
He slept wherever exhaustion claimed him, sometimes falling to the ground between one step and the next, and ate little when he remembered to eat at all. Haggard and filthy, he broke into houses and took away whatever he fancied. He lay on dead people’s couches—but never in their beds—and found damnation rather than salvation in his unlikely survival. For all he knew, he was the sole human alive on the planet. Certainly nothing in the wider world suggested otherwise.
One night, he discovered a baby grand piano in the living room of a suburban home. He stared at it for a long time, then slowly approached; hesitant, as if it might bite. He ran his hand along the lid, disturbing months of dust, then sat on the bench, wiped his palms against his pants, and laid his fingertips on the ivory keys. The opening chords of Moonlight Serenade conjured Imogen—the swirl of her favorite purple dress as she swayed to the music, the shift of long dark hair against her back, her smile. He played to the end, and then cried until he vomited.
When at last the thought of another day spent walking became more than he could bear, Emerson settled on a small abandoned zoo as his refuge. The reasons for this were visceral as well as conscious—the place had an air of safety, like a fortress, and Imogen had loved the children’s zoo near their apartment.
He spent several days exploring, salvaging anything of use—tools, medicine, pre-packaged food and plastic bins to store it, a rifle and ammunition, books to pass the time. His footsteps echoed in the empty caverns of the bear grotto, the elephant barn, and the cement building where big cats once prowled in shoulder-rolling silence. Overgrown grass whispered against his boots as he wandered the empty paddocks. In the ape house, swings and climbing ropes hung motionless.
There were bones everywhere.
It was easy to imagine how events had played out. The pandemic had struck with such unexpected speed and violence that no one remained to care for the animals. Open cages attested that many of the smaller creatures had been set free, but not the larger beasts or predators. Tooth and claws marks scarred the walls and doors of their enclosures, evidence of their desperate struggle to escape. Emerson tried not to dwell on the gut-twisting hunger and burning thirst they must have suffered; the confusion and terror when, day after day, no one came to tend them.
Spring turned to summer. Emerson kept himself occupied by tidying up the place, moving from office to laboratory, clinic to nursery, anything to keep from thinking too deeply. With a vague sense of winter lurking somewhere in the months ahead, he foraged for wood, chopping and stacking with diligence. Never a muscular man, he grew lean and hard on the strenuous labor and meager diet, portioning his food like a miser dispensing alms. The work toughened him, but its real blessing lay in sleep without dreams, free of the violence of Imogen’s final seizure.
He carried the rifle everywhere, not as protection—what was there to defend against?—but as insurance. If he meant to survive, he’d need to learn to hunt before the easy food ran out, but the prospect of killing filled him with an oily cold he couldn’t shake. If he were honest, he might have acknowledged the weapon also granted him a sense of control. It represented possibilities, should life without Imogen prove too arduous to contemplate.
One sultry night, he woke to sound. Fearful, he lay without moving, listening. This was no fox or raccoon; he’d learned to identify their noises in the night. This was different, something exotic. Rising, he shoved his feet into boots, took up the gun, and hurried outside.
The zoo was full of animals.
Emerson rubbed his eyes, positive he must be dreaming. He pinched his wrist hard enough to raise a welt, but the creatures remained. Translucent as fog and glowing with moonlight, the phantom beasts tread familiar paths, weaving among their bones, colorless eyes bright with a sense of soul. They saw him, and responded to his presence with strident demands for food and water.
“Go away,” he commanded harshly. “You’re dead.” He fled back to his den and locked the door behind him. Throughout the night the animals trumpeted and howled their misery, making sleep impossible. Only as the eastern sky grew pale with impending dawn did their cries lessen, weakening as each once again relinquished hope and lay down to die. As the last faint wail shredded on the morning breeze, Emerson slept.
The next night, and every night after, bedlam rang in the zoo’s caverns and corridors. The noise settled at the center of Emerson’s skull, denying him rest. He became largely nocturnal, napping only when daylight silenced the cries.
The sensible thing was to leave this place; walk on in any direction until he found a house with a fireplace, a soft couch, and no noise. But the thought left him queasy. He couldn’t abandon the animals as their keepers had done, even if that betrayal had been unintentional, but what could he possibly do for them if he stayed?
Long ago, he’d read somewhere that ghosts were nothing more than troubled spirits unaware of their own death. To lay them to rest, one need only convince them of their demise. Emerson spent an entire night walking the zoo grounds, chanting, “You’re dead. Move on.” The animals watched him with bleak, begging eyes and cried their hunger, growing gaunt as the dark hours waned. The sight of bones pressed in stark relief beneath their ghostly hides made him weep with despair, as he’d wept over Imogen.
He staggered to bed in the predawn hours, the sun a faint pearlescent glimmer in the east. Animal moans dwindled in his ears as he plunged into a dream in which he entered a familiar sickroom bearing a bowl of soup on a tray.
“Lunch, dearest,” he announced softly to the woman in the bed.
