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A Day Among Giants

November 25, 2017

8:00 at Volunteer House, Buin brings breakfast from the kitchen.  Just for me, as I am the sole volunteer at Wildlife SOS right now.  It’s well before monsoon season, so it is dry and ferociously hot.  I have never been so thirsty, all the time, even as I am drinking, I’m still thirsty, all day.  I digress.  Eggs, chapatis, toast, cheese, fruit, and tea are standard breakfast fare.  I supplement with peanut butter someone left behind.  Between 8:30 and 9:00, my handlers -Shivam and Hari – collect me in the minivan for the drive up the highway to the WSOS Elephant Conservation and Care Center (ECCC).

The elephants have already had their breakfast and been for their morning constitutional.  Their caretakers are up early with them every day.  This walk is the long one for their daily exercise.  Volunteers no longer assist with the morning walk as the practice included many extra bananas and the elephants were putting on too much weight.  Volunteers are suckers.

My first responsibility is to rinse the fruits and vegetables for their lunch, then chop them up, weigh, and divide it all into their individually labeled buckets.  It varies by season, but in May there are watermelons, cucumbers, winter squash, and bananas.  We chop it up to slow their eating and make the activity more interesting for them.  For the most part, everyone gets 10kg of whatever is available (3 times per day), a serving of grain porridge, and green fodder suspended from the rafters as if they were trees for grazing.  Suzy, however, gets special treatment because she has no teeth to speak of.  Her watermelon will be just the best bits, no rind, and her bananas are only the ripest ones.  And, as mentioned previously, Laxmi is served softened soy nuggets instead of the nearly solid porridge the others have.  The creation of faux trees is a variety of “enrichment,” to mimic natural situations in order to engage their minds.  Other forms of enrichment include tires and perforated barrels full of nuts.  Laxmi uses the halyard, which lifts bundles of browse, to scratch her back and, improbably, to floss her teeth.  She’s a clever girl.

But before lunch time is bath time!  In the wild, their mothers, aunties, and grandmothers would have taught them how to care for their hides, where to bathe and how to scratch, but being kidnapped as infants, this they never learned.  So it is my great honor and pleasure to bathe these giants.  They come up on the concrete pad in their enclosures, except the ones who prefer to stand in the yard.  It’s their choice.  Phoolkali stands patiently as her keeper begins to hose her down.  “Now.  Here. Scrub.  Scrub hard!”  He doesn’t have much English, but sufficient.  “Scrub bum!”  He finds this hilarious.  And I am scrubbing an elephant’s bum!  Also, I’m sure my soaking head to foot isn’t accidental.  But as I mentioned, it is tandoori-hot, so a mid-day drenching isn’t unwelcome.  (Yes, well, there was that rash.  But it cleared up. . . eventually.)  Volunteers are discouraged from random physical interactions with the elephants because as strangers, our only purpose is to provide food.  If we don’t have food, they see this as a confusing breach of contract.  But bath time is different.  They know the routine, so it is perfectly acceptable to sneak in some hugging along with the scrubbing.

After everyone is fresh and clean, the buckets come out.  As the veterinarian and his assistants make their rounds, part of lunch is doled out during medical treatments.  The practice of target training is employed to facilitate examination and treatment.  The elephants learn what is expected of them and they are rewarded for compliance.  There is a small gate in one wall especially for mani-pedis.  One day, on my way to the barn, I heard someone trumpeting repeatedly, unusual.  It was Laxmi with her veterinarian.  He was working on a new behaviour with her, to be able to examine her more easily.  But last time they had been working on “speak,” which is easier than “kneel”, that day’s lesson.  Laxmi knew that speaking had been sufficient to merit her reward before and thought if she just kept pushing, he would relent.  In the end, the banana was worth kneeling for, especially to dear Laxmi dumpling.

Giant grass-like greenery forage is then distributed, hung about the barn, with which the elephants may amuse themselves for much of the afternoon.  Humans have lunch and take a siesta.  Ours is delivered to the Office/Meeting Room/Volunteer Base stacked in tiffins which fit into something like a giant thermos:  chapatis, curry, rice, veg.  It’s too hot to work in the middle of the day, so everyone takes a break.  I flop down flat on the floor and take a nap, because elephant keeping is hard work!

After siesta, it’s chopping time again.  The wasps (they call them bees, but I don’t know about that) are on full detail, keen for the watermelons.  The keepers seem to be experimenting with how best to deal with them.  I agree that leaving the watermelons whole in the bottom of the buckets to be cracked on demand is a good plan.  Have you ever opened a watermelon with an I-beam?  Or a pumpkin with a concrete floor?  I have.  My world felt very small and fiddly upon returning from living with giants.  My cat’s litter box with its little scoop was nothing compared to picking up elephant poops.  The keepers do it bare handed, but the rubber gloves provided were only a polite fiction anyway.  Surprisingly, being herbivores, the smell was remarkably unoffensive.  The Forest Department takes and uses it to fertilize their projects.

Evening Walk is the most beautiful time of day.  We lead the elephants out into their wide open field, then they are free to wander as they please.  Or to stand where they like.  Or tear up vegetation or scratch against a tree.  For intelligent, sensitive beings who have spent decades, lifetimes, never being able to make a choice for themselves and the choices made by others bringing only suffering, I cannot imagine what it means to them to have this freedom.  We sit on the ground, watching them in their peaceful magnificence.  When it’s time to go in, their caretaker calls to Maya.  She walks away from him…. because she can and no one is going to beat her for it.  He calls again.  She stops, her back to us.  Then I feel it in my chest.  Phoolkali is calling her.  With a nearly subsonic oceanic purr, she rumbles to her friend.  I am thunderstruck.  They had spent their lives alone, with no herd, no companionship, no sisterhood, no one to talk to.  Maya slowly turns around and makes her way back to us.

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Dinner is served, including porridge, vegetation hoisted, and I am done.  I tell those dear ladies goodnight, and am conveyed back to Volunteer House.  The keepers will check on them again later, refill their amusements/snacks for the night, then do it all again the next day.

I tuck into the dinner Cook prepares for me as I am ravenous, every night.  Then I post a few unbelievable pictures from my day on social media and sleep like the dead for 10 hours.  I am grateful for being the only one in the House.  I’m giving everything every day to those elephants; I don’t have an ounce left for small talk with shiny kids on their Gap Year, bless ‘em.  In fact, having signed up for two weeks rather than the standard suggestion of one, was perfect.  When it was over, I was sad to be leaving them, but I had nothing left to give.  I’m not as strong as I was . . . 20 years ago when I hung shutters for a living.  I could feel my reserves draining, each morning the tank was a little farther off Full than the morning before. It was entirely worth it, every minute, and I will do it again.

A farewell trunk-fist bump with sweet Phoolkali, until we meet again

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sharon Reed permalink
    November 25, 2017 18:17

    Thank you for taking the time to serve, these giants sound amazing. I can’t imagine spending time serving them. Just BEAUTIFUL

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