India’s elephants

September 29

For years, colleagues in India have expressed frustration over the number of wild elephants killed by trains. This past week, seven elephants died when they were mowed down by a speeding cargo train. The herd was on the tracks trying to help a calf who was unable to cross. In true elephant fashion, the entire herd came to the calf’s rescue, losing their lives in the process.

What makes this tragedy different, in addition to the number of elephants killed, is the response by the government. Vowing to make the necessary changes to prevent future calamity, the government is holding the railroad accountable. The train conductor responsible for the massacre has been cited, the railroad officials have been put on alert and the public has been assured that provisions will be made to protect against future loss of life.

From my observation, India is on the fast track of improved elephant welfare in situ and captivity. In the past year, the government has banned elephants from zoos, and stopped the practice of temple elephants being forced to bless devotees. Regulations against street begging, which causes the serious injury and death of elephants hit by vehicles, are being strengthened. The owner or mahout of a street begging elephant is fined, as well as the person who pays to feed the elephant. The Elephant Task Force recommended elephant care centers (life-time sanctuaries) as an alternative for elephants living in captivity. And finally, earlier this month, India recognized their elephants with the well-deserved official status of National Heritage Animal, giving them the same protection as tigers.

Pat and Ed

Today many of us received the distressing news sent from Pat and Ed at PAWS. With such bravery they announced the very personal crisis they are facing. I have no doubt that shortly after their message was sent Pat and Ed felt a bolt of healing energy from all of the concerned well wisher around the globe. Pat, you are a special woman, strong and determined. I am keeping you in my thoughts, surrounding you in white light for a full recovery.

blessings abound

Waking up with a sense of gratefulness is a gift, one that we create for ourselves. Recognizing the power we have over our mood and life experience is empowering. Things don’t happen to us, they happen and we react. How we react is dictated by many things deep and personal, but make no mistake, we have the ability to turn lemons into lemonade!

This morning a tiny rust-red squirrel scampered along the wood railing of my bedroom balcony. She froze for a few seconds as these delightful creatures do, perfectly framed by the window that instantly transformed her into a quaint picture. Expertly balancing on two legs, she nibbled an acorn held in her delicate front paws. I know this squirrel, or would like to believe I do.

Earlier this year, while playing fetch with Java, I noticed movement through the small circular opening in a bluebird box that hung from a front yard sycamore tree. At first I thought the box must be infested with ants or some kind of wasp because the bluebirds had successfully raised two clutches of chicks this season. On closer examination, I saw fresh nesting material moving around seemingly unassisted and realized that whatever was in there was big. When I spoke, all movement ceased. I decided to move away and inspect later.

Java dashed after the ball, hopping like a rabbit, totally enthralled with the game until spent. Some time had passed and the box appeared quiet. Peering inside the hole I saw no movement. Fully expecting that whatever was inside before had vacated, I spoke quietly and gently tapped on the side of the box. Nothing, not a sound nor a movement; the nesting material was motionless. Slipping the locking mechanism free, I slowly tilted the front wall of the box down, opening it just a few inches. This was enough to get a glimpse of what was inside. Filling the entire inside of the box was fresh brown grasses woven into a nest of sorts, but it was not a bird nest. Even with the door slightly open the nest maintained its shape. Through the small opening in the nest wall, I could see a tiny “thing”. I thought it was dead but looking closer I saw it move slightly. In the center of the nest lay a sleeping mammal; tiny, naked, bigger than a mouse, but unidentifiable without closer investigation. Realizing that the creature in the nest was indeed alive I quickly closed the box and secured the latch.

My imagination raced, flashing images of exotic never-before discovered cave dwelling creatures. My discovery brought me joy. It was sweet and magical, an unexpected pleasure.

I monitored the bird box for days, announcing myself with soft words and gentle tapping on the door. When I could see no activity, I would carefully lower the front door of the box enough to peer inside. Each day brought the glorious knowing that the baby inside was thriving, growing bigger by the minute. Her size seemed to triple each time I saw her. After a short time she had grown temendously and was soon covered with reddish brown fur. Then, finally I caught a glimpse of her elusive mother. I never saw her entering or leaving the box; that she did in complete secrecy. But one day I saw her scampering away from the box, through the tree branches close to her nest. I was tickled to discover that mom is my long-time neighbor, a red squirrel that I have admired since my arrival.

I monitored baby for three weeks. The day before she left her nest, she greeted me when I approached, peering out, big-eyed and curious. For what seemed like an eternity our eyes locked.  Fearlessly she looked me straight in the eye, so inquisitive, so calm. I felt the soft fabric of a white cloud-blessing engulf me. Namaste, I said. The next day the box was empty.

Now each morning I am audience to the hurried activities of two beautiful red squirrels, darting to and fro. Leaping gracefully from oak to sycamore; disappearing around the back side of the tree when I am too close. My neighbors are extremely busy this time of year and I am ever grateful for their activities.

full circle

 When Tarra was twelve we participated in an elephant training course offered by Smokey Jones and Gary Johnson. Gary had purchased two wild caught baby elephants from Africa. For a fee, keepers were invited to attend the course to learn how to train an elephant.

When we arrived Tarra joined Gary’s elephants. A short distance away stood a tiny African calf, chained and alone.