Imogen’s eyes, enormous in the wasted planes of her face, tracked away from the ceiling to look at him. “Thank you,” she murmured without energy or emotion, drained of everything except disease. Her body, withered and twisted, barely disturbed the covers.
He placed the tray on the bedside table and drew up a chair. Snapping open a napkin with a flourish, he tucked it beneath her chin. “On today’s menu,” he said, adopting the ostentatious tones of a maitre d’, “we have Dr. Emerson’s Super-Duper Beef Barley Soup, guaranteed to cure what ails you.” It was a name he’d made up, same as Grandma Charlotte’s Really Good Grilled Cheese, Uncle Harry’s Penicillin Pumpkin Pie, and half-a-dozen others in an ongoing attempt to stimulate his wife’s flagging appetite and make her smile.
Imogen offered what passed for one these days. “Mmm, sounds delicious.” But when he lifted the spoon to her mouth, she grimaced and turned her face away. “Sorry, darling.” Her eyes begged him to understand, to not see her refusal as rejection of him. “Guess I’m not as hungry as I thought.”
“Perhaps later, then.” Heartbroken and hopeless, Emerson set the bowl aside and folded his hands together between his thighs. He stared at the clock, the lamp, the half-drawn window shade and the bright day beyond without really seeing them. These days, he made it a point not to look closely at things, afraid of what he might find lurking in the shadows, waiting.
Imogen sighed. In that sound was all the misery of the world they shared; the small one confined by these few walls, and the greater one beyond their apartment where countless had died and more lay dying, lips bubbled with pustules, internal organs dissolving into mush.
“Dearest,” he said into the silence, “if you could have anything to eat, anything at all in the whole wide world, what would it be?”
“Strawberry shortcake.” Her reply came with a surprising lack of hesitation, almost as if she’d been expecting the question and held the answer ready. “The kind my grandmother used to make, with sweet biscuits and clouds of whipped cream.” Enthusiasm he hadn’t seen in weeks animated her face, filling her eyes with light. “We picked wild field berries as small as the nail on your pinkie. They smelled like warm wine and tasted of sunshine.”
Emerson touched a finger to his lips in thought, and then made a cup of one palm as if holding a small bowl. He imagined it full to the brim with the sweet goodness she’d described. “You know, darling, it just so happens that your grandmother’s recipe has come down through the ages, written on papyrus and delivered by a wee sparrow this very day for madam’s pleasure.”
He saw at once that she understood what he was doing, that this game of pretend was not only for her amusement, but might also encourage her to take a few useless mouthfuls of soup. Her chin dipped in a barely perceptible nod. She focused on his empty hand. “More whipped cream,” she whispered.
He woke, sobbing and grateful. “Thank you, darling,” he said, palming tears from his eyes like a child as he sat up. “Oh, thank you!” Pushing to his feet, he scrubbed his hands through his greasy hair. Taking a chocolate bar and a small bag of corn chips from his stores for breakfast, he spent the day riffling through file cabinets for information on what the animals had eaten, scribbling notes on quantity and serving method in a barely-used steno pad. In the feed rooms and prep areas, he located buckets and pans, cleavers and knives, everything necessary for his pantomime.
Physical props were helpful, but Emerson understood that the chief element to success lay not in creation, but in his ability to make the animals believe. For three days, he hardly slept; rehearsing until the motions became fluid and the images fixed in his mind—a barrel of fragrant yellow grain, fronds of leafy green bamboo, cold water gushing from a bone-dry hose.
On the day of his premiere, he went to bed at first light, slept deeply, and woke refreshed. Stripping off his rank clothing for the first time in months, he bathed in a bucket of cold rainwater, making a ceremony of it. He trimmed his hair and beard with surgical scissors, and dressed in a too-big keeper’s uniform taken from a locker.
He emerged from his den as the first sounds from the rousing animals reached him like the opening chords of an overture. Pushing a variety of tools in a wheelbarrow, he went first to the tiger because its cries were the most strident and pathetic. Beneath the animal’s intent, colorless gaze, he brought out a cleaver, hacked at an invisible joint of horsemeat, and tossed a chunk past the bars. The cat stared at him and cried, seeing nothing. Emerson swore and clenched his eyes tight, drawing up the images he’d practiced so assiduously. The cleaver’s sharp edge caught the moonlight as he raised it high, paused, and brought it slashing down. It bit into flesh—he felt it!—and severed the haunch at the joint, revealing gristle and a bright circle of bone surrounding the marrow.
Grasping the meat in both hands, he swung and launched, putting his shoulders into the effort. The tiger bounded after the rolling lump of meat like a kitten pursuing a toy and fell on it in a frenzy of hunger. Elated, Emerson turned on the empty hose, filled the drinking bowl with water that existed only in his mind, and moved to the next enclosure.
Hours later, as the sun stroked its first pale fingers of light across the ground, he watched the animals fade one by one. Wishing them well, confident that their spirits had been laid to rest, he barely made it to bed before falling unconscious.
Their cries woke him at sunset.
