The King is Dead

Packy the elephantSomehow, I thought he would live forever.

Ridiculous, of course, but it’s the sort of notion that arises. Maybe it’s more of a hope or prayer, a mantra against the inevitable.

Like many others, I thought of him as mine, although I had little claim on him. I wasn’t there when he arrived on April 14, 1962, the only child of Belle and Thonglaw, 225 pounds of astonishing baby Asian  elephant, the first of his kind born in captivity in over 40 years. I didn’t see his childhood among the growing herd, watched over by diligent Al Tucker and his crew. I never got to enjoy his teenage years and see him come into his own, pitting his intelligence–and rising hormones–against my friend Roger Henneous, who took over the elephant barn when Tucker retired.

I came on the scene in 1996. Packy was 34 years old and fully mature, a father seven times over, although only one of his children–Sung-Surin, better known as Shine–has survived him.

He was astonishing; jaw-droppingly wonderful, amazing, incomprehensible. Immense. Packy, the Oregon Zoo's famous bull asian elephant, born in 1962.Grand. Majestic. An earth-bound leviathan better than twelve feet tall and weighing more than 14,000 pounds in his prime. You’d look at him, and your brain couldn’t seem to grasp the fact of him.

Stories abound. I know some of them and wish I knew more: how he challenged Roger during a performance in front of hundreds of spectators; how he gave Dr. Bets Rasmussen her first clues to the estrus cycle in elephants by touching the tip of his trunk to a damp patch of soil and then lifting it to the roof of his mouth; how he bit eight inches off Hugo’s trunk; how much he and Al Tucker loved each other.

Now his stories are over. The world is a greater place for his having been here, but smaller now with his passing.

But I have this hope:

Close your eyes. Imagine a vast plain of grass stretching to the horizon and beyond. As far as you can see, there are elephants–grazing, playing, napping. On a knoll stands a lone female, her wise face turned toward the East and the rising sun. Her ears fan open as she catches the sound of familiar footsteps. Walking out of the dawn comes Packy, her son, her beloved. She hurries to meet him, squealing, rumbling, crooning with delight. Their trunks coil around each other and they are, at long last, reunited. Forever.

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Packy & Belle

Ups and Downs

The good news is that I’m healthy at last. I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. I’ve been sick before, but never has anything been so persistent as this last round  of whatever it was. Four weeks it went on. But, you know, even that had an upside – at least I didn’t catch the stomach bug that’s going around (touch wood).

Another good–no, GREAT!–thing that happened is this:

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Congratulations to Stacey and Jason at Books & Boos Press, and congratulations to my fellow authors in this project. Well done, us! A ginormous THANK YOU! to everyone who voted for us.

With the new year comes a new round of book submissions via my lovely agent Bonnie Solow. Fingers crossed that we connect with an editor who’ll love and nurture THE MAN WHO LOVED ELEPHANTS. (In case anyone’s interested, I’d prefer one of these two pictures for the cover:

Roger Henneous in 1998. Stephanie Yao Long/Staff

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The not-so-great news is that I woke this morning to another story rejection. Not a great thing to see first thing, but I took it on the chin and am determined to get two out to magazines this week, plus work on two more in the pipeline. Also cruising for a new book topic, something narrative nonfiction, if anyone wants to send ideas my way.

Hope this finds  you well. However you plan to spend Inauguration Day, I wish you peace.

 

A Change in Perspective

A bit of good news from my agent as we slide toward the Thanksgiving holiday – she has sent the proposal and manuscript for “The Man Who Loved Elephants” to a handful of editors, with a December 8 deadline. So it begins! This is a very exciting time for me – a bit nerve-wracking, sure, but I have confidence in this book.

Although it’s been a rough year with friend/family illness, two pet deaths, and Holly’s diagnosis of epilepsy and subsequent changes in her personality, I am determined to focus on the blessings I have received. I have much to be grateful for in my life: a terrific husband, a roof over my head, warmth in the cold, food in my belly, a handful of tried-and-true friends (you know who you are), an agent who believes in me, a good friend named Roger who was brave enough to share his story with me and then agree to let me tell it … the list goes on.

Take a moment in this time of unrest to set politics and ideological differences aside and focus on the positives in your life. Send a blast of gratitude into this needy world. It can’t hurt, and it might help. Let reflection and peace take precedence over what time the Black Friday sales start. Refuse to be part of the madness. Instead, be an antidote.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Playing Catch-Up

Ah, those good intentions about blogging regularly. How quickly they can evaporate!

In my defense, it’s been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster around here. Our dear old cat-boy, Tuna, is coming to the end of his road. Our dog, Holly, has developed seizures – a journey which has required two trips to Tufts’ Foster Hospital for Small Animals, first for a neurology consult and then for an MRI and spinal tap (…erg…) to rule out brain tumor, stroke, or infection as the culprit. Happily, all tests came back negative, but that leaves us with the rather ephemeral diagnosis of idiopathic epilepsy. Holly’s eight, a bit old to have this just show up, but we always seem to have animals that bend the rules, as our dear veterinarian Dr. Jenny Gamble can attest. At any rate, as of last night she is on meds (Ka-CHING! these things are expensive!) and time will tell. Still, it’s disheartening to know that no good was going to come out of this no matter when the tests revealed.