Tarra and I stayed for a week. During this time the baby elephant was trained several times a day. She was kept separate from the other elephants. Tarra never had an opportunity to meet her close up and personal. But I did. I still remember thinking how tiny her trunk was and how she hardly uttered a sound the entire time I was there.

When her training was completed she was loaded up into a trailer to begin her life as a performing elephant. She was the namesake of a newly formed circus.

Nearly twenty years later our lives came full circle when Flora arrived at the Sanctuary. Without question she had grown into one of the most magnificent elephants I had ever seen. As she gracefully stepped from the trailer onto sanctuary grounds, I flashed back to the first day we met and thought…another miracle.


our souls move in close related circles

I have a strong belief that our souls move in life circles, reuniting with the same souls over and over again. This relatedness means that we are closer than we know to those we spend any length of time with. Look at the photo I found while going through old files.

This is a young Dondi on the right and our dear Flora on the left. The photo was taken one winter when Flora boarded with Dondi over a winter at Dondi’s home in Arkansas.


Everyone knows how painful it is to experience the loss of a loved one, especially one we raised, nurtured and protected.

Last month Phil and Francine Schacht faced a terrible loss. Dondi, the elephant they raised from infancy, died of tuberculosis. When I heard the news, my heart went out to Phil and Francine. I thought of Tarra because the two were the same age. And I immediately flashed back to the time that Tarra and I met Dondi in Arkansas.

Tarra and I were driving cross-country from Quebec, Canada, to our home in Ojai, California. It was the end of a long circus season and we were anxious to get home. As was our practice, late in the evening we found a rural campground to spend the night.

These campgrounds were perfect because at this time of year they were empty of other travelers and usually backed up to a wildness area, a perfect playground for Tarra and her dogs.  Campground services seemed to be tailor made for a traveling elephant: a private parking space with a personal dumpster and water faucet plus bathroom, shower and phone for her caregivers. 

On this mid-fall evening driving through Arkansas, I spied a campground sign and followed the dark country road to the entrance. In front of me lay a vast pasture with a large wooden barn nestled way in the back of the property. The place was completely empty. I pulled Tarra’s rig into the prime space off the main road, adjacent to a large pond, between a few midsize shade trees.

As usual, Tarra was excited to exit her trailer. With Ace and Tasha, our constant canine companions, Tarra and I took off towards the woods. It was always part of the fun to remind Tarra to contain her excitement until we were under the cover of the woods. Her squeals and boisterous trumpets had been known to cause alarm in areas unaccustomed to pachyderm visitors. Allowing Tarra the freedom to play with full abandon is what enabled us to deal with circus life. In the woods Tarra no longer had to curb her vocalizations. Admittedly a few trumpets and series of dog-like barks echoed from deep in the woods. That night she played until spent, which took close to 45 minutes and left many young trees wondering what had just blown through.

In the morning, Tarra wasted no time plunging into her personal pond for her morning bath. The amenities at this campground were excellent. When I saw a man approaching I assumed he was the campground owner. So I braced myself for the reprimand I was about to receive. Boy — was I ever surprised. With a firm grip, the stocky man shook my hand and introduced himself as Phil Schacht, “owner of Dondi the elephant”. 

Dondi, an Asian elephant of Tarra’s age, emerged from the wooden barn at the far end of the campground. Who would have guessed that our travels would bring us to her doorstep? Phil and his wife Francine ran the campground and lived there with Dondi when not on the road traveling with the circus.

What transpired a few minutes later forged an unforgettable bond between elephant guardians and newly acquainted elephants. We invited both elephants to “go see” the other. Like the slow motion commercial where two lovers gracefully run across an open filed into each other’s arms, Tarra and Dondi sprinted several hundred yards towards each other. They had never met before but they did not hesitate for a moment to engage in full-on pachyderm play.

As their guardians stood by, beaming with pride at their foster children, these two adolescent elephants played like litter mates. Perfectly matched, they had no fear of each other, nor desire to dominate or be submissive. They rubbed their big bodies up against the other, wiggled and gently pushed, entwined trunks, rolled around on the ground together like pigs in mud, squeaked, squealed and trumpeted in delight. Dondi would freeze and then race over to Phil, vocalizing madly. Tarra would imitate, hovering her trunk centimeters from my nose, barking incessantly. Dondi lovingly slobbered all over Phil with her trunk and tongue and quickly dashed back to Tarra. They were a whirlwind of pure joy. These two played and played and played, until finally their energy was spent and they decided that grazing was the next activity of the day. 

This experience will be forever etched in my heart. Tarra and Dondi never met again, something I had always hoped for. But perhaps such magic is not repeated. Dondi will be sincerely missed.

connected is a feeling


Tarra continues to be my inspiration and mentor. We don’t have to be together to influence each other’s lives. I know that Tarra is fine because I know how Tarra looks at life. She obviously believes that dogs are meant to be an elephant’s best friend. Her eating habits suggest that she thinks a few extra pounds look fabulous on the right pachyderm lady. Tarra’s playful antics clearly indicate her preference for the lighter side of life. And without a doubt, Tarra’s love of adventures proves that she knows how to keep herself and Bella entertained. Clearly Tarra knows that I find her to be the most inspirational being on this planet. That works for her because she loves feeling special.

Tarra is strong and wise, with the open heart of a child with angel eyes.