Emerson sat up, bewildered and disappointed. He’d seen to their needs and watched them consume their ghostly meals with vigor, yet they remained. What had he done wrong?
There was no time to ponder the question; animals were waiting to be fed. The dispensing of grain, meat, hay—like a sacrament to the sinner’s soul—now bound him to the beasts, made him theirs. So he rose, splashed water on his face, and went to work.
His chores became first routine, and then habit, as weeks passed and he grew more adept. Like any muscle, his imagination strengthened with use. In his care, the animals began to flesh out again, pale hides shining with robust health. Their panic at being abandoned waned, and they began to greet him as well as the bounty he provided. The tiger—Joe, according to its file, a stupid moniker for such a magnificent beast—rubbed its chin against the bars at his approach. One night a chimp—Bella—caught his sleeve as he passed her a banana. She pressed the back of her hand against his and drew him into a brief embrace as Emerson wept.
The pythons were the first to vanish. He arrived at the reptile house with his ephemeral dead chickens to find nothing in the glass-fronted enclosure except old bones and desiccated skin. Rather than being elated by their departure—here was proof that his idea did work!—he felt grief at the loss. But perhaps that was right and proper. Now that they were truly gone, their excitable shades laid to rest, sorrow was the next logical step.
A few nights later, the zebra was absent, and then the gazelle. After that, the process sped up, taking at least one species a night, sometimes more. He watched Bella fade before his eyes, and hurried to unfasten and swing wide the cage door before she departed entirely. He did the same with Joe. The big cat strolled through the open doorway like a king, paused to rub its head against Emerson’s thigh, and evaporated into moonlight.
The Asian elephants—Sundar and Thoda—remained, standing together at the cage bars, rocking slightly on massive feet, trunks coiling ghostly fodder into their mouths. “What are you waiting for?” he asked. “All the others have gone.” They met his gaze with placid, enigmatic eyes and flicked their ears in response.
Because they were the last, he spent most of his time in their company—standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the moonlight, or sitting on the floor with his back against the stout pillar of a leg as the first chill of autumn crept from the cement. By day, he pored over every file in the elephant keeper’s office, seeking to better understand the animals. As incentive to leave, he propped open their cage door. They moved through it willingly, and often followed him on strolls about the grounds, but seemed content to remain in his company.
Until one evening.
He was leaving the cage, having laid out a small mountain of food in front of each elephant, when Thoda suddenly abandoned her meal, pushed rudely past him, grabbed the cage door with her trunk, and slammed it closed in his face. Instinctively, he cringed back and quickly slid through the man-width space between the bars as if that might make a difference. She met his gaze with intensity never before displayed, then eased open the door and slammed it again.
“All right!” he said loudly over the clangor as she repeated the motion a third time. “You have my attention. What is it?”
Sundar moved up beside her and the two elephant cows looked down at him. To Emerson, small in their presence, it felt like being regarded by the eye of a god. From his reading, he’d learned that elephants were widely regarded as a “keystone species,” one capable of modifying its habitat to the benefit of others. He knew also they existed within a web of family experience that stretched both backward and forward through time, using infrasound broadcast in the bone and through the ground across countless miles to bridge the distance between herds. In this way, each elephant knew the location of every other.
Emerson put a hand to his mouth, breathless with sudden understanding. If this zoo could hold the spirits of the animals that died here, then so could every other. How many shades haunted those places, bound by starvation, unable to move on? How many needed him to set them free?
The elephants dogged him with long-legged strides as he ran to the office. They waited patiently outside as he tore through every file, searching for something he knew he’d seen, but could not remember where. Finally, he found the booklet containing a list of every zoo in America. Maybe not the small road-side attractions, the ones he now knew were called “mud shows,” but he’d find them as best he could, and the elephants would help because elephants know.
Three days later, on an evening whose sky bled with an extraordinary sunset, Emerson shouldered the rifle and a heavy pack and stepped through the zoo’s front gate. Heart beating strongly in his chest, he set his feet on the road south.
And the elephants walked with him.
Copyright 2017, Melissa Crandall
Hey, everyone. When COVID-19 struck and changed all our lives, the lovely folks behind the Newburyport Literary Festival were convinced it spelled the end of this year’s event.
NOT SO! Just check out their website, Newburyport Literary Festival to find out about all the wonderful options.
I’m delighted to be part of things, and will appear, live and in person, at noon to talk about ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd.
I hope you’ll join us!
I shift closer to the fire, toss on a log, make the sparks fly. It’s my night to sit up with the children that can’t sleep and I’m damned if I’ll do it cold.
I look around the circle at their pale faces made healthy-rosy by the flames. We’re worse-off than some, better than most. It’s a rare day they go with nothing in their bellies.
Back when it all went to shit, lots of people rushed for their money. Don’t know where they thought to spend it. Maybe they figured it would buy them out of this nightmare. Some hoarded and barricaded indoors and turned their backs on those in need, then acted all surprised and hurty-feeling when those others turned their backs on them in turn and let them die in the Beyond.
