in the dark of night

A hauntingly familiar sound of clanking chains passed by my window, so close I thought perhaps my wall would be crushed. The clink clink clink of cold metal bracelets was unmistakable; an escapee was passing by my room in his effort to disappear into the freedom of the bordering National Park.

Switching off the lights to avoid attracting attention, I pushed open the screen door and stepped into the darkness.

The rattle of chains chilled me to the bone as a silhouette passed in front of me. First one and then a second, moving silently except for the clanging of the chain hobbles secured around the front ankles of the smaller elephant.

On this, the night before I leave Sauraha, I wondered why I was to witness another unbearable scene of captive elephant suffering.

The escapee had entered through the front gate at NTNC-BCC and slowed when he found himself fenced in. The second elephant, a koonkie, was being used to subdue and calm the young male, whose ivory glistened in the moonlight.

When the bull stopped, the mahout began to speak in a soft but firm tone. He told his elephant, the koonkie, to bite, which means to stretch out on her sternum. By assuming this vulnerable position, the elephant appeared to bring comfort to the escapee.

It was then that I saw a mahout precariously perched on top of the young bull, no doubt freighted half out of his wits, with nothing at all to secure himself.

As soon as the koonkie reclined, a command was given for the bull to recline, which he did without hesitation. The reality is that he was frightened and I believe the mahouts involved realized this. As soon as he reclined the mahouts switched elephants and the koonkie left silently.

A little more rattling of the chains and the hobbles were removed, and the young bull moved swiftly back from where he’d come–the government hattisar (elephant stable) next door.

Not willing to witness the brutal scene I assumed would follow, I called out into the night, no pita (don’t hit). No response. As the elephant and mahout passed my room I called out again, which was when I saw a flashlight-wielding man walking behind the elephant.

“Government center hattie (elephant)?” I asked.

“Yes, Raj, from the government center,” he politely replied.

“The elephant is afraid,” I said. ”Do not add to his misery by beating him.”

“You are foot trimming lady, right?” he asked. “You trimmed Raj a few days ago–he had a bad nail.”

“Be kind, Raj is a wild animal,” I said.

”No, not a wild elephant, government elephant,” was his reply.

“Yes, a government elephant and wild,”  I said.

There we stood under a bright near-full moon discussing the fact that although these elephants are living in captivity they remain wild animals, never formally domesticated and always to remain wild. When I said they deserve to be treated with compassion because of their circumstances, the mahout nodded in polite agreement. He spoke surprisingly good English and appeared to understand what I was saying. In seconds he vanished into the darkness, leaving me to contemplate what I had just witnessed.

For some time I stood listening to hear if Raj would be brutalized for his attempted escape. But this night I would not have to be reminded of the elephant suffering that permeates this tourist destination in Nepal. The only sound that pierced the night air was the soft repetition of forest birds and chirping insects.

A Blessing

Like another piece of discarded trash tossed to the side of the road, a young puppy lay prone, unnoticed. At first glance I thought she was dead but then I saw her labored breathing and heard her pitiful whimper.

Passers-by did just that–passed by without as much as a glance in her direction. Not until I sat down next to her did any human take notice. Sadly, it was not the dying puppy that caught their attention but the curious sight of a foreigner sitting on the ground comforting a dying dog.

I have come to accept that dogs do not hold a place in the hearts of many people. Unfortunately, at least one religion teaches that dogs are the incarnation of a person who in a former life did something unspeakable. As result, that soul reincarnates in the body of a dog, destined to spend a lifetime homeless, scavenging for food, and in many cases, brutalized by humans.

With the influence of western culture in Asia, some are beginning to see dogs in a bit of a different light. But for one little puppy it was almost too late.

While sitting with the puppy, paying homage by witnessing her passing, I watched the sea of people walk past. Some were curious, some smiled. The westerners showed concern, most Asians were repelled. I was appalled.

After a few minutes her breathing became shallow. She showed no sign of consciousness; she was comatose.  Ten minutes passed, then fifteen and then thirty. Sensing the need for this pup to die in a quiet, peaceful place, I picked her up and carried her home. I wasn’t sure she would survive the short walk but I knew it was better than lying on the side of a gravel road surrounded by indifference.

Interestingly, many local Nepalese I passed on my way home expressed interest, even concern. They wanted to know what happened to the pup. When I said “pita”–someone hit her in the head with a rock–they were silent.

I prepared a soft bed with a thick winter coat and some towels and laid her lifeless body down on what I thought would be her deathbed. A dose of Arnica Montana seemed to slow her rapid breathing and helped ease her pain. She wasn’t able to see or hear me and I wonder if she even felt me. But I did my best to surround her with as much love as I could as she made her transition to the other side.

A few more doses of Arnica Montana and she started breathing normally and dropped into a deep sleep. And then to my surprise, she woke up. She was able to drink but barely able to stand without falling.  Her forehead was swollen and painful.  She seemed to have suffered some brain trauma because her motor skills, eyesight, sense of smell and hearing were all affected.

