elephant sanctuary

There are only two in the USA: the other is in Tennessee. This one was founded by Pat Derby, an Englishwoman descended from Shelley who found herself in Hollywood training cats, bears and elephants for shows like Lassie and Daktari. She hated the violence and cruelty of the industry and exposed it in a pretty wonderful, if bleak, book cowritten by Peter S. Beagle, who also wrote The Last Unicorn. She died in February.

The sanctuary is only open twice a year and you have to buy tickets in advance. It’s up in the Sierra foothills and it was a scorchingly hot day. Six hundred people came. I grumbled about the heat and having to wait in line for a shuttle, and then the shuttle came and we were taken to a picnic area where there were two Asian elephants to the left of us and three African elephants to the right. Gypsy, Wanda, Mara, Maggie and Lulu.

There are massive steel fences around their enclosure but the enclosures are vast – acres upon acres. That they wanted to visit with us at all is astounding to me. We were kept at a safe distance, about twenty feet, but we were in the presence of elephants, and this is an ungainsayable thing. I’ve seen elephants before but I don’t think I’ve ever seen happy elephants before. We were there for their entertainment as much as the reverse. They made eye contact.

I believe of them now, as I believe of whales and octopus, that they are sentient. How they must suffer when they are caged or in chains.

Maggie, one of the African elephants, lived in an Alaskan zoo with only an Asian elephant for company. The two have different vocalizations, but Maggie speaks both languages. Gypsy and Wanda came to the sanctuary at different times from different places but are now inseparable. Archival footage of circuses revealed that they had been friends before and had remembered one another for decades. Lulu, rescued from the San Francisco zoo, was the most reticent of the females. She wanted to be near Maggie and Mara but she didn’t particularly care for us. Up on Bull Mountain we saw Nicholas and Prince; Prince also prefers to keep away from humans.

But Nicholas swam for us, and dug a log up from the bottom of his lake. Another animal again in water, his bony head like a hippo’s, the water pouring off his gleaming skin. Graceful and at peace.

It was everything I love most passionately about California: the dry hills, the circling raptors, the ridiculous mule deer, and the people who pour out their lives trying to fight injustice and make safe spaces and be kind.

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