Me, Gwennie, and Johnny took a wagon to the library. We been friends since way-back and book lovers before that, and it was the hardest job we ever had, saying yea or nay to this book or that, judging whose words would live and whose die, pages turned to pulp by seasons of rain and snow, or burned to ash in a fire lit by some poor jamoke trying to keep warm.
We come first for the books that would get us by physically–the how-tos on gardening and repair and building and putting up food for winter, root-cellaring and the like. We went back again, this time with two wagons, and took favorite novels and a dictionary and such to put aside for those evenings when a body’s soul flickers like a Tink-candle and all but goes out.
I hold my hands to the fire. “What’s it to be, then?” I wait for the shouts, each naming a favorite story. They don’t none of them really care; they just want to be read to. So I read, the cadence of my voice rising and falling, mouse-high or bone-deep depending on the character and what I think they might sound like. The children pillow their heads on arms, old backpacks, each other. One by one, they fall away, asleep, dreaming what I hope are pleasant dreams in this often unpleasant world.
“You’re a good teacher.”
I look up. Mallachy sits across the way, cross-legged tailor fashion. I never saw him arrive, but that’s nothing unusual. He’s a quiet one, but he loves the stories as much as any of them. Next year, when he turns twelve, he’ll take his place among the readers and his turn at the fire, keeping watch against whatever’s out there that wants to extinguish the light.
I shrug in reply.
“No,” he says. “You are. They learn. You make them feel safe.”
I poke the fire. The last thing they are is safe and they know it, which is why so many of them have trouble sleeping. If they feel safe, I’m doing them a disservice. But how long can a body go on, week after month after year, feeling nothing but terrified?
“I don’t want to be too good. Bad has its place.”
He doesn’t say anything, but I can tell he doesn’t understand. I jab the sand with a stick and listen to the distant roar of breakers on the rocks beyond the dunes. One of these days, I’m walking into that surf and not coming out. Maybe tonight, because I don’t know if I can explain it the way Mallachy needs to hear. I can share what another has thought, but coming up with my own words is a hardship.
“Look, I grew up in a place where children weren’t valued. Then I went off to school and it was more of the same. My first teacher hated kids, you could see it in her eyes. Another one physically segregated the class into the smart kids and the stupid ones. Used those words. And those of us at the stupid tables, well, we knew we weren’t stupid, but live through a year of that sort of ridicule and you come to believe it. Maybe they only hated their jobs and not us, but they certainly didn’t want to do the work of teaching. They’d rather paint us stupid so they wouldn’t have to.”
“You’re not stupid.”
“I know that. But for decades I thought I was. Too much and too many in the world painted it true, telling me over and over, no, you can’t have this good thing you want because you don’t deserve me, you’re this or you’re that and me taking it because I’d been taught it was so, and forgot the real truth hidden inside me.”
He sidles up close to the fire and stares across at me with eyes like a fox. “What changed?”
“Me.” I look past my fingers into the flames, cup my hands to hold the light. “I got mad. Furious. And so damned tired of being told no. I decided they were wrong, that they’d been wrong all along. I didn’t realize they were wrong, and I didn’t believe they were wrong. All that came later. But I made the decision they were wrong and told it to myself every day until I knew it was true.” I glance around at the sleeping children. “What I want for them is a little bit of rage to keep them warm, keep them honest and true to themselves.If I leave them with anything, it’s the knowledge that no one has the right to take the fight out of you.”
Mallachy nods. Between one eye blink and the next, he’s gone, faded back into the shadows. That’s one who sleeps soundly because he believes he has nothing to fear. But these here, they think they do.
I reach out and curl a small hand inside mine. Stretched out behind me, my years feel bigger than the Before, endless, and too damned many yet ahead.
Copyright Melissa Crandall 2020
By the end of our day at the zoo–and walking around Portland, window-shopping and stuffing ourselves with great food–I was more toast than human. We’d planned on driving the three hours of Bend, OR that night, but Ed and I were both so wrung out we opted to spend another night in the City of Roses. Morning had us on the road bright and early, bidding a tearful goodbye to my friend Wendy, who had to head home to Delaware.
If you’ve never driven from Portland to Bend, I heartily encourage you to do so. It’s a windy trek of road, and often a bit congested depending upon the time of year, and one can become caught behind a laboring big rig. However, there are compensations:
You watch Hood from a distance, then begin the climb up its flank. Suddenly, you round a turn in the road and the mountain is right there, in your face: miraculous, immense, ancient, and breathtaking.
Before you know it, you’re over the mountain and heading into the high desert country of eastern Oregon. I had little experience of desert before coming to Bend the first time, a couple of brief visits to Arizona was all. Against all expectation from this water-loving, Scottish-weather sort of girl, I fell in love with the high country. Maybe my love of Westerns fed it, at least in part, but there was something comfortable about the feel of the place against my skin and against my mind. I can’t explain it any clearer than that. I’ve never been in a position to pull the car over and get out to snap some pictures (there’s precious few places wide enough to pull over and the road can be busy), but thanks again to the folks at Pixabay, I can show you what it looks like. (Photos courtesy of ArielJ and Ally Laws.)