In addition to all this, a friend’s mother is battling lung cancer; another friend’s brother is fighting colon cancer, and his mother is recovering from a stroke; a third friend just underwent an abdominal CT scan in a hunt for the cancer that may have returned to haunt her after ten years free of the monster and, well, you get the idea.

There is, however, a bit of rosy glow on the horizon, at least so far as I’m concerned. Today, I’ll be talking with my agent Bonnie Solow to decide when we will begin submitting the proposal and manuscript of The Man Who Loved Elephants to editors. This has been a long and exciting (and occasionally frustrating) road. I’m delighted … excited … terrified. Here goes my baby (our baby, I should say, for the book is as much Roger’s child as it is mine) into the world. I hope it receives a warm welcome.

This Summer’s Elephant-Sized Adventure

I’ve done a bit of traveling over the past year, mostly to the west coast of the U.S., and mostly to Oregon to visit Roger Henneous, who is my dear friend as well as the subject of my latest book, “The Man Who Loved Elephants.” This is him,

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photo courtesy of Melissa Henneous Mayes

with his lovely wife RoseMerrie.

For almost 30 years, Roger worked–and worked, and worked, and worked–as Senior Elephant Keeper at the Washington Park Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo). Those who’ve been mislead by romanticism may imagine that a zoo keeper’s life is one of bucolic interaction with the animals he cares for–and there can be some of that–but mostly it’s as Roger once wrote on a job description: “Days, weeks and months of back-breaking labor punctuated by moments of abject terror.”

The elephants were Roger’s friends, but they were also his children. Like children, it was up to him to teach them the rules of life in the barn so as to keep them safe and healthy: “thou shalt do as the keeper asks, thou shalt not knock the keeper down.”

Although the general media sometimes seems bent on having us believe that all zoo keepers are deplorable monsters who torture their animals, this is not the case and Roger is proof of that. “You can make an elephant do one of two things,” he’s fond of saying. “Run away or kill you. But you can get an elephant to do an amazing number of things.” He learned that “elephants are kind of subtle,” so he’d best keep his eyes moving all the time. He learned that they have a sense of humor, but a sound whack from an elephant’s trunk can severely injure a person, so that couldn’t be tolerated. He understood that he couldn’t out-weight them or out-reach them, so he needed to out-think them; to offer them a better deal when they thought mischief was the best course of action.

Although many of the elephants Roger knew have long since passed on, several remain.

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“Hanako” courtesy of John Houck

One of these is Hanako, who resides at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wa. Hanako (which means “little flower child”) was a five-year-old youngster when Roger arrived at the Washington Park Zoo, the daughter of Tuy Hoa (pronounced tea-wha) and the bull Thonglaw (pronounced tung-law). It didn’t take him learn to realize that this was an elephant of a different stripe; an animal with a nervous and unpredictable personality. “She was not, thank God, particularly vicious,” Roger stresses, “but she was flighty. It took nothing to set her off and there were times when I never could figure out what had triggered her.” On one occasion, she attempted to kill Roger as he was inspecting her newborn calf.

Hanako’s tendency toward violence led to her being transferred to Point Defiance, where they had in place a “protected contact” system that allowed keepers to care for her without having to be in the enclosure with her. Under protected contact, elephants are trained to present their ears, feet, and trunk through a variety of openings so keepers can inspect them, file their nails, and treat any injuries. The bars of the enclosure are wide enough to accommodate an enormous bristled brush, and this is used to scrub down the elephants.

This summer, I was most fortunate to receive an invitation from John Houck, Deputy Director at Point Defiance (and a former co-worker of Roger’s from the Washington Park

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Me listening to John Houck beside the puffin pool, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Photo by Ed Everett

Zoo days) to come visit “the next time you’re out this way.” Along with my husband Ed, Linda Reifschneider, President of Asian Elephant Support, and her associate Cynthia Christison, we received an unexpected and thoroughly enjoyable behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo. Best of all, thanks to the generosity of John Houck and elephant keeper Kate Burrone, we actually got to meet Hanako and her pal Suki!  Not only that, but we got to feed her. The high-point for me, however, was standing beside her and being regarded by her beautiful eye as she took in my scent and figured out who the heck I was. She behaved beautifully and this will forever be one of the high points of my life. Thank you, John and Kate!

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Hanako receives her morning bath courtesy of keepers Piper (L) and Kate (R). Photo by Ed Everett

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Kate introduces me to Hanako. Photo by Ed Everett

 

Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3 …

At long last, the new website is up and running. Kudos to the brilliant and beautiful Brittany Lester for taking on this project so I didn’t have to. Thanks to her, I had more time to write, and sport fewer gray hairs than I might. <Applause, applause>

Tonight – October 18, 2016 – I and several other writers will try to raise a few “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night” as we gear up for Halloween by reading from the anthology TRICKS AND TREATS: A Collection of Spooky Stories by Connecticut Authors. The event takes place at the Bentley Memorial Library in Bolton, CT, and begins at 6:00 pm. Hope to see you there. (TRICKS AND TREATS is published by Books and Boos Press, and available through Amazon.)

On the writing front, things are progressing with my book THE MAN WHO LOVED ELEPHANTS. The manuscript is complete and with my agent, Bonnie Solow, and we’re now hammering away (an apt word given my occasional desire to beat my head against a wall) on the proposal. One section to go, and we should be ready to take the manuscript out into the world.

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