Quite by coincidence, a team of vets that was providing a rabies clinic in the area, found out about the pup and came by to examine her. They confirmed that a blow to the head caused a deep-seated injury resulting in brain trauma. Only time would tell if she would recover. She received medication to address possible infection and pain, and to reduce the swelling in her brain.

She rested a lot, ate and drank well, but found walking a bit challenging. Due to the trauma she kept walking in circles to the left.

It has been a week since I found “Little Girl” dying in the road and she is steadily recovering. Her circling to the left is nearly gone and her coordination is at about 90 percent. Her hearing, sight and smell are still affected but she is slowing regaining them as well.

This little street puppy has been an unexpected blessing, and now comes the greatest challenge: finding a good home for her in a culture not accustomed to caring for dogs, especially one with special needs.

While the search to find her a good home continues, Little Girl will live with me, recuperating and learning to play tug of war with a sock.

First came Tarra

There are some memories that are etched so deeply in my mind that I will never forget them. Among them are the first day I stepped on-grounds at the Sanctuary, and the last day I stepped off.

March 3rd brings back a flood of emotionally charged memories so intense that my senses are overwhelmed.  This is the day, back in 1995, when Tarra, Scott and I, along with my menagerie of dogs, birds and a single cat, moved to the Sanctuary.

Moving day was determined by the weather and the amount of rainfall during the previous 48 hours. The reason was that the entrance to the Sanctuary presented a challenge for Tarra’s rig.

Cane creek, a shallow, gravel bottom creek that crosses in front of Sanctuary property, usually swelled over its banks after a heavy spring rain.

The small wooden-plank bridge that crossed the creek was not sturdy enough to support the load of Tarra and her trailer. To accommodate larger, heavy vehicles, the local road maintenance crew leveled the embankment leading in and out of the creek, creating a bypass through the water. It was not paved and rumor is that many a driver had misjudged and ended up stuck in the soft gravel.

On this day the creek was very low and we were convinced–well, I should say I was — that we could drive Tarra’s rig through the creek without a problem.

With the engine screaming –RP’s through the roof, gravel crunching under tons of pachyderm weight and steel–we plunged into the shallow creek.

The soft creek bed felt like quicksand under our weight but I was determined not to spin the tires nor slow enough to get bogged down.  A happy balance was required and apparently it was reached because after what seemed like an eternity, we came crawling out the other side of the creek. I am sure our new neighbors heard our victory cheer over the screaming engine.

My dream realized

When I delivered my precious cargo to the threshold of my realized dream, I could hardly contain my excitement.

Over the previous three months I spent many days at the Sanctuary preparing the property for Tarra’s arrival. I always wondered if she knew what was about to happen. She definitely had to sense something grand was about to unfold, something that she had inspired.

For close to ten years I meticulously built this Sanctuary in my mind’s eye: the landscape, forest thick with trees, ponds, hills and pastures wrapped around a secluded valley with a creek running through the middle. I saw this image in my mind many times over the years and now it was real, my dream come true.

With the truck safely through the creek and parked inside the gates of elephant heaven, I anticipated pure silence.  But what I heard brought a smile to my heart.

The surrounding trees were teaming with flocks of boisterous birds, each determined to out-sing the others.  Their voices filled the air with soft chirps, tweets and rowdy calls. It was heavenly. I closed my eyes and breathed in the joy and magnificence of this moment, this day, this new beginning.

By the time this day arrived, Tarra and I had already shared a lifetime together with our family of dogs, goats, cats and birds. In addition to being naturally social, Tarra is very precious. She thrived in her big family.

Now we were literally standing on the threshold of monumental change. The Sanctuary would finally enable to us to expand the family to include other elephants. I had to refrain from thinking about this too much for fear I would burst from excitement.

First came Tarra

Then it was Tarra’s turn to take her first breath of Sanctuary air, which she did with much gusto, starting with a mighty trumpet as she bounded out of her trailer. She always thrills me with her drama queen antics. And I mean drama queen in the best way. Her playful side is her only side. She takes fun to the limit, adventure to the outer limit and when her people and her dogs share the adventure she is over the top.

Chattering her signature “bark” and spinning in circles, making volleyball size divots in the grass, Tarra hesitated for a split second. Then it was all four legs pumping as fast as she could drive them, leaving us with a view of her beautiful buttocks as she raced into the pasture.

My cheeks hurt so bad from smiling as I ran after her, not wanting to miss a second of this, our latest adventure.

Tarra ran around the pasture, doing her best to keep me and the dogs engaged in her play. It worked–we thoroughly enjoyed the fun she created.

The following twelve months was spent preparing for our second pachyderm resident and the unfolding of the Camelot years at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

Namaste Tarra, you inspired a vision like no other and continue to inspire me each and every day of my life.