So, we at last landed in Bend, one of my favorite cities, at the home of Don and Bev Henneous (Roger’s brother and sister-in-law) who were generous enough to save us from yet another hotel room. I’ve stayed with them before and it’s always a good time. Poor Bev had fallen a few days earlier and broken her kneecap which prevented them from attending the big launch event in Portland. But Bev, being Bev, wasn’t about to let something as significantly insignificant as a broken bone deter her when the events to come were practically in her own backyard.
That evening’s event was held at Roundabout Books, an independent shop in Bend owned by Cassie Clemans. If you’re in the area, go. This is a nifty, nifty bookstore; small, but packed to the gills with so much wonderfulness that I was disappointed I didn’t have time to browse. (That time constraint likely saved my bank account.) Cassie and the other women who run the store were unable to be there, but left the program in the capable hands of their spouses Andy, JD, and Jonathan, who are terrific guys all-around and managed to pack about 40 people into the exhibit space. Because Roger’s hands are quite afflicted with arthritis, his daughter Michelle was thoughtful enough to provide a signature stamp so he could add his name to mine. The audience was engaged, enthusiastic, and so much fun to be with. Plus, their questions were terrific.
(Beginning top left: Roger and me with some of the wonderful crew from Ooligan Books: Vivian Nguyen, Julie Collins, and Emma Wolf; the Roundabout events board; signing the author table; during the presentation; the book display; Roger and me signing books; Roundabout interior; connecting with Roger prior to the event; and Roger gets to sign the table, too.)
Our last event of the World Tour was held at Sunriver Books & Music (Fact, Fiction, and Flights of Fancy) in Sunriver, Oregon. I jokingly say that Deon Stonehouse, who owns the store with her husband Richard, accosted me at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Trade Show last October, but that isn’t far from the truth. I’d no more made my way from the podium after giving my seven-minute presentation, and sat down at the table where I’d be signing ARCs (advance readers copies) when this whirlwind of a woman appeared and breathlessly announced, “Your book is the only reason I came to this!” (What writer doesn’t want to hear that?) She inquired whether I could be induced to come west again to appear at her store and of course I said yes. Now here we were at last, face to face once more, with the added delight of meeting Richard and the rest of the Sunriver Books & Music team (including a German shepherd puppy that near-about stole the show.)
(From top left: the presentation, showing a picture of Roger taken on his last day at the zoo (he always expresses gratitude for those sunglasses, so no one could see his tears in taking leave of his girls); Q&A time; Roger signs books while I get to wear the famous hat (he was a complete chick-magnet); two Sunriver Books interior shots; the after-party with family and friends; the crowd begins to gather; two shots of the book display.)
This crowd gave me some of the best, most thought-provoking and insightful questions, opinions, and observations of the entire trip. We could have easily slipped into a brainstorming session on how best to secure the survival of elephants … which is precisely what Roger hoped the book might do, inspire others to use their resources (mental, physical, financial) to carry the elephants into the future. I could not have been more pleased.
Sunday brought us early to the Portland airport (watching the sun rise over the desert and illuminate Mount Hood is an image I’ll never forget) and a long flight home. There aren’t words enough to thank everyone involved: Roger’s family and friends who came out in force to support him and me; the folks at Powell’s, Bob Lee and his team at the Oregon Zoo, Roundabout, and Sunriver who believe the book has merit (I agree!); and my wonderful crew at Ooligan (with a special shout-out to Abbey Gaterud, Julie Collins, Melinda Crouchley, Vivian Nguyen, and Emma Wolf. Special-special kudos to Sydnee Chelsey and Faith Munoz, who jumped into a car and drove three hours from Portland to Bend with extra books because we were afraid we’d run out).
Particular thanks to the Henneous clan, who welcomed me so warmly into their home and their lives; to Wendy Carofano, who wildly decided to hop a flight and come 3,000 miles just to provide support to a friend; and particularly to my husband Ed Everett, who kept all the loose ends (including this author) from flapping in the wind. I love you all.
And then there’s Roger–muse, mentor, friend, father, ally, and partner on this journey. There’d have been no book without his trust in me, his willingness to tell his story, and his bravery in facing down the dark days of the past. I love and admire him beyond words. We drive each other crazy sometimes, as often happens in the very best of relationships, but we always have each other’s back. I love him immensely, and can’t imagine a world without him in it.
A local gentleman I know — Stan Malcom — is an award-winning nature photographer as well as being an entomologist with a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology. He’s been honored with both a species and a genus named for him. Yesterday, I received this from him:
“I think you’ve earned the title Dr. Crandall. Considering your years of data gathering from Roger and other sources, plus the context you’ve developed about elephants and elephant keeping in general, plus the engaging non-fiction prose, plus steering the book through reviews and publication…if that’s not a Doctoral Dissertation, I don’t know what is. Congratulations!”
Thank you, Stan.
On Thursday, March 5, as a Portland follow-up to our resounding success at Powell’s (I say “our” because the effort to bring ELEPHANT SPEAK to publication was definitely a group endeavor) I presented a truncated (no pun intended … trunk-ated, get it?) version of my talk; no pictures, but with the added joy of REAL LIVE ELEPHANTS!
Yes, indeed, courtesy of Bob Lee, Elephant Curator at the Oregon Zoo (who, in his gentle way, pretty much pile drivered this event into existence) my friends and I were honored to join the elephant keepers at their daily “Elephant Talk” in Forest Hall. (The saga of how the zoo went from the small(ish) barn Roger knew to a six-acre site and incredible barn complete with bells and whistles is too long a story for here. If you’re interested, you can access information on the Oregon Zoo website.)
Among the many offerings in Forest Hall is this: a memorial to the famous Packy. Born in April 1962, his was the first successful elephant birth in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years (and by successful, I mean an elephant calf that survived beyond its first birthday. Back in those days, the science behind care for pregnant and nursing elephant and their progeny was guessed at more than known. For instance, did you realize that an infant elephant calf cannot metabolize cow’s milk?)
In Roger’s time, the old barn might contain as many as eleven elephants at any one time (including three bulls). These days, there are five in the herd:
The daily keeper’s talk involves a running narrative during a demonstration of the various things the elephants are taught in order to help facilitate the ease of care and their own involvement in that care. Such moves might include lifting front and back feet, presenting an ear, or laying down.
When the elephants are showing off their smooth moves, they’re allowed free time to browse and entertain themselves in the process.
I kept my talk short since there were so many energetic little kids in the audience that wanted to get on their way to see the rest of the animals that live in the zoo, but I’m happy to say that several of those present (including friends Linda Reifschneider of Asian Elephant Support; Mitch Finnegan and Russell Guinn, who used to work at the zoo; veterinary technician Margot Monti; and, of course, Bob Lee and his crew of wonderful keepers) came up to the gift shop to see me.
I’m sorry to have been away for a couple of days. Like the rest of you, I’m dealing with the Corvid-19 threat as best as possible, but refocusing my efforts into wiping down surfaces, taking an inventory of what we have, what we need, what’s an indulgence, and what we don’t need (like hundreds of rolls of toilet tissue; what’s up with that?) has taken up quite a bit of my time.
The reason I’m calling this post an intermission is not so much because I’m taking a hiatus from reporting on the World Tour, but because I want to focus on something a bit more closely.
After my talk at Powell’s, we opened the floor to questions, followed by book signing. The questions were great–thoughtful and well-expressed.
There was a young woman in the audience who, from her questions, the polite and slightly tense tone of her voice, and the flyers she placed on a table advertised her affiliation with a Portland-area animal rights group called Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants or FOZE, which describes itself on its website as “compassionate citizens from all walks of life, committed to freeing the five remaining Oregon Zoo elephants from the harsh realities of captivity. We bring to light the suffering they, and all captive elephants, endure, creating a groundswell of public pressure to end the Oregon Zoo’s breeding, acquisition and importation of elephants. Our end goal is the gradual phase-out of the elephant exhibit and the relocation of the elephants to sanctuary.”
I was asked by Powell’s staff if I wanted the flyers removed and I said, “No. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.” Shutting one another out/off is part of the problem in the volatile arena of elephant preservation (and elsewhere in the world), but I’ll get to that in a moment.
There were those in the audience afterward who referred to this woman as my “heckler.” I want to stress that she in no way heckled me and was, in fact, polite in her questioning. Judging from her expression and body posture, I think I frustrated or annoyed her, but that was never my intent. I was trying, in a limited venue, to answer her questions as honestly as I could. In truth, I’d have appreciated the time to sit down with her and hear her at length, without judgment, provided she would do me the same courtesy. Unfortunately, there wasn’t the opportunity.
But I’d like to touch on what she asked me, because I think the questions are important. (In fact, I thanked her for bringing them up.) Please bear in mind that I did not record her questions verbatim, but can give you the gist.
A bull elephant by the name of Prince resides at ARK 2000. He was born at the Oregon Zoo on May 24, 1987 to Me-Tu and Hugo, and his original name was Chang-Dee. In 1988, ownership was transferred to Ringling Bros/Barnum & Bailey in an exchange deal for his sire. (You can read more about Hugo, the “Master of Disaster” in ELEPHANT SPEAK.) In 2010, Prince was retired to Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation. From there, he moved to PAWS in 2011. So, yes, he has been rescued (although I might hesitate to use that word), but not from the Oregon Zoo. (You can see a picture of the adult Prince on the PAWS website.)
The second elephant is a cow named Tina, who was born at the Oregon Zoo on April 26, 1970 to Rosy and Thonglaw. At the age of two, she was sold to the Vancouver Game Farm in Aldergrove, British Columbia, where she spent most of her life (apart from a brief move to African Lion Safari in Cambridge, Ontario, in 1989). In 2003, Tina’s owners donated her PAWS. Sadly, she died a year later. A necropsy showed the underlying cause to be heart disease, very possibly a genetic defect. So, as with Prince, Tina was rescued (or, rather, given) to PAWS, but not taken from the Oregon Zoo. (You can see a picture of the adult Tina on the Elephant Sanctuary website.)
The topic of elephants in captivity is an understandably volatile one, but as I pointed out during my talk at Powell’s, unless the different camps are willing to sit down and actually listen to one another in a non-judgmental way, our hopes of finding a solution to the elephants’ survival dwindles. There are many viewpoints. Some are usable, others not so much, but we must come to understand that there is no one answer, no one solution, no one way to solve this problem. And we are throwing away an important opportunity if we don’t step back from our deeply and rigorously held beliefs in order to hear one another, consider another’s perspective, and display a willingness to compromise. Without that, we and the elephants will lose.
By the time my Powell event began, we were 130 strong (or more). Staff had to bring in more chairs, and even then there were people standing in the back. I was delighted that so many came out to wish the book Happy Birthday and learn about Portland’s elephants and the man that cared for them all those years. Thank you.
For those who are interested, here’s a copy of the talk I gave, minus any extemporaneous remarks. (The words in bold is where I showed a particular slide, and I’ll include those here as well.)
Back in March 1997, I spent several hours in the Oregon Zoo elephant barn with senior keeper Roger Henneous and a remarkable animal named Belle. She was recuperating from surgery and I was one of several volunteers assigned to keep an eye on her for the next few days.
The barn was quiet when I arrived; no clang of hydraulic doors opening and closing, no chatter or bustle of visitors or staff; everyone gone home for the night except the man dressed in keeper brown, wearing a battered campaign hat, who stood beside the elephant in the front exhibit room, her left front foot wrapped in thick bandage secured with gray duct tape.
I watched for several minutes, until Roger noticed me and came out to introduce himself. Belle turned away, face to the wall, and rocked from side to side. I could sense she was in pain, but so was Roger; it was clear on his face, though it was a different sort of pain from hers, one that had nothing to do with surgery and everything to do with his heart.
Several days earlier, Belle had undergone a procedure to remove necrotic tissue and infected bone brought on by pododermatitis, the technical term for what elephant keepers graphically call “foot rot,” a condition to which captive elephants are prone. Zoo personnel came together with several local businesses to convert an area of the barn into a surgical suite complete with a sling to help lift and position Belle during the operation, and a team of surgeons from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine had generously donated their services. Belle’s prognosis was good, but guarded. A procedure such as this was a rare thing, and no one, not even the doctors, could guess its outcome.
Roger was gruff, gravel-voiced, and disinclined to conversation, so we sat in silence as time passed. Belle continued to shift from side to side, an unnerving thing to watch when you aren’t familiar with elephants. At times, she leaned so far to the right that I was afraid she’d keel over. Roger assured me she wouldn’t fall, but I perched nervously on the front edge of my chair ready to jump up if she did. What did I expect to do? Catch her?
Two hours into my shift, Roger excused himself and disappeared into the back area of the barn. He emerged in the exhibit room carrying a large plastic garbage can with fronds of bamboo sprouting from the top. He offered a stalk to Belle. She accepted it, moved it around in her mouth, and dropped it on the floor. He next offered a banana, then some hay. Nothing seemed to tempt her. Finally, she ate an apple, bits of pulp dropping from her lips, but refused anything else. Roger put the can away, brought out a hose, and waited while Belle drank her fill.
When he rejoined me, his expression was glum. “She’s got no appetite,” he said.
“But she ate a little,” I replied, “because you asked her to.”
Roger shrugged, unwilling to take credit for that minor success. He thumbed back the brim of his hat. “Belle and me, we’re like an old married couple,” he said. An unexpectedly sweet smile curved his lips. “We respect each other,” he added. “But neither of us is terribly impressed anymore.” He chuckled. “Although she did save my life once.”
The name Belle means little to zoo visitors these days, but for decades she was a fixture in the elephant barn, a matriarch famous for the birth of her son, Packy. As the first successful elephant birth in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years, Packy’s arrival generated a frenzy of interest and ushered in the era that transformed Portland from the “City of Roses” to the “City of Elephants.” The zoo received hundreds of phone calls, telegrams, and bouquets of flowers, even baby bibs and blankets. Zoo Director Jack Marks fainted while telephoning the momentous news, and LIFE Magazine devoted an unprecedented 11 pages to the event. The crowds that descended on the zoo broke every attendance record. By the end of that year, more than one million people from around the world had visited the celebrated newcomer and his mother.
These days, no one remembers Roger either, though he carried his own brand of celebrity back then, serving up caustic wit and homespun wisdom in equal measure to anyone that wandered within earshot. (That’s him, second from the left, during his rookie year.) He was unfailingly polite around children, choosing his words carefully so as to not swear in front of them, and completely the opposite with the reporters who dropped by the zoo whenever there was a slow news day hoping for a colorful remark. Roger was always happy to oblige. His Midwestern work ethic made him a legend among keepers, and he alternately delighted his coworkers or drove them insane. And there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for his elephants.
For 30 years Roger devoted most of his waking hours to caring for what became the largest and most successful breeding herd of elephants in North America. Sometimes as many as 11 animals tested the seams of the old barn. To give you an idea of what that means to a zoo keeper on a fundamental level, a single healthy adult elephant can produce 250-300 pounds of manure every 24 hours. Multiply that by 11 animals, and we’re talking a ton and a half of excrement needing to be shoveled and hauled away every single day.
What many people don’t appreciate is that there’s more to elephant care than food, water, and shoveling. Elephants need to be scrubbed to loosen dry skin, and weighed to keep them from straying into obesity. Particular attention must be paid to their feet, which require, among other things, the regular trimming and shaping of toenails and removal of debris they pick up while walking. Some elephants require medication or physical therapy. In Roger’s time, a few even needed to be rescued when tomfoolery, a misstep, or an argument in the herd caused an elephant to tumble into the dry moat that surrounded the yard back in those days.
Zoo visitors are generally a bit starry-eyed about the so-called “glamour” of being a keeper, so they often don’t realize there’s a degree of danger to the job. Any animal can have a bad day, and elephants are no exception. Roger survived being kicked, shoved, and swatted with trunks. He earned bruises, scrapes, broken bones, and even one or two close calls with the Grim Reaper, but he never once considered giving up on his elephants. In an era when the standard procedure for dealing with these uncommonly intelligent and potentially dangerous animals might include confinement, physical abuse, isolation, and starvation, Roger chose instead to create a compassionate and rewards-based environment grounded in mutual respect that continues to this day.
“More can be achieved with kindness than with brutality,” he told me. “Abuse is the lazy man’s solution to a problem. Maintaining control is an exercise in intellect.” Barn rules required that he carry a bull hook or ankus, the traditional tool used by elephant keepers, but more often than not Roger got chewed out for misplacing his or purposely leaving it behind. He told me, “The less an ankus is used, the better for both elephant and keeper, because not using it forces you to work harder at communication.”
After that night in the barn Roger and I crossed paths once more, briefly, but the experience of being with him and Belle never left me. Eighteen years later, I finally tracked him down to ask if I could tell his story. He didn’t remember me, and wasn’t sure he wanted to relive those years, some of which were indescribably painful. But it meant a lot to him that I’d known Belle, however briefly, during that anxious time in their lives. In the end, Roger agreed to share his story not for his own sake, but because of the animals he loved. “I don’t much care if anyone remembers me once I’m gone,” he said. “But I’d like it if they remembered the elephants.”
The Oregon Zoo herd is smaller these days, but the accommodations have vastly improved and the dedication of its keepers is just as strong. Miraculously, two of Roger’s original elephant friends are still there. Sung-Surin, better known as Shine, born in 1982 and shown here on the far right, is herd matriarch just like her grandmother Belle. Rose-Tu, in the middle, whose rare birth as one of a set of twins Roger witnessed in 1994, is the successful mother in the herd. Her children, Samudra and Lily, on the far left, are fourth generation elephants whose lineage can be traced all the way back to their great-grandmother Rosy, who in 1953 became Portland’s first elephant.
Today, there are five elephants in the herd—females Shine, Rose-Tu, and Chendra, second from the right, and males Samudra and Samson. Sadly, on November 29, 2018, Lily died unexpectedly from Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus or EEHV, a swift-acting and deadly disease that resides latent in all elephants, but for reasons unknown may suddenly become active. Research is underway to develop a vaccine, but until then keepers everywhere remain vigilant, ready to battle for the lives of the elephants they love. Disease, however, isn’t the only threat that elephants face.
Two hundred years ago, the population of wild Asian elephants was estimated at around 200,000. Today the count places it at around 35,000 or less. Dense vegetation, difficult terrain, and outmoded survey techniques make an accurate census difficult, but the indisputable fact remains that elephant populations are in steady decline worldwide. The three greatest threats to their continued existence are habitat loss, inter-species conflict, and predation. The root cause of all three is us.
But we also have the potential to be the elephants’ salvation. I’m not talking just about keepers and scientists, but all of us. No one can do everything, but each of us can do something to help elephants survive into the next century. For instance, we can purchase elephant-friendly products and avoid buying items that contain palm oil, ivory, or elephant parts. We can contribute to organizations like Asian Elephant Support, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, and the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation which has released over 100 former working elephants into three forest sanctuaries in Thailand to live, breed, and raise their young without interference from humans.
Over 50 years ago, Roger Henneous pledged his life to the survival of elephants. To this day, he remains dedicated to their preservation. “We have to do something,” he told me. “To try and fail is forgivable, but to be so indifferent that you never try is immoral.”